The swollen belly was a visual marker for who had sex. Like the mark on Hester Prynne, the body exposed what was done behind closed doors. Or was it in daylight, in a wood by a stream, or night time on a car seat? These images pulled us like magnets that summer we turned eleven. As if we’d never noticed before, the world appeared ready to burst at the seams with pregnant women.
The women were always draped in large amounts of dark fabric, like trying to conceal an old refrigerator in an otherwise cheerful kitchen. Navy blue dominated, which made them recede into the background like the shade of a plump shrub. Occasionally they were seen waddling down a sidewalk or sitting on a front porch knitting. Waiting.
For years I carried an image of Mrs. Rosenburg, not her belly but her crying. Maybe it was the first crystalized image of loss. Her husband rushing around to her side of the car, she with her hand up to her face, sobbing into a white handkerchief. It was the glance he shot toward me, one of wide-eyed fear and a streak of rage, that haunted me. Mom, why is Mrs. Rosenburg crying? Because she lost her baby, dear.
That summer we were eleven we went looking for the belly. When my girlfriend and I spotted one in a grocery store aisle, we whispered, “There’s another one.” We followed her to the counter as she plunked down a loaf of squishy bread and canned goods, her belly hoisted up on the counter like a sack of grapefruit. As she searched for her coins the woman felt our gaze and threw us a perfect Mona Lisa. We glanced away, embarrassed. We wondered why no one else noticed. “You don’t think its funny that she looks like she’s hiding a beach ball under her dress?” I said later. We were in awe, and yes, disgusted.
I watched how my older sister, Bette, grew weird over night. The way she sat with her boyfriend, Bernie, parked in the driveway at the end of a date. She swung her red hair and laughed a laugh I’d never heard before. All the while she’d be pushing him away as he nibbled at her neck. Then he lit a cigarette and rested his arm on the window frame, the smoke spiraling into the night. From where we hid in the hedge it looked like the whole car was smoking. Would she in time be whisked away like those stray high school girls who’s bellies would not lie flat. Like the head cheerleader at football games who waved her pompoms, “push ‘em back, push ‘em back, way back!” then couldn’t jump anymore, and disappeared altogether.
We were lucky enough to have a next door neighbor whom we could study. She was named Ruth, although we called her Mrs. Meinholtz, and she was about six months pregnant. She made sandwiches with the crusts cut off for her two boys and for us, and we ate together at the redwood picnic table under the maples. The dad was not only tall, dark and handsome, he was a doctor. They were our ideal family. Amy and I were lucky enough to be, in tandem, the babysitters.
Of course when we babysat for the little boys and had put them to bed, we wandered around the ideal family’s house. Opening the closed doors we came upon Doctor and Mrs. Meinholtz’s bed. A satin coverlet, lots of pillows in disarray, it seemed wild and was always unmade. A dust ruffle of white cotton wrapped around the frame like foam, the peach coverlet formed ripples as if a wave of lust had swept over the entire bed. I couldn’t even think of positions, it was more “From Here to Eternity,” that played before us.
I never heard of not making the bed. My own parents were neat as a pin. They were older and slept in tucked down twins, separated by a maple nightstand. They didn’t read in bed or do anything else I could see for that matter.
Next to the bed on Ruth’s side were books on pregnancy. The drawings staggered our imagination -- the side view of a belly growing, vacuum cleaner tubes coiled around a frog shape, barely human. Here too we read that around the fifth month the woman begins to “show.” This month was when the shrouds came out.
Before Amy and I knew it we had opened the closet door and dragged out Ruth’s costumes. In a full length mirror we stood with the somber maternity clothes held against us. They were always of two pieces, the long straight skirt and the flouncing top that slid over it, with enough fabric to cover all curves. The stomach section of the skirt was a huge moon of stretched fabric that sagged against our own lean bellies, our bony girl hips.
We put everything away meticulously by the time Doctor and Mrs. Meinhold returned smelling of liquor and perfume. We made sure nothing showed.
The weeks went by until Ruth looked like she would burst. We waited to see what dress she’d model and giggled with recognition. She moved slowly and mostly sat; she waved a fan in front of her freckled face with one hand and rubbed her belly with the other. Big swirling movements as if she were a giant who’d just eaten a delicious meal.
One day we woke to find a grandmother in her place and then, as if no big deal, Ruth appeared again with a hollering baby girl in her arms. Our brains fell into a scramble trying to imagine that this had been the bulge in the pouch. She was the length of a thigh bone, Doctor Meinholtz rested her on his crossed leg when he gave her a bottle.
Christy was her name and we all made a big fuss over her because she was a girl. We learned to diaper, rock her to sleep until our arms were lead. We dressed her in cotton dresses with smocking. In the fall we raced to the Meinholtz’s everyday after school to find out what we missed. We loved Christy and she was ours.
For awhile we forgot about pregnant bellies and sex. It was snowing heavily in upstate New York by early November and everything went inside again.
We had two sets of faces, my sister and I. Heiresses and orphans. Outside of the house we were the Boughton daughters, inheritors of the Boughton estate. In dark glasses and heels we were led down corridors to secret chambers. A bank employee climbed a ladder, matched key to vault, and slid out the metal box where security had been deposited. With a smile she led us to a small room where we could examine the contents. “Just ring the bell when you’re done,” she chirped, locking us in.
Our hearts pounded, watching ourselves move through motions we’d rehearsed in our minds in the last year. I read the checklist as Bette ruffled through envelopes marked Titles, Deeds and Will. Here they were, and they were ours. Wincing at my mother’s diamond wedding bands, I stuffed them into my bag as well. Then we drove my father’s Mercury down boulevards lined with Royal palms, my imaginary chiffon scarf blowing as freely as I felt, a Benson and Hedges in a silver holder leaving a trail of smoke. We sipped cocktails before dinner at another expensive restaurant.
But when we returned to the house and undressed, we shrunk into children. We wandered in our nightgowns, flinched at the sound of a car door, half expecting our parents to enter with armloads of fresh corn and tomatoes. They didn’t show. We were orphaned sisters, alone with the things left behind.
“It’s only a lint brush,” Bette said. I stood near my father’s rack of suits, feeling the wooden handle of the brush and admiring its British craftsmanship. The smooth rubber side I grazed over my drooping shoulder. “We’ll never get anywhere like that,” she complained, “toss it into the Good Will pile.” Yep, can’t take it with you, I thought.
We began our ritual in the closet, the large walk-in closet where my father took refuge from those swirling forces in the Atlantic sea. The media was great for showing the eye of a hurricane headed for your coast, your neighborhood, your house. He followed all the appropriate advice for a storm warning: jugs of water, blankets, portable radio and flashlights with extra batteries, a stack of magazines. It was his version of a shelter. Impermeable to the rising tides, my father sat in the closet on a beach chair, surrounded by the artifacts of his life. Through countless hurricane warnings he must have made his final life review, as we now began our own review.
From a bureau in the corner of the closet, we slid out one drawer at a time, unwrapping each item and spreading it on the rug between us. One held practically every watch my father ever wore, with the date of purchase stuck to it. Junky Timexes mostly. But I felt a twinge as she stretched out the leather bands of the gold Hamilton. I saw its square face strapped on my father’s manly wrist in the prime of his days. Now the knob for winding was an empty hole.
The same drawer held a series of eyeglasses, the black rimmed frames of an executive, ones with a missing lens. I liked the eyepieces and timepieces lying there together, functional objects that navigate one through the hours of a day, a life. There were the final hornrims and Timex the undertaker took off his body and handed to us after the funeral.
The Hamilton watch went into the pile marked “Keep.” I told myself I’d make an art piece out of it, knowing I probably never would. Keep, Good Will, Consignment Shops and Trash were the lineup of possibilities here.
We led up to clothing, which was the hardest of all to go through. Shells of suits hung like empty stalks of pastel polyester with a faint smell of sweat and cologne. His fastidiousness led him to stuff the hollow sleeves with bunched up tissue to keep their shape.
I carried parts of my father into a consignment shop, his sport coats hugged against my chest, their arms out stiff and stuffed. Of course the woman across the counter in gold spangled, seashelled attire loved the Floridian style. Other pieces she probably took because of my teariness. “It’s a Harris Tweed,” I said with hushed respect, unbuttoning the scratchy jacket to reveal the label. But what did she know about executive class in the land of snow?
I carried his shoes in too, dress shoes wrapped in cheesecloth casings stained with polish. She stared blankly when I slid out a wing-tipped shoe glossy as a mirror. I decided to hold back the wooden shoeshine box.
There was mother in the closet too. Mother in mink. A dark fur hanging there like a shed skin. For years my father begged me to take it up North to wear. “No way, they shoot people who wear fur,” I told him. Now I nuzzled my face into the cape, pawed and kneaded the dark brown pelts. When I saw the monogram, “MMB,” scrolled on the satin lining, the jacket flew right into the “Keep” pile.
Evenings I spent going through boxes of Kodak slide carousels stored in the upper recesses of the closet. At the dining room table I methodically viewed individual slides on a light box. There were pictures of vacations -- Mother and I lobster red in Saint Thomas, slugging down banana daiquiris, years my sister and I posed at the drawbridge in Oqunquit, Maine.
When Ilene, the realtor, came by to check in on the Boughton daughters, she winced at my project. “Oi, those slide carousels,” she moaned. “When people die, it’s always the same, everywhere slide carousels.”
She was right, I was overwhelmed by the project. But the final night was a breakthrough. I began carousel dumping. Untwirling that little plastic lock in the center of the wheel and turning it over, all one-hundred and forty slides flew from their niche. Cardboard squares, each one dated and titled, rained through my fingers. Celluloid images reduced to blobs of red, green and blue; a life lived and dissolving. They were wild carousels, the horses spinning off into the black void, the open mouth of a trash bag.