I had exciting news and couldn’t wait to tell my teacher, but when I arrived at my fourth-grade classroom, I found that we had a substitute teacher for the day. I was surprised because our regular teacher was uncommonly healthy. She seldom missed a day of school. It didn’t matter though, I decided. I’d tell the substitute teacher my exciting news.
Sidling through a group of students standing at the teacher’s desk, I waited for her to look at me. When she did, I blurted, “My big sister had a baby boy last night!”
Her response surprised me. She exclaimed, “How wonderful! I know who your big sister is. I went to school with her. What name did she give the baby?”
My regular teacher was old. She probably would have just said how nice it was my sister had a baby. This teacher was the same age as my sweet sister, ‘Babe’. I babbled, “David. She named him David!”
Babe was given the same name as our mother. Feeling uncomfortable using her own name when talking to her daughter, Mom called her, “Baby”. One year later when Mom had my sister Rosie, she shortened the nickname to ‘Babe’.
Babe was fourteen when I was born. I never knew her as anything but an adult, and saw her as an auxiliary mother. I was sad when she left home to attend college.
Five years later Babe was married, living in a nearby town, and had a baby. I struggled to see where I fit in the picture. I wasn’t her cute little baby sister anymore, but at age ten, I still wasn’t an adult sister. With the birth of my nephew, I also struggled with how to relate to the infant. Not only was I the baby of my family, but no one else in our family had children younger than me. I knew nothing about babies.
When David began to crawl, I finally felt ready to try interacting with him. Although he was mobile, he was not yet able to be reasoned with. Before David’s first birthday, the Berlin Wall crisis prompted Jim, my brother-in-law, to reenlist in the army. Jim moved to an army post, taking my sister and his son with him.
One cold, damp spring afternoon the week before David’s first birthday, I begged Mom, “Could we please celebrate David’s birthday, even though they can’t be here?”
No doubt sorely missing the little family herself, Mom readily agreed to provide a cake with candles for supper on his birthday.
Mom made a special supper for us that night. Before sitting down to eat, she placed the kettle she used to make our meal in the sink and filled it with water to make it easier to clean later. My brothers, Casper and Billy were at the table, along with my sisters Mary and Betty.
When we were ready for dessert, Mom placed the cake in front of us. To light the candle, Daddy took a wooden match and dragged the tip along the bottom of his chair. I heard a whoosh and saw orange flames leaping out from the cold air vent next to the table. I screamed, jumped to my feet and ran out of the house to the back lawn.
I heard my family yelling, “It’s okay, Kathy. The fire is out!” Seeing the flames, my brother Casper had jumped up, grabbed the kettle of water in the sink and splashed it on the vent.
My brother Billy explained to me that when Daddy lit the match, a spark ignited eleven years’ worth of lint inside the vent. Later that evening, he and I went around and opened other vents in the house to clean them. Since my arm was smaller than his, I could reach in further.
All I had wanted was a small party to celebrate David’s first birthday, but ended up with a memorable birthday blast instead.