Winner of the 2006 Lilith fiction contest
I steal a sterling silver baby spoon from my great Aunt Sylvia, while her body, barely cold, rests under a blanket of disheveled earth at the Beth Shalom cemetery. I do it in the kitchen, on impulse, while I’m looking for a teaspoon to stir my chamomile, just before my family begins reciting the mourner’s kaddish in my aunt’s living room. Yisgadal ve yiskadash shema rahah, amen.
My mother, loud and tone-deaf, can’t even finish the prayer she’s so weepy. We all are. She enters the kitchen to empty a fistful of dirty Kleenex into the trash, and I slide the spoon further into my pocket. I run my fingers around the tiny bowl and up along the skinny handle to the tip which is inscribed with the Hebrew letter hey. My name, Hannah, begins with a hey. This piece of flatware is my destiny. Besides, finders keepers.
I imagine that this spoon has survived pogroms and a long passage to Ellis Island, and I want to siphon its fortitude for my baby. I’m thirteen weeks pregnant, my new record for not miscarrying. Every morning I pray from The Jewish Women’s Guide to Fertility, a book I would have snickered at two years ago. I suffer the indignity of progesterone suppositories—the added hormones make me throw up in my office trashcan—and I avoid foods I ate and clothes I wore while unsuccessfully carrying babies number one and two. I take pregnancy yoga classes to manage the stress from keeping it all straight.
My husband Danny can’t win. If he’s enthusiastic about the baby, I tell him not to jinx anything. If he’s cautious, I interrogate him—a man of reason, not instinct—about his “true gut” on this pregnancy. My parents are no help; my mother worries so much that I end up comforting her, and my father changes the subject, but then e-mails me the cell phone numbers of his old med school buddies who specialize in fertility. Most of my friends are reveling in their fecundity. I cling to this spoon and the hope that my dead aunt is talking care of my baby, somewhere out there in the ether.
On the flight home from the funeral, I watch Milwaukee disappear into a puff of clouds and sip lukewarm orange juice out of a plastic cup. I like the way my aunt’s spoon burrows into my thigh. Aunt Sylvia used to laugh at my knock-knock jokes and hang my art projects on her fridge and look the other way when I pinched pieces of meringue from the top of her icebox cake. I feel more hopeful than I have in weeks.
I kiss Danny’s cheek, breathing in the familiar scent of Dial soap. “Let’s name our baby Sylvia.” As soon as these words leave my lips, I want them back.
Danny gives me the wan smile that he’s cultivated. “Let’s just see what happens.” He strokes my arm.
“Oh God, Danny. Don’t tell me that you’re too superstitious to name the baby,” I snort, when in fact I cling to superstition like Velcro. I lean my head back and close my eyes, signaling that the conversation is over. My hand rests on my mildly distended belly while I daydream about my little Sylvia. It will be a warm spring day, and she’ll sit on my lap licking vanilla icing off of a cupcake, wiping her sticky fingers on my knees. She’ll smell like baby sweat and sugar. I’ll pull her tangle of ringlets—auburn like Danny’s— from her eyes. I can practically hear her giggle. Fear forms in the back of my throat and swells into my esophagus like a hive, as it always does when I allow myself to hope that this baby will survive.
Later that night, shortly after eleven, I feel like someone is yanking my abdomen shut with a drawstring. Fuck. Shit. Fuck. Cramps turn into nausea, and I beg my baby to stay put. Danny pages the obstetrician while I stumble to the bathroom, clutching the spoon for dear life, not mine. Talisman in hand, I negotiate with God. No deal. Before the sun rises, I deliver my baby.
I rest my head against the side of the toilet and gaze at the emptied contents of my womb. The acrid odor of my waste mingles with the smell of urine and Tilex, nearly making me gag. I try to capture the cluster of blood and tissue with my aunt’s spoon, but my efforts only loosen the clump into a spray of red and greenish gray that dissolves into the bowl. I let my fingers linger in the cold, red water, before I close the lid. Aunt Sylvia appears to me: the slightly bulging gray eyes and the sad smile pasted on soft pink lips and the sound of her lisp.
Danny mops my forehead with a washcloth. I stand up slowly and rinse off the spoon, turning the faucet on full blast in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of the flushing toilet. My knees buckle.
One week later, Danny lounges on our bed—as he has done for each of the past six nights—staring slack-jawed at ESPN. Who gives a damn about the Cardinals?
I forage around our pantry for Tylenol. We’re out of cereal. A jar of my friend Maggie’s homemade raspberry jam (her annual holiday gift) sits next to a bottle of capers; the contrast of the green and the red reminds me that I did get to see my actual baby, instead of just a black sonogram screen, devoid of the pulsing light the size of a thumbtack. We disposed of those babies during tidy office visits followed by written instructions to call if there was too much blood. There’s always too much blood.
I dump four tablespoons of jam and eight capers together in a bowl and then retrieve the spoon from my purse; I use it to mix and then ladle the concoction into a small zip lock baggie. Sylvia.
By the time I return to Danny, he’s sprawled out on our bed, his face bathed in the blue TV light, his mile-long eyelashes— blonde at the tips—fanning the tender skin beneath his eyes. He looks like he’s eleven years old. A fresh soul. The phone calls and foot rubs aren’t working, but at least he’s trying. I can’t muster up the energy to comfort him. I don’t want to. Before the miscarriages, I would have cheered him up by taking him bowling or seducing him or renting a Monty Python movie; we’d sit in front of the television drinking cheap beer and eating potato chips, laughing— Danny at John Cleese’s ridiculousness, me at Danny—until we could barely breathe.
It’s hot for June, and the breeze from the air conditioning vent chills my toes. I pull my T-shirt over my head and crawl into bed beside him, cradling his smooth back against my breasts. He mumbles something and reaches over to grab my hip. I move slightly, and he rolls over and runs his hands through my dirty hair. We don’t make love—too raw, too soon. Sleep finds me clutching the baggie of raspberry jam and capers and Aunt Sylvia’s spoon.
The next morning, I cancel my 9 AM staff meeting. I was scheduled to fly to Boston the day after I miscarried, so now the whole office knows what happened, and I’m no longer the den mother of our “little non-profit that could,” my old hiding place from this relentless pregnancy angst. My co-workers now treat me like I’ve got a raging case of pink eye, except for Valerie, the stripper turned receptionist who has a six-year-old son. The morning I came back to work, she greeted me with a homemade loaf of banana bread. I almost cried.
I pull on an old pair of shorts from my college days—University of Michigan—and walk two blocks up M Street to a coffee house that doesn’t sell anything ending with the letters “ccino.” Danny wants to move to Bethesda, but the thought of living in the suburbs without children thoroughly depresses me.
A cell-phone-blabbing mother spills her latte on me; the hot liquid burns my thigh. “Watch where you’re going,” her brusque words crack me open like a walnut. Instead of crying, I find a table and rub my iced tea against my leg.
A man with kind eyes and a thumb ring sits down next to me and asks to borrow a pen. I reach into my backpack and the baggie falls to the table. We both examine what looks as though a sandwich has orphaned a glob of jelly and perhaps a few pumpkins seeds.
“Must have been a hell of a sandwich.” He points at the plastic bag and laughs nervously.
“Keep it.” I slide a pen at him with more force than I mean and then snatch the baggie from the table. These days, I go nowhere without my spoon and baggie; they make me feel close to my Sylvias. Totally weird I know, but they comfort me when nobody else can. One miscarriage and you get “75% of women miscarry during their first pregnancy.” With the second, it’s “my sister/cousin/electrologist had two, you’ll be fine.” And three begets “I know of a fertility clinic out in Gaithersburg.”
The day folds into itself; at five, I’m smothering a chicken breast in olive oil when Danny calls, “I have to show a house tonight, sweetie. Can I pick up some Ben and Jerry’s on the way home?” He sounds both anxious and relieved to take a night off from our grief. I call my mom. Just because.
“Whatcha doin?” I try to sound like that plucky girl who beat the entire sixth grade class in an arm-wrestling tournament, who trotted off to Mali to run an AIDS program, and not the hormonal casualty that I am.
“Thinking about you, honey.”
“No need.” I muster up some of my old bravado.
“We spent today at Aunt Sylvia’s house, cleaning her things.”
My cheeks turn warm and I feel like I did when I was sixteen years old and my father almost found a fifth of Southern Comfort I stashed in an old suitcase. “Am I in trouble?”
“I swiped Aunt Sylvia’s baby spoon,” I blurt out in a moment of lapsed impulse control.
“Not the one from your great-grandma Hannah from Minsk?” My mother sounds both amused and alarmed; she’s a fourth generation German Jew and often disparages her mother-in-law’s Eastern European ways. “Your Grandma Goldie went on and on about that spoon when her dementia got bad.”
My heart quickens as my mother tells me about some feud between my grandmother and my aunt over this spoon. She’s fuzzy about the details but my grandmother was mad as hell that barren Sylvia kept their mother’s baby spoon for herself instead of letting her sister use it for her babies.
I sleep fitfully. I dream that a pregnant Aunt Sylvia eats Neapolitan ice cream with the baby spoon, while Grandma Goldie sits on her favorite chair and watches a toddler with braids stand alone in a grassy knoll playing “Captain, May I?” Raspberries stain the girl’s white overalls and her eyes bulge slightly. These images smash into each other like an MTV music video.
The next morning, I’m shampooing my hair when I retrieve a memory of the spoon. I was five when my parents let my brother Eric and me stay with Aunt Sylvia while they went to the Cayman Islands. She ran us bubble baths and wrapped us in towels that she had warmed in the dryer. Cocooned in our bathrobes, we curled up on the sofa bed and ate Jiffy Pop. She packed Hostess Ding Dongs in our lunchboxes, and I watched her polish silver until it sparkled. Only after she finished the candlesticks and kiddush cups, did she shine the baby spoon.
On the last day of our stay, I asked her if I could feed my doll Wendy with the spoon, which even as a child, I knew she didn’t want me to touch. I also knew that she couldn’t say no to me. She nodded toward the spoon, and I grabbed it greedily.
“Here, here, my little Wendy.” I placed the spoon gingerly against her plastic mouth. “My little baby, my baby.” I rocked the doll back and forth. I could feel my aunt watching me, so I hammed it up. “Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.” On some level, I knew I was making my aunt feel like I did when my brother waved his extended bedtime or gum-chewing privileges in my face. My aunt never polished her silver in front of me again.
In an effort to rinse this memory out of my hair, I stand under the shower until the water turns cold. I e-mail my boss to tell him that I’m taking a few more days off and spend the morning googling old lovers. I only want to know if they’ve had children.
I pop my old wedding video into the deck. Danny breaks the glass, and then we kiss as we practiced: affectionate but not too much tongue. I fast forward to Aunt Sylvia who is fingering a stray rose petal when the camera zooms in on her. She fumbles with the microphone and holds it up to her lips, recently touched up with a fresh coat of lipstick. Pink Velvet. Revlon. Funny the things you remember. Her large eyes dart around the room, and she clears her throat several times, “Like someone pulled them off the top of a cake, this bride and groom,” she giggles nervously and continues, “my wish for my Hannah is that she know every kind of nuchas life has to offer.” Her laughter fades.
I replay the clip over and over. My aunt is smiling, but her eyes are slightly watery. How could I have missed this? Maybe she suspected that I wasn’t going to be able to have children. Maybe she is mourning Uncle Irving. No, he was an asshole; this has to be about me. What possessed me to swipe a fertility totem from a barren woman? How could I have stolen my aunt’s birthright?
Tears are forming somewhere in my skull. To stave off another tidal wave of grief, I drive around the Beltway thinking about my aunt.
“Call me Aunt Sylvia, all the kids do,” she told Danny seven years ago, when I presented him to her as a dry run for the later round of family introductions. She motioned to a wall of framed photos of my grandmother’s progeny, while I poked around her fridge for a Pepsi. She loved to brag about me, “her bat mitzvah”…”voice like an angel”.. “captain of the volleyball team.”
I joined my aunt and Danny in the dining room, where they were laughing at one of his puns. And when I recited the blessings over the candles later that night, I surprised myself with my prayer that my walls would never be filled with photos of other people’s children.
I pack toiletries, two shirts and a peasant-skirt—my jeans don’t fit because ten days post-miscarriage, I’m still sporting a sanitary napkin the size of a diaper between my thighs— into a duffel bag and drive to the airport. I fly Midwest Express to Milwaukee because the seats are roomy and they serve meals with real linen napkins.
A blond woman in her sixties offers me two chocolate chip cookies. “I’m Lois. You got family in Milwaukee?”
“I’m visiting a relative.”
“You got kids?” She adjusts her Coke bottle glasses. “Those career women forget to have kids until it’s too late and then that’s that.”
“I have a baby girl.” I entertain a confrontation fantasy with Lois on my way to the bathroom: Lois. I’ve lost a baby. I named her Sylvia and I’m carrying a replica of the fetus made out of raspberry jam and capers in my backpack. Would you like to see? The tiny lavatory smells like asparagus pee and diesel.
I rent a Ford Taurus, whose air conditioning dries out my contact lenses, and drive to my Aunt Sylvia’s empty, colonial house with a “For Sale” sign planted on the front lawn. I sneak into the backyard and sit cross-legged on her overgrown grass. A ladybug crawls up my big toe. Four raspberries cling to an anemic looking bush, so I pick them. I open my baggie—the plastic forms a crease in the aging jelly concoction, which smells vinegary and sweet—and drop in the fruit.
The grass cools my feet as I walk back to the car. I’ll call Danny after I make my next stop. I excavate a piece of licorice from the bottom of my purse and run it back and forth between my teeth until it turns into a skinny thread, while I concentrate on finding my way to the cemetery.
Seven white tulips mark Aunt Sylvia’s grave. Sylvia Savitz Seigel. What a dreadful name for a woman with a lisp. The thought makes me smile.
I remove my sandals, and let my soles sink into the velvety soil. The dirt next to my aunt’s grave yields easily, while I dig a hole with my fingers. I retrieve the baggie from my purse and place it into the crevice. I scoop small chunks of dirt over the plastic with my aunt’s spoon, and then I raise its warm handle to my lips and kiss the Hebrew letter hey. I drop the heirloom into the earth. A warm breeze tickles me, and I hear a whisper, my whisper. Yisgadal veyiskadash sh’may rabah. Amen.
Michelle Brafman won the 2006 F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest for her story “Harvard Man.” An award winning documentary filmmaker, she lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children.