There were two children born before I came along, both girls. One lived two hours. One lived two days.
My mother came forth from the tragedy of that second death a woman broken in health and spirit. I don't think she ever recovered from those two terrible illnesses, nor from the sorrow and horror of losing her two first born babies.
The doctor told her she must never have any more children. And she said over and over that she didn't want any more. They might die, as her two little girls had died. They might leave her without any reward for all she had gone through, without the comfort of a baby's presence which wipes from a woman's mind the suffering of such times.
She didn't want me. Terror possessed her all the time before I was born. Would she die, as the doctor had said? Or, if she survived the ordeal that had nearly cost her her life twice before, would the baby die, as the two others had died? If so, would she lose her reason? She was almost mad with apprehension and fear.
I don't suppose two people ever looked death in the face more clearly than my mother and I the morning I was born. We were both given up, but somehow we struggled back to life.
From that day to the day she died my mother never knew a moment free from ill health of the most shattering kind. She idolized me, but with a strange, bitter love, almost as though she was afraid to love me for fear I, too, would be snatched away from her. She used to watch me when I ran about the house as a little thing, never taking her eyes off me, and in their depths were many things I was too young to read.
I loved her terribly. Her beauty to me was something divine. She had long golden hair that hung way down below her knees, the most beautiful hair I have ever seen. It shone like pure gold. I used to make up fairy stories about it. And her face was pale, almost transparent, with fine, chiseled features.
The pain had worn her face thin, but it hadn't lined it, and still, to me, in spite of all that happened, the word beauty brings up a picture of my mother's white thin face under that mantle of gleaming hair. She was tall and slim and carried herself like a princess, so I think it must be true that she had good blood in her. No woman could have carried herself like that in the midst of so much misfortune unless she had.
When she was mean to me - and she often was, though I know she didn't mean to be and that it was because she couldn't help it - it broke my heart.
I wasn't a pretty child at all, in spite of the fact that both my parents were and such a contrast to each other. My mother so slim and fair, my father a squat strong man, with black hair and twinkling black eyes. My eyes were too black, and my hair was too red.
But I was sturdy and healthy. When I was little people always took me for a boy.
We lived then, and all the rest of the time we stayed in Brooklyn, in the upstairs of a house on a side street in an ordinary neighborhood. I went to the nearest public school and played in the streets like the other children. I always played with the boys. I never had any use for girls and their games. I never had a doll in all my life. But I was a good runner, I could beat most of the boys and I could pitch. When they played baseball in the evening in the streets, I was always chosen first and I pitched. I don't think I had very good clothes, they were rougher and older than the other girls', and the girls used to say snippy things to me and shout "carrot-top" and things like that. Outwardly, it seemed as though I were just a rough, strong little tomboy. But tragedy seemed to mark me early for its own.
I was about five when the first thing that really stands definitely in my mind happened. Clear, with all the little details. All children have those memories, I guess, but oftenest they are happy. Mine are not.
My grandfather, who lived with us, was very dear to me. Father worked so hard and mother was always ill, always strange and depressed, sometimes smothering me with kisses and without a word of any kind for me. My grandfather was the one who played with me and taught me little things and sometimes told me stories. He must have been a very good and gentle old man, for he used to look after mother and me both.
He had built a little swing for me. I used to sit on the floor and watch him while he was making it. He fixed it so that you could pull it up out of the way, on hooks. There wasn't much room, you see. We thought it was a very famous contrivance and perhaps it was. On cold winter days, when I couldn't get out to play, grandfather used to swing me and we had great fun that way.
It was very cold on this particular afternoon. Snow lay everywhere, the whole outdoors was white with it. It was even a little cold in the house. We had always to economize on coal. Sometimes we had to economize on food, too. There was usually enough of these things, but never just plenty, never all you wanted. Scrimping the corners, that's the way it was in our house.
I was cold and lonesome. I went out into the kitchen, looking for something to do. My mother was washing and she didn't speak to me. Her face looked desperately ill, white and weary. I felt she shouldn't be washing. She was washing a red tablecloth for the kitchen table. While I stood there I saw tears dropping from her eyes and splashing into the soapy water. I felt like crying, too.
I went back in to my grandfather and asked him to swing me. He got up and pulled down the swing and began to push me, and pretty soon I forgot I was cold and that mother was crying again, and began to shout with glee. Then, suddenly, the swing gave a violent twist so that I nearly fell out and then it stopped, and I heard a kind of dull fall behind me.
I looked around and my grandfather was lying on the floor. His face was purple and his eyes were open and staring.
My screams brought my mother to the door. In her hands she still held the red tablecloth. It dripped water all over the carpet. She threw it down and ran to my grandfather, saying over and over, "Father, speak to me. Speak to me." She looked so wild I was frightened and ran downstairs and called a neighbor.
They brought a doctor, but it was too late to do anything. He had died instantly, while he was pushing me in my little swing. That was my first encounter with death and I didn't believe it. I was quite sure they were mistaken.
The first night as he lay in his coffin in the dining room, I crept out of my bed and lay down on the floor beside him, because I had a feeling that he might be lonely. My father found me there in the morning, almost frozen. I said, "Hush, you mustn't wake grandfather. He's sleeping." But I knew that he was dead. I missed him very much.
That was a terrible blow to my mother. There had existed a great love and sympathy between them. He was the only one who could make her laugh and talk naturally. Often, when they sat together talking, I would see her pass her hand across her head, as though something cleared away.
After his death, she was sad for a long, long time. She wanted to die, too. She often spoke of it. But she never mentioned suicide. Her courage was too high for that. Though she suffered all the time, more and more, and was depressed, and couldn't seem to rise above it, she went on as best she could.