Borrowed Babies

Five months into her first pregnancy, one writer pursues a research project about the history of home economics, as she struggles with her own concerns about motherhood.

Jill Christman | Iron Horse Literary Review | Spring 2013 | 41 minutes (8,219 words)

 

Cooking, the science of foods, budget-making, house beautifying, dressmaking and a knowledge of textiles, all of these subjects have been considered essential to the teaching of home economics but the art of babies has until this late date been left to theory, and Providence. Now, however, schools of home economics are adding a new branch of study to their curriculum—practical mothercraft. —“Apprenticing for Motherhood,” Today’s Housewife (July 1924)

 

Just weeks after the level-two ultrasound, almost five months pregnant, I booked a ticket to Syracuse, New York, where I was to pick up a rental at the airport and drive up to Ithaca. I had a grant to do research in the human ecology archives of the Cornell library, and I was scheduled to be there for three weeks. Alone. Ithaca is lovely in the summer, I told myself, and archives are like treasure hunts for nerdy people.

I should have been giddy with anticipation, but I was not. I was miserable and terrified and lonely. I didn’t want to go. Now, I recognize this as one of the most unstable times of my life, hormonally speaking, and with all of the chemical changes happening inside my body, I couldn’t cope with change on the outside. I wanted to hunker down. I wanted a box of Wheat Thins, some lemonade with fizzy water, my couch, my dogs, my husband Mark, and another episode of The Baby Story. 

Mark urged me to see the error of my ways: Come on, Jill. It’ll be great. This is the last time for a while that you’ll be able to do this! You need to go! The first months of pregnancy infantilized me in a way I never could have predicted. But I want to stay here. I don’t care about research. Who cares about books? Nobody cares about books. 

But the part of my brain that maintained vestiges of my writerly self knew that even though I wanted to hibernate, Mark was right. This was it, baby. Now or never. And what’s more, I should relish this time and this work. All the parents I knew said it, all the magazines in the waiting room of the ob-gyn office said it, the pregnancy books said it: Enjoy these last months alone. Other parents would deliver this nugget of guidance, giving each other a conspiratorial, knowing look, and I’d feel as if I were the only kid in the class who’d missed the slumber party. So now in addition to my primal urge to go nowhere and see no one, I was a loser. Life as I had known it for thirty-four years was slipping away from me and I was opening up my puffy fingers and letting it go.

Here’s the crux. I felt unprepared to be this baby’s mother. In my restless mind, I was off on a journey too far from home, too risky for the baby growing in my belly. What if I messed up?

All the parents I knew said it, all the magazines in the waiting room of the ob-gyn office said it, the pregnancy books said it: Enjoy these last months alone.

Feeling insanely protective, I refused to walk through the checkpoint X-ray machine even though the long-faced old security guard looked impatient and the chubby young security guard laughed and assured me that she’d had four babies, had walked through the X-ray all the time,  and they were all fine. No matter. I wouldn’t budge. “I need a female for a hand search,” the long-faced one announced too loudly. I didn’t know it, but this was the beginning of judgment. These women didn’t worry about the cumulative effects of X-ray exposure; therefore, if I did, refusing to step through their machine, I was casting judgment on their prenatal parenting choices. So my journey began.

And when I first got in the rental, an enormous, everything automatic, boat-like Pontiac with freaky satellite radio, I didn’t feel the rush of independence I expected; this was the first time I’d ever had the occasion to rent a car alone. I felt scared: scared of the radio and its satellite excess, scared of the slippery seats, scared of the road winding up to Ithaca. I kept checking the baby in her place under the seat belt, talking to her in the most reassuring way I could muster, sounding eerily like my own mother: “It’s okay, sweetie. Here we go. We’re in New York. We’re off on an adventure!”

But I didn’t want to be off on an adventure. I wanted to be home with Mark and the dogs. I wanted to be on my own couch with my own pillows and my own husband. I wasn’t interested in scholarship or independence and I regretted the whole damn trip.

I had bought one ticket, but I wasn’t alone. I would not be alone in any real sense — God willing — for a very long time. Why did I feel so lonely?

* * *

I remember the first time I heard about these “borrowed babies.” Weirdly, I was in a graduate writing class in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the professor was the writer Michael Martone, and he said something, something, something, “borrowed babies,” something. And I said, “What?!?” No doubt, the desired response. He revealed what he knew about these programs for home economics students, and we were all agape. Martone is from Indiana — where I live now — and he let us know that most land-grant institutions had programs like this until the 1960s.  Babies were being borrowed all over the place. No flour sacks, pampered eggs, or electronic baby dolls for these students. No. These infants were the genuine article.

We all shook our heads in disbelief. Seriously, Martone? Are you for real?

Afterwards, I asked around. Had anyone heard of these babies? No. No one had.

But a year later, I was still thinking about those babies. What if he wasn’t making it up?

Finally, with some easy internet sleuthing, I made contact with a librarian in the Human Ecology library at Cornell University. Turns out Martone was telling it straight this time. So I’ll admit that my interest began in prurience: borrowed babies? What the hell? Human lab infants? Beaker-fed babies? What gives?

* * *

When I arrived in downtown Ithaca at the door of the loft where I was going to be staying, the friend’s uncle who rented the loft was not home. This was not the plan. The plan was that he would be there to let me in, give me the key, show me around. Huh. So feeling ridiculous and also grateful for what was to me a new technology, I stood there in the street and called his cell phone with my cell phone. Instead of the uncle, I got the uncle’s voicemail. So I bought a bagel, some hummus, and a juice from the coffee shop under the loft, the one I was standing in front of, looking, I imagined, lost and pregnant. In my mind’s video I was the most pathetic of sights. It was five minutes before eight, and as soon as I bought my bagel, the shop shut down. So there I was out in the street again. I took up a post on a cement wall in the parking lot across from the loft and ate my dinner. I called the uncle again. Nothing. I called my brother to wish him a happy birthday. I explained my predicament. I hung up and called the uncle again. Nothing. It was getting dark so I called the friend, who felt bad, and then I felt bad for making her feel bad, but what was either one of us to do? Then the uncle called me. He was at dinner with some friends — he’d be over in a few minutes.

My friend’s uncle is a painter and dancer — a gay man with flair and attitude and darkness to spare. His loft echoed these characteristics. Here was another thing I wanted to love:  high ceilings, crazy colors (a blood red refrigerator), great wide open spaces for dancing, painting, expressing oneself.

It was too much space for me that summer. I would have preferred a studio apartment with room only for a bed and a desk and a mini-fridge. All the empty space tickled my skin. The place echoed. 

* * *

So what are “borrowed babies,” and what were the co-eds doing with them at Cornell University in 1920 as the ink dried on the 19th Amendment? Here’s the basic gist: home Economics was a new degree at Cornell and program directors wanted to bring respect to their discipline. Why should the guys over in physics get all the grant money, the shiny new buildings, the full professorships?

The keeping and running of a healthy home, these women argued, should be considered a respectable science. The feeding and raising of children needed to be studied and understood. With the proper resources, the proper training, the proper outreach, mothers across the nation could learn how to raise baby by the book.

With the proper resources, the proper training, the proper outreach, mothers across the nation could learn how to raise baby by the book.

The women enrolled in the home economics program at Cornell University in the 1920s — and they were all women, and they were called “girls” — were required to complete a homemaking residency. In the final year of their programs, they had to move into one of the university’s “practice apartments” with five or six other girls and a supervisor. For a few days, each girl was in charge of a different element in the running of a tidy, efficient, healthy home. One week, for example, she might reign over the laundry, sorting the colors from the whites, carefully measuring the most cutting-edge detergents, employing whatever modern amenities were available in the practice apartment, and then all that starching and ironing and hanging away. There was cooking to be done, of course, and general cleaning, as well as decorating, entertaining, and shopping. Finally, what practice household would be complete without children? Someone had to care for the baby.

But wait. They had no babies. Where would they get babies?

* * *

Here’s something about downtown Ithaca in 2003 — It wasn’t peaceful. There were hooligans. They congregated in the parking lot beneath the loft at night, and I just knew they were taking drugs and drinking, and most nights, in the middle of the night, midnight or two or three, there’d be yelling and swearing, sometimes fighting. I can’t stand the sound of fighting. But I had to keep a couple windows cracked because it was ninety degrees and there wasn’t any air conditioning. I was roasting like a potato in the coals, my skin prickling with heat and anxiety.

Hooligans? Mark said doubtfully into the phone on the first morning. Okay, Grandma. 

Now I was ambitionless, agoraphobic, fat, cranky and old. Could pregnancy get any worse? Yes. The fear, the fear, the ever-present fucking fear. Mark didn’t help. Well, keep the windows closed. Are the windows closed? 

The first night I spent in the loft, the moon was just coming down from fullness, and I remember watching it through a crack in the slats, glowing orange in the sky, reminding me how much was out there, how much of the world was beyond and above me. Every night, I would tuck my waxing belly behind the security of the solid wall and peek out into the darkness to see the moon slicing off bits of herself — the last quarter, waning, waning, and then new again.

So much of our lives are buffered by Virginia Woolf’s “cotton wool” of memory, but those weeks in the loft left sharp indentations in my progesterone-addled brain. With a precision that rivals Woolf’s childhood moment in her bed at St. Ives with the acorn of the blind scraping back and forth on the gentle breath of the seaside breeze, I remember moment after moment from those last weeks I spent alone. If there is no real danger, if no real harm comes to pass, the kind of harm that sends memory packing to a dark dungeon of the brain, then is it possible that memory is jazzed by the electricity of fear?

The smooth wood floor was dusty and pressed specks into the pumped-up soles of my feet. I fashioned a single cup coffee filter out of a disposable metal pie tin and poured boiling water from an open sauce pan, careful not to splash my belly. The kitchen was separated from the laundry/dressing area, the two little bedrooms, and the rest of the cavernous loft by only a low counter, and on the other side of this counter was an antique armoire with its door ajar, flashing an old full-length mirror. I could have closed the door, but I never did. Instead, I was company to myself—a me made thinner and taller and just a bit wobbly up and down in the old glass, but enough of a reflection to offer a reassuring smile as I stood up from that deep red refrigerator with a carton of half and half. Enough of a reflection that I could step out from behind the counter and take a good look at my body in my clingy maternity dress. Really? I would think, morning after morning. This is me? Me, me, me. Me and baby. Baby, baby, baby. And I would remember what my mother said, after my brother went to college and it was just the two of us, moving to the top of a mountain — Just you and me! We’re in this together. What an adventure! And if I still looked wary, she would add: Just this year. We’ll try it for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else. I have only one memory of seeing my mother scared.

Out of the collection on the plywood shelf in the loft, I chose a giant, hand-thrown mug.  I can’t remember the color of the glaze, but I was satisfied by the heft of this sturdy mug, obviously a gift from some amateur potter, or perhaps the dancer uncle had made it himself. I’d thrown a lot of mugs like this one in my college ceramics class, the kind that weigh too much to justify their function, or so my teacher might have commented, stopping by my wheel with a wire pulled taut between his calloused, dusty fingers and slicing my mug down the middle, one half sliding into goo on the wheel, while he pointed out the too-thick bottom, the uneven walls. Ahh, I see.

But here in the dancer’s loft, five months pregnant with my first baby, I embraced the potter’s clumsiness and savored the feeling of all that thick fired clay holding in that creamy coffee. I padded across the floor and settled in at the round wooden table in the barnlike dining-dancing-living-painting-office room with my laptop, coffee, and a bowl of cereal fit for a horse.

* * *

The co-directors of the Home Economics Program (and, incidentally, life partners in a New England marriage), Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, solved the get-a-baby problem more efficiently than I was managing with my excessive calorie intake and moodiness. There was no need to adopt babies permanently. Following the lead of the University of Minnesota (who brought in one or two babies in 1919 — the first in the nation), the administrators set about getting babies on loan:

As to securing a child, we were very much at a loss at first as to just where to go. Finally, one of our Agents met Mrs. Grannis, the Commissioner for Placing Dependent Children, in Syracuse and it is through her that our first baby was secured. It was her office, also that assumed all legal responsibility and so we had the baby from the time he was four weeks old until he was fifteen months with permission through Mrs. Grannis to keep him as long as we desired, under the condition that he could be returned to her at the end of the first college year or any time thereafter that we saw fit. Of course we had a letter to this effect signed by Mrs. Grannis. The mother, on the other hand, signed over all papers to Mrs. Grannis. . . .

—M/B Head of Foods Department

* * *

In the sunshine of the morning loft, I thought about borrowed babies and what I would learn about their lives in the practice apartments at Cornell University with their many young mothers with their scales and beakers and ironing boards — lives that these babies would never remember, as my baby would not remember the comfort I spoke to her through my belly on scary drives. I listened to the people who worked in the flower shop below the loft pull up with their delivery van and start loading. I imagined Gerber daisies, irises, sunflowers, mums, and asters — yellow and purple galore. Fresh, fresh, fresh. What a nice life, working with flowers, the juicy stems and the silky petals. I chewed my cereal dutifully, doing my penance for the warm mug of lovely coffee in my other hand, staring at the huge oil painting above the table, and thinking about where the flower people were headed — maybe a baby shower or a wedding, but probably mostly funerals, I thought, and perhaps the closed doors of a few lovers done wrong.

The bowl was a rough ceramic, too, and the smooth spoon scraped against the bottom — a big noise in the empty space of my morning loft — and I thought about how silence pulls on our thoughts, gives them space to waft up and out, swirling and forming, the sound of my spoon, like the sound of Woolf’s acorn, binding me to a place — downtown loft, Ithaca, New York, June 2003 — even as my thoughts, both silly and profound, with no way to tell the difference, took up cellular space in the empty air around me.


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By the light of the early morning, the hooligans replaced in their empty lot by vans full of flowers, this space felt so different, and so good, I decided. I wished I could stay and sit on the floor where the sun was slanting in through the blinds and making a pattern. I could be Striped Pregnant Woman, Sitting. Maybe I could write in a notebook. Or maybe I would just sit and think. Just sitting and thinking, I was taking care of my baby. I was feeding her through our shared umbilical cord, rocking her on the thick cushion of the plush placenta, part pillowtop, part gourmet, all-natural snack bar. I was protecting her in the liquid balloon of the amniotic sac and, even in my silence, soothing her with the lullaby beat of my heart and blood.

Holding my mug in both hands now, close to my chin, elbows on the table, I studied the shapes on the painting above the table — bold round center, vibrant background pattern, fleshy cylinder — and my brain clicked, finally, around the lines and curves: I was face-to-canvas with a giant-sized phallus, erect and ready, laid across the expanse of a dining table like a feast. Looking down, then up, down, up, I matched the grain of wood on the table where I was sitting with the table of the painting and recognized, sure enough, that I had positioned my own shape, triangle of face and elbows and arms, exactly in the place where the enormous testicles would be.

Wow, I thought. Wow. I was a pregnant woman, so conspicuously gravid, so obviously performing the hetero’s job, finishing off a lukewarm gulp of illicit coffee at a round table adorned with a vividly imagined penis — a straight pregnant woman having breakfast in a gay man’s world.

* * *

Dickey was the first practice baby in the Cornell Program. Dickey did all right — although there seems to have been no consensus on the spelling of his name: Dickey, Dicky, Dickie?

In a clipping from the Cornell University newspaper dated 1921, I learned how young Richard Lewis, named after Dr. Richards who delivered him, got his variously spelled nickname.  In the catalog, “Domestic Economy” courses were abbreviated to “Dom Econ,” and the students referred to these courses by their catalog name. Which is how Dickey, and many babies after him, earned this Cornellian surname: Domecon. Dicky Domecon. (Later babies took on the name of the building where they were raised—as in, “David Lodge.”)

It’s linguistically playful, but a tad creepy. In the newspaper clipping, the student writer reports the moniker (adopted by many babies to follow) as deliciously clever, and Dickey is introduced as “a happy, rosy specimen of babyhood.” Okay. Specimen. Creepy again. That said:  “The home economics students who were living in the house had full charge of him as to feeding, clothing, bathing, sleeping — yes, and petting — everything that goes to make normal healthy babyhood, and Dicky thrived under it.”

And he did seem to thrive.

Dickey moved onto the Cornell campus on April 15th, 1920, when he was just three weeks old. Apparently, Dickey’s father had abandoned the young mother before Dickey was born, and his mother signed over her parental rights to Florence Grannis before she left the hospital. Alone. Dickey had been weaned only three days when he arrived at the practice lodge, weighing, as one document wrote, “nine ounces less than his birth weight, which was nine pounds, three ounces.”

Unlike many of the older, more sickly babies who would come after him, it appears that Dickey was a big baby and perfectly healthy — but motherless. Or so it seemed.

* * *

My friend’s uncle nurtured a rooftop garden n big clay pots on the black tarmac of a large patio twelve feet above the parking lot. On the other side of the alley, a motley collection of men would crowd onto their own tiny fire escape, with their garbage cans, and yell at each other in a language I could never seem to understand (although I think it was English).

I had been charged with caring for the plants in the clay pots — cherry tomatoes, parsley, and geraniums with blossoms bigger and redder than a man’s fist — and between the men on the fire escape, the hooligans in the parking lot, and the sun baking that tarmac into a giant briquette, I had to choose my moment well. When the sun was low, but the coast was clear, I cracked the kitchen window, snaked the end of the hose through, and attached the adapter to the faucet in the sink.

I love watering plants, always have. One moment, the leaves are drooping, sad, considering permanent wilt, tilting towards desiccation, and then you come along with your trickling hose, aiming all that gushing life at their dusty feet, and voila, they are saved, resurrected.

Thank God, I would think on those hot Ithaca evenings. I have cared for something.

This is good. I have kept something alive.

* * *

The precise logistics changed semester to semester, year to year, but in general, every senior girl in home economics would spend between four and six weeks with between four or six other girls in residence at one of the college’s practice homes. Eventually, each girl would take a turn with the baby, as one document from 1920 records:

The advent of this tiny baby at the lodge occasioned much extra work on the part of the students. It meant making up the food for the day, giving the food in seven feedings, each of which took one-half hour, time for bathing and dressing the baby, laundry work, care of the nursery, and loss of sleep for the girl who was mother and had to give the baby his two night feedings.

* * *

I was thirty-three when I became pregnant, all vestiges of girl-ness having given way to curves and responsibility, and while the pinned-back hair, prim dresses, and neat aprons in the archival photographs threw me off initially, eventually I was struck by the obvious:  these “girls” were twenty-one years old, tops. These “girls” were my students (without the peek-a-boo thongs and flip flops). Eighty years ago, my cheerfully unencumbered, be-thonged, flip-flopping undergraduates might have been tied down to in-house training for future domestic lives.

Going into this investigation, I’d neglected this central fact. I imagined households of women mothering these borrowed babies. I imagined attachment and tears and pain. How could these young women bear to leave the babies at the end of the semester? Because I knew the babies were real, I guess what I had in mind was a real house with a real mother.

This was a foolish, romantic notion.

* * *

When I was six or so, my mother got me started in our little patch of dirt she had brought in and dumped in a hole in front of our sand dune house in Massachusetts between the Merrimac River and the Atlantic.She helped me choose hardy plants that would survive life so near the ocean, in soil fit for beach grass and bayberry bushes — or a crab.  I remember marigolds with tight yellow and orange blossoms, jewel-toned nasturtiums (for eating), and a range of viney vegetables — cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins — looping and trailing their curling, fuzzy tentacles across the shifting sands, gaining purchase wherever they could work in a root.

But my favorites were the radishes. I taught myself to love their spicy crunch, pretended that I craved nothing more than a salad laced with the little buggers, because I wanted to grow them myself. In the spring, my mother brought home seed packets with names like “Easter Egg” and “Pink Beauty,” and I ran my finger through the dirt, tracing parallel lines and sprinkling in the tiny seeds. Through the spring, I watered and watched.

Really? I would think, morning after morning. This is me? Me, me, me. Me and baby. Baby, baby, baby.

Radish seeds deliver. In a little over a week, the greens sprout up. I thinned them out, not quite as much as the package told me to do, I just couldn’t bring myself to, but enough to give them room to grow. Water and wait. Water and wait. And then, late in the spring, before my mother shipped us off to my father’s house in Connecticut for the summer, I’d begin my harvest. Sometimes, I’d go too early, a test pull bringing up a pallid, skinny radish looking like a fetal carrot, but then, water and wait, water and wait, and the greens would feel more substantial between my fingers, more resistant to my tugging fingers, and — pop! Out of the soil would emerge a perfect globe — dusty purple or fire engine red, popsicle yellow or snowball white — and I would run inside to the sink, rinse off the dirt, and hold the pretty, shining thing in the palm of my hand.

Look, Mom. Look what I did. Mom, I grew a moon!

* * *

The practice apartment students were carefully supervised, of course. There were rules. Oh my heavens, there were rules. The idea was that these babies would be raised according to a well-defined protocol. No deviations.

What did I think I would learn by my obsession with these programs and their babies as my own baby grew, thumping the stretching membrane of my womb like a drum? Did I think I would learn how to take care of her? Did I think I would find the cereal recipes and diaper rash treatments I would require to help her thrive? Did I believe, as the program directors purported, that motherhood was something I could learn? If I read enough and studied hard, I could be a good mother? Or, at least, good enough?

Or was this a step toward judgment? Was I looking for the salve we all apply to our parental mistakes — and there are plenty of those, no? Look what these people did to these poor babies. Just look!

Did I mention what the program did with the babies once they were no longer babies? No longer suitable to serve as house babe? They sent them back to wherever they’d come from in the first place. Remember, these babies were “borrowed,” not adopted.

We gasp. We do. But, as the librarians in the Cornell archives were quick to point out, and as I confirmed here and there in my poking around, most practice babies were quickly placed in permanent homes. Adoptive parents lined up to get these cherubic darlings, products of the latest science. Most entered the program as unwanted, neglected babies. I pored over the parchment paper baby books in the archive, and there they are. Before — scrawny and unsmiling, burdened with dark under-eye circles (allergies? sleeplessness?) and with, I swear, baby after baby: rickets. Rickets. But look at those After shots. After those many young “mothers” assembled their scales and their measuring devices, doling out orange juice and cod liver oil (yup), making sure the babies took their daily fresh air, no matter the frigid Ithaca winter temperature, and got on board with the minute-by-minute schedule (how did they do that?), well, these babies looked wonderful:  chubby, pink-cheeked, alert, smiling. Who wouldn’t want to take one of these Gerber babies home to stay?

* * *

In my flesh-and-bone Ithaca life, out of the archives and onto the hot, black roof, I made sure the soil in every pot was soaked and heavy, plucked off a few dead blossoms, everything quenched and growing, then headed inside to turn off the water at the sink, push the hose back out onto the roof, close the window, lock it tight, and turn the blinds to darkness.

Good night, green things.

* * *

By day, I walked down to the parking lot, caught a bus to campus, and went down into the archives. In the dark, windowless depths of the library, silent, wearing the white cotton gloves of an archival researcher, or a lady, I turned the pages of baby books put together by the teenage surrogate mothers in Cornell’s practice apartments. I examined the feeding charts, reviewing the measured ounces of orange juice, cod liver oil, and fortified cereals. I looked at photos of the babies napping in the brisk Ithaca air and being weighed in the apartment laboratory. Models of mothercraft, these babies gained weight and new color in their once sallow cheeks.

Take little Bobbie who arrived at the homemaking lodge in the fall of 1921: “six weeks old, malnourished, pitiful looking mite weighing only six pounds as compared with seven and a half at birth.” A year later, in his baby book, Bobbie’s student caretakers assessed their bright, chubby, “pink and white” 22-pound charge and declared him “an excellent example of what proper food and care can do to develop a healthy normal child and firm, understanding, kind and sensible treatment to make him a happy, sweet-tempered, good dispositioned little lad. . .” The photos were black and white, so I had to take his pinkness at their word, but the chub and the grin? That I could see.

And still, I felt so sad. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. Not only were the answers I might have found in those brittle pages still evading me, even the right questions seemed beyond my grasp.

How was I going to take care of my baby? How would I know what to do? Mothering.  Mother. In the summer heat, the word seemed to melt, stretching in all directions, like newsprint on Silly Putty — almost funny at first, then weird, and finally losing meaning altogether.

Mothermothermothermother.

* * *

My dear Mrs. Grannis,

In the newspapers at the time Dicky came to live with us at the Lodge appeared an article about the baby saing [sic] that he was being watched over by Dr. Rose King. Where the word “King” came in I do not know. However, Dicky’s mother has seen the newspaper article and has written to us the enclosed letter.

I am wondering what you think should be done in this matter. We have not acted upon it at all because we felt that it was not a case for us to use our judgment.

I saw Dicky just before leaving Ithaca and he has grown to be a very beautiful child. He is now five months old and weighs 16 pounds. This is of course over-weight but not over-weight for his size, since he is large in proportion, and he is not a fat baby but just a very vigorous one. We are very proud of the results of right care and feeding. He certainly is a baby that any mother could be proud of, and I am sorry for the little girl. I wish it might be possible to give her a chance to bring him up for herself.

Very sincerely yours,

Flora Rose

Long Lake, New York

August 30, 1920

* * *

The shower stall in the loft was no bigger than a coffin tilted on its toes. Once I wedged myself in there and turned on the water, even the meager trickle sucked the flimsy shower curtain in to stick on my skin. As cleaning rituals go, this was unsatisfying.

One morning, I remember escaping from the tiny bathroom to dry off in front of that antique armoire. There was me. Naked. And there was that mirror. I was still wearing thong underwear then, and as I pulled them on, I studied my body in what seemed like an unreliable reflection. I looked at my round belly with separation and curiosity, the way — or so I’ve heard — a man who has just cut off the tip of a finger with a table saw might examine the blunted, bleeding knuckle: he knows that this bloody, fingerless hand is his bloody, fingerless hand, but somehow that message doesn’t make the full journey to his brain. It’s too much to take in. He climbs up the basement stairs and holds his dripping hand out to his wife: Does this look okay to you? I’m okay, right?

His wife screams.

I felt like the husband here, looking at my body and lacking the facilities to register the change, the import, the need to act. I’m okay, right?

* * *

Fifty years after her stint as a practice mother in one of Cornell’s home economics apartments in 1951, Margaret Redmond invited me to her farmhouse in Albany, New York, and I wedged my gravid self into a chair at the octagonal glass table in her breakfast nook to ask her about the baby she’d cared for during her time at Cornell.

“Which baby did you work with?”

Margaret couldn’t really remember. It was a boy. “Danny, I think.” She remembered six weeks and six jobs. Her least favorite was her stint as housekeeper and after that it was all about equal — the baby seemed to take no special place in her heart of memory. “I wasn’t worried about taking care of a baby. We all enjoyed the baby. He was not the sole responsibility of the keeper.”

How could these young women bear to leave the babies at the end of the semester?

And that was that. No biggie. Another part of the program, another step on the way to graduation.

“One girl’s mother was dying and died over Christmas, another girl was making her wedding dress and her wedding plans — you know, it was real.” Margaret herself was already married when she entered the practice apartment, and pregnant with the first of her eight children. She stays in touch with two others who shared the apartment: Marianne had eight children also. Betty Ann? Eleven. She has no idea what became of her other housemates.

Of course, I thought. Why would these women feel any particular attachment to a baby they barely knew, a baby whose time in their arms was so quickly replaced by babies of their own. Including grandchildren, Margaret’s rocked 24 of her own since Danny flashed through her life. Why would she care any more about him than I do about the project on birds I did for my college science class? She wouldn’t. She doesn’t.

Of course.

Again, I was disappointed. I felt sad. I had wanted — what had I wanted? I’d wanted a different kind of story. Maybe I’d wanted a love story.

* * *

Dear Doctor King. 

I am the mother of little Richard, May I please come to see him? I love him and am very lonesome for him, If not will you please write me about him. Believe me I would be very grateful,

Sincerly[sic]—

Mae La Rock

* * *

I’d had a hair-raising journey from Ithaca to Albany. The directions Margaret had provided were whacky. Stay on Triphammer for 6 miles, but at four miles I found the four-way stop. Go another ten to twelve miles, which turned out to be eighteen according to the odometer, and at this point, I was getting nervous because a) where the hell was I? and b) traveling through a little town called Genoa (on my directions), I passed the scene of an accident in which a car had been shaved down to the door handles by a semi. Where was the driver’s head?

Two phone calls and a few whispered prayers later, I pulled into the driveway of an old farmhouse. A white Greek revival, she called it. Margaret stood on her front porch waving me into a parking spot on the lawn next to her car.

“You made it,” she said. “This is one-fourth of my grandchildren.” She gestured towards four children, ranging in age from about eight to twelve and in hair color from carrot orange to deep black, hanging around in the driveway. “Come in!”

* * *

Practice apartment babycare — the feeding, the sleeping, the playing, the pooping — was measured and scheduled, unvarying, and in this way, even though each baby might have upwards to forty-two “mothers” during his or her stay in the practice apartment (the math: seven “mothers” per session, three five-week sessions per semester, two semesters per year = forty-two), these musical mothers wouldn’t much matter — or so the initial argument went — because the care the babies received was utterly consistent. Not only that, since each “mother” came fresh and well-rested to her days of babycare, the care was therefore better than the nurture supplied by a more exhausted lone mother. Interesting.

Again, I was disappointed. I felt sad. I had wanted — what had I wanted?

Rubbing my puffy ankles with my white-gloved hand, I didn’t know from babycare, although this fresh-and-rested argument made a certain sense. I had never gotten up in the night to feed a baby. I had never weighed or bathed a baby. When my half-siblings were young, I guess I’d fed a baby, holding the spoon to their baby-bird mouths, scraping the excess goo from their lips with the edge of the rubber-tipped spoon and popping it in again. But I’d never chosen between spinach or peas, I’d never studied the differences between oatmeal and rice cereal, never  measured mashed peaches in ounces.

* * *

Margaret was the consummate hostess, and so generous with her time that afternoon that we were on our third hour of conversation when I became fixated on her earrings. Actually, the angle at which she was sitting permitted me a view of only one: a boisterous white and yellow daisy fashioned out of some kind of metal, a false burst of life and color set above her conservative pale green jacket. Her hazel eyes moved from me to whichever of the four grandchildren was ransacking the kitchen cupboards, to the bucolic sight of her son’s farm in the near distance, a sweep and roll of green fields, without ever seeming more or less affected by any of these points of focus. She dealt with each of us in turn.

We’d moved beyond the early twenties, and those first borrowed babies — in a time of war, prohibition, and suffrage, who had time to wonder whether babies in college was a good thing? — and Margaret was saying that in the fifties, home economics was an avenue for women to get into professional life. “And somehow the practice baby idea went against that nascent feminism,” Margaret speculated.

Then there was a sound like ten thousand mosquitoes trapped in a tent. Or maybe just one really, really big mosquito, gas-propelled. Or so it appeared when the thing buzzed past the plate-glass doors with the red-haired boy clinging to its back. The boy and the machine were circling the farmhouse, and soon they were back, this time with another child clinging to the boy who was clinging to the insectile contraption (a farm-made dune buggy?). They were doing laps past their grandmother, who took it all in as calmly as she had everything prior.

I had never gotten up in the night to feed a baby. I had never weighed or bathed a baby.

Margaret told me that she and her husband welcomed five children in the first five years of their marriage, one after the other, bought the farm where we sat in 1958, suffered a miscarriage, and then had three more children, with the final daughter, the “tail end,” arriving in 1970. Speaking of their time as young parents, beyond the walls of the practice apartments, she said, “We learned that you could enjoy children and you could enrich them.” Earlier, she’d led me through a darkened sitting room in which every inch of space, from the top of the piano to the mantle to the walls, was occupied by framed family portraits, peopled by smiling Redmonds.

As the children buzzed our door, grinning and whooping, the little one teetered a bit. Were those wings or roll bars? I prayed for the latter and willed the girl to tuck her head. My hand reached for my belly under the table, and I tried to hide my terror behind the rim of my sweet tea glass, but I must have blanched, and Margaret’s eyes missed nothing.

She pushed the tray of Pepperidge Farm cookies towards me, gesturing out the window, taking in the two on the oversized mosquito, but also their fourteen cousins, all eight of her own, and then she said, “I raised my own children with a degree of vigilant neglect.”

On the earring, the shocking white petals circled a yellow moon.

* * *

Dear Miss Rose:

I have just received a letter from Mrs. A.T. Kerr of Ithaca, stating that she has a friend in Rochester who is very much interested in Dicky Domecon and would like to take him after learning more of his history, etc.

I am just about to leave on a business trip for a few days but will briefly state that I have written to Mrs. Kerr that I could not give her any encouragement for her friend, as when you see fit to part with him at Cornell, I think he will be taken by his own mother. Circumstances have so changed in her life that I think it will be for his interest to be returned to her. I have made no definite plans, however, relative to the matter until I have an interview with the mother of the infant.

I have had many applications for him from people who have read the newspaper articles concerning him and how very desirable he is after receiving your wonderful care.

I felt that I should notify you of the above facts and will ask that you treat it confidentially for a time. He has indeed been a fortunate child to have received your wonderful care and love, and I most surely appreciate it.

With kindest wishes, I am,

Very truly yours,

Florence A. Grannis

Commissioner

March 22, 1921

* * *

I worked my way through the first two seasons of Six Feet Under while I was in Ithaca — the television got no reception, so it was videos or complete, spine-twitching silence. One night, I binged, staying up until one a.m. and watching four in a row, eating Swedish fish scooped into a plastic bag in bulk foods, one after another, wishing I would stop. I needed my rest, the baby needed my rest, and neither of us needed all that sugar and red dye number something or other, but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to leave the couch and walk past that swinging door with the window down to the street. I didn’t want to stand under the bare bulb in the bathroom and look at my face in the harsh light. I didn’t want to lie down in somebody else’s bed and listen to the sounds of the street. So I spent my last weeks of complete and total freedom on a couch.

* * *

I want to tell you that I went in with my white gloves and solved the mystery: What happened to Dickey? Was he returned to his mother? Did this young woman, so earnest and heartbreaking in her entreaties to see her baby, get a second chance at motherhood? Was she able to take the curly-headed two-year-old back up into her arms and prove to him that she could be trusted? His one and only mother?

I think so. I hope so. But that’s foolish, too. Why wouldn’t I want Dickey to go to the financially established, older, childless couple desperate to adopt? Why would I imagine Dickey to be better off in the arms of his young, abandoned mother? “I love hm and am very lonesome for him,” Dickey’s mother said in her note.

Because adoption records are sealed, I have only scant (and conflicting) evidence, but I believe Dickey was returned to his mother in April 1921 despite the fact that his model-baby celebrity status had attracted many bids for his adoption. Who knows what was best for Dickey? First, I found this newspaper entry, dated January 1922 (over six months after Dickey left Cornell):

About the time [Dicky] was a year old, two of many visitors fell completely in love with him and finally persuaded the school to permit them to adopt Dicky at the end of the college year. The School of Home Economics has not lost touch with its first boy, however, and his most recent picture indicates he is continuing to grow into a super-child, thanks, in part, at least, to his excellent early training.

This was not good news for Dickey’s mother. But in the same folder, I found more letters. Just two more. The first dated April 2, 1921, from Commissioner Grannis to Miss Flora Rose. In the letter, she reiterates her position to return Dickey to his mother should her upcoming interview with her go well:

As yet, I have not had an interview with his mother. She asked for an appointment with me at a time when I could not be in the city, and since which time, I received a letter from her stating that she had been ill, but was most anxious to come and see me. I want to have an interview with her very much and shall visit the home where Dicky will be taken by her. I consider him an especially bright child, and I believe we owe it to him to plan for him that which will be for his own best good. . . . I will write to you as soon as I have an interview with Dicky’s mother.

This is the last correspondence from Mrs. Grannis in Dickey’s archival folder on the subject of his post-practice-apartment home. Her intentions seem clear, but maybe the interview didn’t go well. Maybe Dickey’s mother changed her mind.

But then there’s this final note, short and handwritten, dated May 8, 1921, from an unidentified writer, and with no document number:

Dear Miss Rose:

Your letter regarding Dickie was received, and needless to say, I was greatly disappointed. But “first come, first served,” of course. If the child you adopt for the coming year should be as dear and sweet. . . .

The letter ends at sweet, the second page and, thus, the signature are missing. I am not the first researcher to finger through Dickey’s folder, and whomever came before me had these papers pre-archive because that person has scribbled some marginalia. A speculation on the letter-writer: Student? An arrow pointing assertively to the oddly quoted phrase first come, first served: What does this mean?

I don’t know why my scrawling predecessor would assume the writer to be a student. My guess would be that the writer’s great disappointment and the reference to future practice babies points to a thwarted applicant for Dickey’s adoption. “First come, first served”? As in, a birth mother? Or an earlier applicant? Or simply a response to vague news that was delivered to the writer in the interest of preserving Dickey’s legally protected privacy.

Romantically, foolishly, ridiculously, I stood alone that night in the wide-open loft, watching my moon sliver herself away, and rooting for Dickey’s mom, hoping she found purchase on slippery ground and got a second chance to raise her own rosy-cheeked boy into a good man.

* * *

The next morning, a wet day in July, I returned the rental car (the nose of which I’d smashed in the narrow alley by the flower shop), flew home, and waited for a November moon to exert her pull on the rising tides of my gravid body and wash our daughter home.

***

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner) and has written essays for magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Oprah Magazine, & Brain, Child, and River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.

“Borrowed Babies” originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Iron Horse Literary Review, published by Texas Tech University since 1999. SheBooks published the expanded version, Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, on Amazon Digital Services in September 2014. 

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath