Favorite Children and Other Family Relationships: a Story, Chapter 1
During the last week of February 1950, I spent most evenings at St. Francis Hospital in Maryville, Missouri, where Edward Babb, my grandfather, in his 86th year lay dying. His health had been “failing” for several weeks and finally his daughter Dorothy convinced him to go to the hospital. He had never before been a hospital patient. His acquiescence signaled that he knew the end was in sight. What was wrong with him wasn’t diagnosed: no appetite, slipping in and out of sleep, and the gradual shutting down of his bodily system were the symptoms. The doctor said his time had come.
When I was by his bedside, we didn’t talk. We watched the fluids dripping into his body and waited for the ending that at age seventeen I didn’t comprehend and he chose not to discuss. Other family members drifted in and out of the room and huddled outside to discuss I know not what.
He hated those tubes and pleaded with the nurses to remove them. Aunt Dorothy, the matriarch of the family since her mother’s death, refused his requests and her siblings didn’t intercede. During those visits I never told him that I loved him, and he didn’t tell me he loved me. Yet I sensed my presence comforted him perhaps reminding him of the hours I’d spent as a child on his lap while he read to me before the fireplace. I knew his death would be a sea change in my life and family relationships. He didn’t offer any last minute suggestions or advice on how I should live my life. I didn’t feel neglected or ignored; I couldn’t remember his telling anyone what to do.
Grandfather died on March 2 leaving the farm where he and my father, mother, brother and I lived to his six children. During his lifetime there were never any family discussions of what would happen to the farm on his death.
Dale, my father, was the youngest child, his twin sister Dorothy beating him into the world by three or four minutes, the baby of the family and in his mind his mother’s favorite. Dorothy frequently reminded Dale she was older than he. What her precedence meant I would understand later. At an early age I comprehended the advantages of being a favorite child; the disadvantages I would later learn. Because I’d never heard his brothers or sisters complain about their mother’s favoring Dale, I asked Esther, my mother, if this were true.
“Frankie,” she said after considering my question, “it was hard to tell whom your Grandmother did like. She and your grandfather weren’t emotional people, and they didn’t talk in public about personal matters.”
She let it go at that and the conversation ended. Talking about family relationships with your daughter-in-law didn’t seem exactly public to me.
My mother was a willowy 5 feet 7 inch dark-eyed beauty, but not as beautiful as her older sister Veda, their mother’s favorite, according to Mother.
Aunt Leta, a schoolteacher who spent the summers with us on the family farm, said in response to my favorite child question, “Your Dad was a cute kid with his blue eyes and curly hair, and I’m sure Mother liked him.”
Her response struck me as ambiguous. Of course, my three aunts, Irene, Leta and Dorothy, were so self-confident that each assumed she was her mother’s favorite, and her father’s too for that matter. The “girls,” as they collectively referred to themselves, were all about five feet tall, each with dark hair and a twinkle in their blue eyes and wonderful bosoms for a child’s head to rest on while being read to. Their mother, Nora Almeda, was about the same size as the girls. My aunts reminded me of ground-feeding robins, busily hopping around the lawn attacking earthworms with fearless vigor.
The “boys,” their brothers, were stocky 5’ 10” 200+ pounders with blonde or light brown hair and blue eyes. Since Grandfather at 5’ 6” never weighed more than 145 pounds, the boys were more like their mother’s brothers known as the “Big Four” who together weighed a 1,000 pounds. The girls and their mother talked, laughed, discussed and argued. The boys – well, they were there. Grandfather looked down on it all, sometimes smiled and nodded in agreement.
Since Nora Almeda, or “Medi” as Grandfather called her, died before I was born, I never had an opportunity to ask her if Dale were her favorite. I only knew her from her pictures. She appeared sober, as most women then posed for photographs, but with a slight upturn of her lips as though a smile was forthcoming and a steady gaze into the camera. No one ever said it in so many words but she was the matriarch. I wonder how she might have influenced my life if I had known her?
At age nine in 1941 I was conducting this inquiry because my brother Gary was then two years old, and I had concluded that he was definitely not worthy of being a favorite. I was curious, and naturally concerned, whether it was possible for a younger child to ever be a favorite and displace the older child from this position in the family, a position I’d earned. I’d trained my parents and the aunts and uncles to appreciate having an only child and nephew. I provided opportunities for them to answer my questions, most of which began with “why.” I allowed them to read me Grimm’s fairy tales, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyers and Huck Finn and other stories I knew they would enjoy. Late afternoon, book in hand, eyes targeting a grownup, I would crawl into a lap and be rewarded with a story. I was always ready to keep the aunts company on their journeys around the county to visit friends and relatives. On soft summer evenings with the scent of lilacs in the air, I organized games of tag for them on the lawn. Sometimes Grandfather and Father joined in the game, the girls determined to outrun their brother. I was the fly on the wall listening to the adults’ conversations ready to remind them helpfully of inconsistencies in things they said to each other. These memory failures that seemed to afflict adults bothered me.
In 1928, my father, a handsome 25-year old …. (to be continued)