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Pamela Kripke

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A Family Mystery, Unraveled

Posted: 12/08/11 03:38 PM ET

As a child, my mother fell asleep listening to the adults at the end of the hall. It was the 1940s, and relatives visited each other in the evenings and sat up and talked. They spoke about the baby, sometimes, the baby who arrived a few years before Mom did, with blue eyes and Grandma Charlotte's skin, pearly and light.

He slept in the hospital nursery, as all babies did then, and was brought to my grandmother at feeding time, delivered on a cart with the other newborns, in a row, swaddled up. Weighing nearly ten pounds, he was positioned on the end, where there would have been more room.

After a few days, he didn't come. Instead, doctors asked my grandfather for blood. "He gave transfusions, I remember hearing," my mother says. "But he had no idea what for."

Then, they said the baby died. Just like that. Papa Louie pressed them to explain, to give a reason, but they were silent. "He offered people money, for years, but no one told him anything. Once, he stopped a nurse on the street, but she ran away," my mom says.

My grandfather believed that the baby rolled off the cart to the floor. He believed the baby rolled off the cart and no one was there to catch him.

This was the story my mother knew, only from hearing it told as she drifted to sleep. She did not know her brother's name. She did not know where he lived those few days, and which days they were. Or where he was buried, if he was. I grew up knowing just this much of the story, too, not really understanding why my grandparents let it be, why they didn't investigate. Mom says that Grandma Charlotte was never the same afterward, that she remained agitated and grew fearful, of strangers, animals that could escape at the circus, illness. She protected my mom in exhaustive ways, ushering her from a bath to her room wrapped up in quilts, coming to school with galoshes, raincoats and umbrellas if it had started to drizzle. And Papa Louie protected his wife, screening out anything that might cause her distress. making the world pretty, and safe.

"Maybe she might not have suffered so, had she known," my mom believes.

I had an uncle who lived for just a few days at a hospital in Far Rockaway, New York, nearly 80 years ago. In my mind, he is a tiny tumbling being, twisted up in white cotton and helpless. He is in descent. I see the tile floor. I hear the horror. It is an image that pierces, even now. Grandma Charlotte could not have been the same. My mother could not have ever asked.

I decided, though, that it was time, time to ask. I looked for a birth or death certificate on my computer, but could not find one without a first name, or date. Mom remembered a hospital, "Saint" something. St. Joseph's, it came to her. I looked it up, and it had changed hands, and locations, and was now St. John's. Mom called her cousin, whose parents used to come and talk in the living room. She said it was the other hospital, the brick one, with the white trim. But a photograph on my computer haunted me. There were just two pictures of the original St. Joseph's Hospital, built in 1905. One showed the front façade, bubble gum pink stucco, and the other, a room inside. The room inside was the nursery.

There, a nurse stood before a row of empty basinettes, holding two babies, one in each arm. This was the room. I knew that this was the room. The photograph was dated, "circa 1934." My mother was born in 1935. This could have been the nurse.

I contacted a Commissioner at the New York City Department of Records and told him a baby had died, and it may have been an accident, and that I was the niece. It felt odd saying "niece." He said it might be difficult, but that he would try. I gave him my grandparents' names, and waited for the mail.

A week later, an envelope arrived at my house in Texas. I eased the edge open and unfolded the paper inside. "Place of Death," it read at the very top. "Borough of Queens." "Institution: St. Joseph Hospital of Far Rockaway." Underneath, there was a line for the person's name. My mother was certain he hadn't been given one. I was expecting a blank space. "FULL NAME: Abraham Goldman"

Abraham. My great-grandfather's name. Grandma Charlotte's dad, who had died a year before her wedding. She was married in blue, pale blue, still in mourning.

I read on. "Date of Birth: October 2, 1932" "Date of Death: October 6, 1932, 10:30 AM" "Age: 4 days"

Four days. The image of the cart flashed. Then, Grandma Charlotte, hysterical, by the nursery window, her auburn hair hanging over her face. She would have gone to the window. I sat down and read further. During the week before the document arrived, my mom and I played out the scenarios. If there were a certain description of a cause of death, the hospital would have been culpable. If a different reason were given, it could have been guilty of altering the truth. There would be nothing, we were convinced.

But in the right column, about half way down, a Dr. Johnson had written something in script. A capital "H." A loopy "t." The details, unbelievably. And finally. "Hemorrhage into brain, skin, testicles."

People hemorrhage from trauma, specifically from head injury. He must have hit the rest on the way down.

At the bottom of the page, a cemetery was listed, as well as the date of interment. Uncle Abraham, who died at 10:30 on the morning of October 6, was also buried on October 6.

"No one is buried the same day," I said to my mom.

"No, never," she said quietly.

"Do you think Pop left Grandma at the hospital and went?"

"I think he did what he needed to do. And I think she never knew."

Over the phone, the man at the cemetery told me that Uncle Abraham is buried in Section F, Block 3, Row D, Grave 4. He could not tell from the records whether there was a headstone.

"Has it been kept up?" I asked him.

"No, there has been no care."

"Ever?"

"No."

The news saddened me. "Take your cousin and go," I told my mom.

She is not one to visit graves. Not her parents', not my father's. She remembers in other places. My mother never knew her brother, so his death does not live with her, though it affected how she was raised and perhaps, in some way, who she has become.

"Go," I told her. It's time for someone to go.