The night before she went into labor my mother, Mary Ellen dreamed of her deceased mother-in-law. Her nights had become restless. Comfort eluded her in her swollen state. Like all mothers-to-be, she tried to distinguish the false cramping from the real labor pains that send one scurrying to the hospital with an impatient husband in tow.
She and my father had been through this before when their first child was born – a daughter. They just knew this time the child would be a boy. He would be named for his father’s formal name, “John” and for the child’s grandfather, “H’Earl” as his middle name. Perhaps it was the middle name that beckoned my grandfather’s deceased wife to visit my mother from the “other side” on that chilly, December night.
“Come and bring the baby to me,” my grandmother said to my mother ever so gently, her arms outstretched lovingly. Dressed in the satin bed jacket she wore for months as the cancer devastated her still young body, she looked longingly now at Mary Ellen, spread her peace in the air and drifted through her room to rest at the foot of my mother’s bed.
Shaken and unsure whether she had experienced a vision, or a dream, Mary Ellen tried to remain calm despite the frightening premonition implied by this moon-lit visit. Indeed, John H’Earl was born the following day. A few hours later he joined his grandmother in the afterlife.
It had been a difficult delivery attended by the country doctor who had supervised Mary Ellen’s own birth and treated her childhood diseases through the years. As the delivery became complicated, tension mounted in the delivery room. The baby was in breech position. The country doctor, whose fondness for Mary Ellen was legendary, succumbed to the pressure and panicked. In a frenzy of sweat, barking orders to the nurse, he tried to turn the baby. It was too late; the damage was done. John H’Earl did not survive.
Grandmother Elizabeth must have foreseen this and attempted to welcome him with open arms to her everlasting home, but her ghostly invitation the night before had sounded as if she were inviting Mary Ellen as well. And well she might have joined them. During the delivery, Mary Ellen’s spirit had escaped to watch over the birth.
Her breathing had stopped.With a powerful sense of otherness, as if the story might have been told to her by another person, rather than her eye witness reality, she watched helplessly as the doctor tried desperately to save the baby first, and then to save her.
She felt summoned to the peace and serenity, but believed she still had a choice. My mother always described the experience as a tortuous showdown between her earthly life where her family awaited, and eternal tranquility with her newborn son. I’m thankful her soul chose to return, though I’m told she mourned a long time for the loss of life she had nurtured and carried these many months. She was also saddened by the wide and numbing expanse that now stretched between her and the doctor. He had been her protector and a faithful friend and admirer. Not known as a “drinker,” the doctor shut himself away for weeks on end in a drunken stupor. Someone claimed to have smelled alcohol on his breath before the delivery. She could never look at him again.
Like many young couples after the war, Mary Ellen and Jack began their life together – and their family – while Jack was still in college. And like many of their lifestyle contemporaries, money was in short supply. Unlike others, however, they walked – or rode – a bit on the wild side, racing around the hills of Pride, Kentucky on their Harley, or buzzing the cornfields of Union County from an airplane. They developed quite a reputation for pranks. She was beautiful, most often likened at the time to Susan Hayward. He was a war hero who had won the hand of this local darling away from many suitors and six brothers. Among Jack and Mary Ellen’s favorite forms of mischief were their late night visits to the small town funeral home. Aboard the Harley, they would stop in front of the mortuary, revving the engine loud enough to wake the dead, or at the least to arouse the anger of old Mr. Whitsell, the town’s mortician.
If ever there were a stereotype, Mr. Whitsell fit the mold of mortician. Fashioned as one might expect, his long torso reached well into the air and would have stood even higher were it not for the slump of his shoulders; intended to bring him down to the realm of most other folks. (One doesn’t want the mortician towering over the family in their time of grief.) It would have been awkward for him to formally offer condolences from such a haughty height. His neck, which seemed a third the length of his body, was sufficiently thin to offer all a most unsettling view of his Adam’s apple. The bone structure of his face left many a person fearful that his work had affected him; his sunken cheeks rivaled his sunken eyes for depth into his skull. Although he performed the embalming of his charges deep into the night, his pallid color left no doubt that he seldom emerged into the light of day.
He did come out at night though, whenever the mischievous Jack and Mary Ellen would taunt him with their roaring motorcycle engine. Out the front doors he would fly, fist held high and trembling under the street light. “I’ll get you two, you just wait,” he bellowed as they gunned their engines for another go around the block.
Old Mr. Whitsell got them all right. When John H’Earl died, he got them the only blue baby casket for hundreds of miles around. Pink was all he had in stock, but Jack said, “Mary Ellen probably wouldn’t like that for her boy.”
Mr. Whitsell gave those poor, broken-hearted college kids a funeral for their child worthy of the young man he might have grown to be. He never sent a bill. He insisted. When they thanked him, he confessed his fondness for them and the joy and secret laughter they had brought him on those moonlit nights when they taunted him to watch their life go roaring by.
Jack and Mary Ellen had two more children and their life did indeed roar down the fast lane. From diapers to diplomas, the years with three children sped by. They never got around to getting a headstone for John H’Earl’s grave. Their living children had many needs to be met first, although I’ve often wondered if selecting such a remembrance might have been just too painful.
Like my father, and his father before him, I went to college at Western Kentucky University – one of the “needs” Jack and Mary Ellen helped to meet. Many of my mothers’ six brothers went to WKU as well, but on a literal flip of a coin, she chose the University of South Carolina instead. She dropped out to marry my father when he returned from the war. Rumor has it that she did most of his homework for him while at Western; I always felt as if she had studied there as well. They lived in the “rock” house on the campus, which is now owned by the archaeology department at the University, but that was not so when I was there. (I suspect the archaeology department might have found some dubious party relics from my parents’ time. The stories suggested as much.)
While I was in college, I passed the rock house almost daily, always trying to envision what it must have been like for them to live there, but it was another place I passed daily that brought them painfully to heart and mind. It was a monument company peculiarly located next to the radio station where I worked part-time. I invariably thought of John H’Earl and the missing monument each day as I arrived at work. Like my folks, I had little spare change while I was in college, but it occurred to me that my sister and brother, both of whom were already out in the working world (and making my car payments, by the way), would surely pitch in with me to make it possible.
One Mother’s Day, with each of her living children on hand, we told our mother that we had bought an engraved headstone for her son – our brother. It remains at his resting place on a hillside in Kentucky — beside his grandmother.