I stood looking up at my mother atop the long staircase that led up to their upstairs condominium, diaper bag and purse slung over my shoulder, nine-month old Serrah on my hip, two-year old Maggie holding one hand, and car keys in the other. Mom had been watching the girls while I was at the doctor because of a sinus infection. When I came to pick them up, I was practically silent as I mechanically gathered them and somehow made it down those stairs. Tears threatening to spill over and run down my face, Mom brought me out of my shock, “What on earth is wrong.” “I’m pregnant,” I cried, exasperated. The dam broke and the tears spilled freely down my cheeks. “Oh honey. It’s going to be alright.” Mom was down the stairs and had her arms around me in a heartbeat. I was paralyzed, glued to the spot where the four of us now stood. “How, Mom? I’m so tired. I’m so scared… Some sinus infection!”
“I have a sinus infection.” Dr. Addy, our family doctor, usually seemed amused by my self-diagnoses, never annoyed. “Oh really?” “Yeah, I’m all stuffed up, my head hurts, and I’m all dizzy and queasy.” “Mmm, Well, let’s get some blood work and figure out how we want to treat you.” I waited impatiently in the exam room after my trip downstairs and the needle stick. What a waste of time. For heaven’s sake, just write the prescription for antibiotics, say something smart-assy, and send me on my way already. The look of perplexed consternation on his face as he reentered the room, told me that something was up. “Did you go off of the birth control pills?” Oh crap! “I did. I’m a ridiculous bitch on them. They make me hate Lyle. I’m crabby all the time. I’m too mad to want sex. I don’t tolerate the pill.” I closed my eyes, wishing reality away, “It’s just a sinus infection!” “O.K., well you have a sinus infection alright, AND a baby on the way.” There it was, a hint, at least, of my smart-aleck Dr. Addy. “Let’s start you on some antibiotics, Sudafed, and prenatal vitamins. I’ll see you back in a month.” He patted my shoulder, “It’s going to be O.K.” He walked me out and, as he walked away, I heard him mutter, “Kids having kids.”
Being a once in a month occasion, I knew exactly when I had conceived. I had my due date pinpointed to roughly one week into March. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough for Dr. Addy. His “belly measurement” didn’t seem to match my calculations, so he scheduled an ultrasound. As my bladder nearly exploded, the tech explained that he was measuring head circumference and the length of the baby’s femur, and that would give us a pretty accurate idea of how far along I was. “According to the ultrasound, your due in the last week of March.” Ooookay, whatever you say. I knew better. “Can I go pee now?!”
We went about our lives. I continued to run the growing little at-home daycare that had started by accident, as I watched the kids of friends of friends in need of daycare. It was supposed to tie me over until I landed a secretarial job. Now, it seemed to make more sense for me to stay at home. The money was decent, and it really wasn’t that hard to care for a few extra kids. Sassy pants, Maggie, at the age of two, tried to be “in charge” of the whole operation, echoing everything I said, but also the most compliant of all the kids. She didn’t walk, so much as sort of march around, with her long brown pony tail, big sparkly hazel eyes, and a laugh that came from her toes, causing everyone close enough to hear it to laugh with her. She truly was a wonder. Nine-month old Serrah watched her sister’s every move with curiosity and adoration.
Nap time for the other kids was playtime for Mommy and Serrah. I looked forward to the quiet time we spent playing each day. She was effervescent and animated, as we played “pat-a-cake”, “peek a boo”, and “SO big”. There was no baby babbling with her. She did her best to replicate the words she had heard, usually pretty closely pronounced and appropriately used. Big blue eyes fringed with long thick dark lashes smiled at me above the rosy cheeks that contrasted the rest of her porcelain skin. I knew that the minutes my baby had to spend alone with Mommy were numbered, so I made the most of every single one of them.
The end of October found Lyle out of work. The small family owned auto repair shop he had been working at belonged to two brothers who were also farmers. Harvest time was over, and they hadn’t a need or the means to pay another mechanic. The two of them could handle the work that seemed to merely trickle in now. Fantastic! We were living on adrenaline amidst chaos. “Maybe there’s work in Fargo.” I really had no idea, but Bismarck wasn’t treating us very well. Maybe I just wanted a fresh start for us. So, we packed our things, moved them into storage, and the girls and I moved in with Mom and Dad. Lyle would go stay with his grandpa and look for work in Fargo. If he could gain employment, we could get a place where I could start a daycare.
Leaving the girls with my folks, Lyle came back a week later to bring me to Fargo to look at apartments He had landed a job as a mechanic for a trucking company. While we were there, we stayed with his grampa in the tiny one-bedroom apartment where he had been living for decades. Herman Paul Sommerfeld, often referred to as H.P. was a sort of sweet, interesting, and quirky guy. He chain smoked, often without using his hands as the ashes randomly dropped just any old place, and played solitaire for most of the day, sometimes stopping to powder the cards of the deck he had probably been playing with for countless years.
Lyle had been up before dawn and was long gone by the time Grampa and I were up. He made us breakfast of Cheerios, coffee, and peeled cut up oranges in a dish, garnished with a few stray cigarette ashes. I ate them anyway, so as not to hurt his feelings. He bowed his head and I followed suit as he said, in German, the common Lutheran table prayer. After breakfast, we went for a walk around the neighborhood. He showed me where the neighborhood grocery was, and would stop to point out the highlights around the NDSU campus. I can still picture him, standing still, strait as a board, tall, and leaning markedly to one side, as if his feet were glued to the spot and the rest of him swayed in the wind.
H.P. and I played rummy with sparse conversation. You’d think it would have been awkward but the silences that outweighed our words were perfectly comfortable. I watched the clock, waiting for Lyle to walk through that door, and as the sun sank, so did my spirit. The darkness always magnified the anxiety and complexity of problems. Ours didn’t need to be magnified. It was the night before Lyle would take me back to my parents’ home where our girls were in Bismarck. He would return to Fargo and continue to stay with his grampa until he had money enough for an apartment. We laughed and talked on the fold out couch, pretending we didn’t have a care in the world. We were like children, whispering for hours in the darkness of Grampa Sommerfeld’s tiny living room, silenced when he got up to use the bathroom, and giggling quietly as the door to his bedroom closed again.
By Thanksgiving, we were making plans to move. Lyle had rented an apartment. We retrieved all of our things from storage, loaded up our two baby girls, and headed into the next chapter of our lives. We said goodbye to our parents. Dad tried to soothe my tears, offering the handkerchief he always had handy (I still have one of them, tears long since dried, tucked away in a cedar drawer), “Its going to be O.K. You’ll see. We’ll be down next week to help you get settled.” We drove away with me looking back at my mama through tears that wouldn’t stop any time soon. She stood in the driveway waving and shrinking smaller and smaller the further we got down the street. How would I live without her near. It didn’t take long for me to soak Dad’s hankie. As my husband colorfully recalls, that trip, “She bawled the whole way from Bismarck to Fargo. She was a real mama’s girl, umbilical cord still attached. I knew it wasn’t gonna stretch all the way to Fargo.”