Yes, I really do have a secret object hidden in the back of my underwear drawer.
It was in a bag earmarked for the Salvation Army, a tiny doll-sized white cotton undershirt, but I snatched it back from among the outgrown feet pajamas, baby booties, and Alice-in-Wonderland dresses. Then I tucked it into the back of my underwear drawer.
It isn’t an heirloom or valuable in any way, except to me, because both my kids wore it as fuzzy-headed milk-scented most-beautiful-in-the-world newborns. Once in awhile it still sees the light of day. Not on those “hurry-up-or-we’re-going-to-be-late! mornings,” but on quiet afternoons when I’m putting away freshly folded laundry. I can still smell the baby shampoo and feel the round little tummies that filled that shirt.
Recently I realized that no one in the world would know or care what happened to that little shirt unless…I showed it to my daughter Bea and told her about her first night home from the hospital. She was wearing the little shirt, or one just like it, while lying beside me on the bed to nurse. By the soft moonlight shining in on us I watched her, filled with awe at the sight of this new person looking up at me like a little old wisewoman. I marveled at her perfect little toes and her tiny feet and those exquisite fingers. Just as I was moved to tears at the miracle of life and birth, she reached up with her tiny finger and DOINK! poked me right in the eye. Ever since then, I told Bea, she has kept me from taking myself too seriously.
I told her how four year old Eli rubbed her tummy and told his baby sister all she would need to know to get by in the world. “You only get to drink milk now, but when you’re big you get macaroni and cheese from a fork. You’ll learn to walk and then run, but be careful or you might fall and scrape your knee and bleed, but blood has platelets that make a scab, but don’t pick it or it’ll bleed again…” What a warm, wise welcome into our family!
On my kitchen wall is a picture Bea drew of a paintbrush and an artist’s pallet. Underneath she wrote,”Only the artist knows the story of her painting.” Too true. So tell your stories to your kids, your friends or your enemies, lest they disappear when you do.
Whether you write them into your memoirs, or tell them from your mouth, let them see the light of day, feel the moisture of your breath, live in stark black beauty on a crisp white page.
One day Bea might show that tiny shirt to her children and say, “When I was a baby…” Even if it finds its way to the Salvation Army, she might say, “My mom once saved a tiny white undershirt from the rag pile and kept it in her underwear drawer. Sometimes she took it out, and told me stories about when I was a baby…”
All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck
(Except “Mrs. Bradley Ripley Alden and Her Children” painted by Robert Walter Weir, 1852)