Because it’s 1964, birth is still an act of revelation. An x-ray has confirmed that our mother is carrying twins, but shows nothing else, not the babies’ genders or if they are forming as they should. Whatever is coming won’t wait until her due date, though, so she packs our flowered canvas suitcases and tells Cheryl and me how much fun we’ll have on Grandpa and Grandma Baker’s beach. When we come home after Easter, she says, we’ll have baby brothers or sisters or maybe one of each.
From the terminal, we watch the Bremerton ferry approach across the darkening waters of Puget Sound. Ordinary ferries are green and white rectangles, like something you might build out of Lego bricks, but the Kalakala is shaped like a bullet. In the last light, its aluminum paint seems lit from within, and the glowing round portholes make it look like a strange spaceship approaching earth.
During the Depression, it was a futuristic fantasy of glamor, with its double-horseshoe lunch counter and its elegant ladies’ lounge. There was an eight-piece orchestra on board that piped music throughout the ship. But thirty years later, it’s a relic. Its velvet upholstered easy chairs and caned café furniture are long gone, and its lunch counter has been replaced by a metal row of vending machines. With backhanded affection, locals call it the Silver Slug.
The captain throws the engine into reverse to slow its approach, and the props churn the water into a pale green froth. The Kalakala bumps heavily up against one raft of creosoted pilings and then drifts into the pilings opposite before settling into its berth with a loud death rattle. Passengers stream across the metal ramp, and we spot Grandpa and Grandma waiting for us, he in his plaid Pendleton work jacket, she in her formless dark coat. We kiss our mother and father goodbye, promise to be good, and then walk out towards the boat and take the heavy hands held out to us.
On board, we stand at one of the giant open portholes facing the lit terminal so that we can wave goodbye to our parents. The ferry rattles and shakes violently as it pulls away from the dock. The pier begins to recede, and when our parents are too small to see anymore, we go inside. The cabin is packed with men in wool shirts and work boots, carrying metal toolboxes and lunchboxes. They mill in the closed cabin, smoking cigarettes, buying the evening newspaper, and getting coffee from a vending machine.
My eyes begin to sting and water, tears stream down my cheeks. My sadness puzzles me because I like visiting Grandpa and Grandma, but I give in to the bittersweet taste of goodbyes. We are leaving home, I tell myself, and when we come back, everything will be different.
Grandpa and Grandma live out in the country. Their property, just shy of an acre that Grandpa cleared back in the Depression, stretches between the road and Dye’s Inlet. Square in the middle stands the tiny white house my mother grew up in. It’s the scale of a fairytale house belonging to the three bears or the seven dwarves, but cramped for real people. Until she left home, my mother shared the bedroom where we are sleeping with her little brother. Out back, there is a barrel to collect rain water and an oil drum for burning trash. During the war, Grandma tells me, they grew a victory garden. They kept rabbits and chickens, too, but these are all gone. Now, the front of the house is edged with neat beds of Grandma’s favorite flowers—carnations, pom pom dahlias, bachelor’s buttons—and beyond that is a great swath of lawn tunneled with mole trails and littered with the miniature helicopter blades that spin down from a huge maple tree. Another tree, a twisty limbed madrona, stands at the top of the steep dirt path down to the water. When she was a little girl, my mother used to spend long hours on this beach, where she could be alone.
When we get up in the morning, Grandma makes us dishes of soft boiled eggs with buttered white toast shredded into a bright yellow and white slurry. After breakfast, she turns on Jack LaLanne, the exercise man who wears a belted jumpsuit and talks to the gals at home about firming up their ankles and midsections. A stout woman, Grandma doesn’t look like someone who exercises, but she likes Jack LaLanne. “Have you ever examined your hands?” he asks. “Your hands are truly a masterpiece that the Good Lord above has done with these.” And then he shows us how to keep our hands in shape. “Put your hands out in front of you like this.” Organ music pipes up behind his count. “One, two, three, four.” Cheryl and Grandma and I are lined up in front of the black and white set, clenching and unclenching our fists to his count. “Palms up. Knuckles together. Now real fast. That’s good. And rest.” Grandma does the standing leg lifts but sits out the jumping jacks. Some mornings she just watches, but she likes his inspirational messages.
When it rains, she spreads butcher paper on the kitchen table for us to color. Or she gets out a heavy Sears Roebuck catalog for us to look at. We make up a game we call “Pick,” which consists of turning a page and quickly stabbing our finger to claim the item we want most. Pages of modest, belted dresses and pedal pushers and nurse’s uniforms, even girdles and nylon stockings—we aren’t picky. We want it all. It’s only when we get to the back of the catalog, the men’s clothing and tools, that our interest flags.
When it isn’t raining, Cheryl and I take an empty cottage cheese tub down to the beach. We turn over rocks and collect the exposed crabs that skitter away. When we put them in the container, they scuttle against the plastic, doggedly trying to scale the side. We hunt for beach glass and for wishing rocks—ordinary black stones encircled with a thread of white quartz—and when we find one, we make a wish and try to skip it across the still water. I wish for a troll doll with lime green hair. You get your wish if you can make the rock skip, so the best wishing rocks are flat discs. There are lots of wishing rocks on the beach, and we practice until Grandma is calling us back up to the house to set the table for supper.
She asks us where the cottage cheese container is, and we realize we have forgotten it. We go back but the tide has come in and floated it out like a round, white boat, into the quiet bay, not yet far from the shore but too far out to wade.
“Will they die?” I want Grandma to tell me that it will be all right, that the crabs will escape somehow. I have never killed anything before, at least not anything bigger than an ant.
“I don’t know. Next time you’ll be more careful.” Sentimental though she is, this is a woman who has slaughtered rabbits and wrung the necks of chickens; she is not going to fuss over the fate of a few crabs. On the other hand, she hates waste of any kind. In her house, tin foil and butcher paper are folded in a drawer to be reused, string is saved, and the door knobs are girdled with rubber bands. Here is waste, not only of God’s creatures but of a perfectly good container as well.
At home, we eat dinner, but at Grandpa and Grandma’s we eat earlier, and it’s called supper, and we have to stay at the table until our plates are clean. No waste. After supper, we play a board game, Parcheesi or Chinese Checkers, but nothing with cards because cards are bad for some reason. Before bed, Grandma sets her hair in pincurls. She dips a metal comb in a jar of bright pink gel, Dippity-do, and then draws the comb through a sectioned-off piece of her dark hair before rolling it expertly around her pinkie into a tiny snail shape that she secures to her scalp with an X of bobby pins. While she pins up her hair, Cheryl and I recite our Bible verses. We memorize a new verse every few days. When Grandma has pinned her whole head, she covers it with a hairnet. And then we get ready for bed. We put on our pajamas and brush our teeth and then kneel next to the twin beds, elbows propped on the chenille coverlets, and say our prayers. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. But if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. God bless Mommy and Daddy and the babies that are coming. God bless Grandpa and Grandma. God bless the crabs and don’t let them die, please.
In recurring nightmares, I am always trying to skirt death, struggling to get away from the bad men. Night after night, I pull Cheryl in a red Radio Flyer wagon along the Seattle waterfront, past one pier and then another and another. In my dream, Cheryl wants to stop at Ivar’s Acres of Clams and get masks, the children’s placemats printed like old-fashioned deep sea diver’s helmets that you color and then strap over each ear with rubber bands. I nix that idea: the bad men wouldn’t be fooled. My arms are tired, but I have to keep pulling the wagon. Pulling it past the fireboat station, past the ferry dock, and then crossing Alaskan Way, dodging oncoming traffic. On the far side, we hide between the cars parked under the viaduct. It’s dark and scary there, but if we are really quiet, the bad men might walk right past and not see us. I’m good at being quiet. It’s my talent. And so when I hear their voices, I hold my breath. I watch their pant legs pass by, then stop. I hear them consider where we might have gotten to.
In my other recurring nightmare, the Russians have dropped an atomic bomb. I can see the mushroom cloud blooming on the horizon, and I know there is no place to run or hide. Being quiet will not save me. I wake up to the sound of my own whimpering and then lie in the dark, eyes wide open so I won’t fall asleep and go back there.
As a child, my mother slept in this same bed, and I imagine that her night terrors were not so different, except that the unseen bogeyman was Japanese. She was four years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Grandpa was a machinist at what was then called the Navy Yard Puget Sound, the biggest shipyard on the west coast. It was the only yard capable of handling aircraft carriers and battleships, and so after Pearl Harbor, five of the six surviving battleships—the so-called Pearl Harbor Ghosts—were brought there for repair. The yard doubled and then tripled its workforce and began running 24/7. The Kalakala’s runs were increased to transport the many thousands of workers who flooded in daily from Seattle.
Because Grandpa often worked graveyard and swing shifts, my mother had to keep quiet during the day. It was such a small house, and Daddy—Grandma called him Daddy all their lives together—Daddy needed his sleep, so her baby brother was shushed when he cried, and my mother learned early on to whisper, to be very, very quiet.
There was no T.V. and her parents didn’t listen to the radio, except for an occasional ballgame. My mother doesn’t think they even took a paper. Even so, children overhear talk when they are supposed to be asleep, and they have a porous membrane through which they absorb fear. One way or another, she breathed in the apprehension that Bremerton might be Emperor Hirohito’s next target. The notion wasn’t crazy. At any given time, a significant number of the Pacific Fleet was in drydock at the shipyard. Not only that, but there was a torpedo factory just a short hop to the north, and three big ammunition depots that supplied ordinance to the repaired ships heading back out into the Pacific.
“My folks would tell me that Japan was far away across the water,” my mother says now, “but I’d never seen a map, so I had no idea of how far away that was. I knew I couldn’t see all the way across the Sound, so maybe on the other side was Japan.” Certainly, the Japanese felt ominously close. To keep them out, barrage balloons floated in a ring around Bremerton, and a net was strung across Rich Passage to prevent subs from sneaking into Hood Canal. Every night, the blackout shades were drawn, so that bombers wouldn’t spot the little white house from the air.
Some nights, the neighbor lady, Mrs. Halverson, babysat and Grandma went up into a tower with a pair of binoculars. She listened for the sound of propellers and scanned the night sky for the shapes of Japanese planes. She believed they were living in the end times, the dark days before Christ would return to earth. She fully expected that someday the planes would come, a squad of dark planes signaling the end. My mother was waiting, too. For years afterwards, even as an adult, the sound of an airplane overhead would cause her to tense up, to unconsciously hold her breath until the throb of its engines faded away again.
The twins are born and die the same day because they have holes in their hearts. My father, for the first time, is in the delivery room, and when the babies emerge, tiny little things, it’s evident that something is wrong. They don’t cry. They are whisked away, as if hush money has been paid. My mother, oblivious, is wheeled back to her room, where she falls asleep. When my father is informed of their deaths, he leaves the hospital with his parents.
My mother wakes some time later. Dr. Sullivan is there.
“I’m sorry, Beverly. The babies died.”
“Both of them?” she asks in a pleading, puzzled voice.
He tells her they were girls. He has ordered an autopsy to learn what happened. And that is that. She has not seen the twins, never held them. The thinking seems to be that the usual rituals of mourning aren’t needed, that it isn’t necessary to grieve for babies who hardly touched down on the earth before they left again.
When my father returns to the hospital and comes into the room, he sees that she is upset. “What’s the matter?” he asks.
She is moved to a private room at the end of the hall where she won’t be exposed to the sight of other women’s babies. She seeks them out anyway. She walks down to the nursery and stands in front of the large window on the other side of which are rows of bassinets. She looks at all the babies. And she listens to the new fathers and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cooing and admiring and tapping on the glass. And then she goes back to her room.
As is standard practice, she is kept in the hospital for three days. She learns after the fact that while she was there, my father and his parents went to Washelli Memorial Park to witness the mortician entomb the cremated remains in the columbarium. The babies were not given names, and so a temporary card identifies them as Dean Baby A and Dean Baby B followed by the single date of their lives, March 24, 1964.
When she comes home, she sees that in her absence, the nursery has been emptied of the crib and changing table and the little stacks of baby clothes. It has been returned to its former function as an office.
My father takes the day off from work at the bank, but he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and so he goes to work on the house that he and our neighbor Al are building up the street. Late in the day, he is still gone. She turns on the radio for company. The first reports are coming in of an earthquake, a bad one, in Alaska. Little is known yet, except that it has registered 9.2 on the Richter scale, the second largest earthquake ever recorded in history. There are reports that a tsunami followed the quake, that the destruction to the city of Anchorage has been catastrophic. It is Good Friday, and my mother is reminded of the first Good Friday, the day that Jesus died on the cross. In the book of Matthew, the story is told that in the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died, Matthew says, were raised to life. What happens to cremated babies? Can they rise up without bodies? She listens to the reports and the rumors for hours until my father comes home.
They never talk about their dead babies. Years later, her mother-in-law will tell her, “Ed cried his heart out when he came home from the hospital.” But the two of them never mourn together, not until many years later, when their marriage is ending. They loved each other, but when trouble came, they had no way to deal with it except to pretend that it didn’t exist.
Grandma tells us that our baby sisters have died. She is weepy, and she pulls us both into a hug, holds us there a long time, and tells us that we should not be sad because they have gone to live with Jesus. I’m not sad, not really, but now I understand that I should be crying. I make a sad face and squinch my eyes.
We roll eggs in shallow dishes of dye, and on Sunday morning we look for the baskets the Easter Bunny has brought. The house is so small that there are very few places to hide them, and we find them in practically the first place we look, behind Grandpa and Grandma’s bed. Nestled in green plastic grass are little chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil, my favorites, and marshmallow chicks, which I’ll try to trade with Cheryl. I turn up the grass, pulling the clumps apart, in case more eggs are buried at the bottom. Grandma is reminding us that Easter isn’t really about the Easter Bunny, that it’s really about how Jesus died on the cross for our sins and then rose on the third day. I know this, I know the whole story by heart. But chocolate eggs are here, and even though I will have to save them till after church, I can already taste the waxy sweetness on my tongue.
Later that day, our parents come to pick us up. We hug Grandpa and Grandma goodbye, and Grandma cries. On the ferry, we look out the window and play a counting game like the ones children play on car trips. We count jellyfish. Giant nebulae expand and contract under the glassy surface of the water below. The colored jellyfish are rare and so are worth more points. The yellow jellyfish, which sting if you step on one lying on a beach, are worth five points. The red ones, whose sting can kill you, are worth ten, and the milky jellyfish, harmless as jello, are worth only a single point.
We are each given a dime for candy from the vending machine, and we buy Neccos, pastel-colored wafers wrapped in paper like a roll of nickels. We count these too, lining them up and arranging them by color, eating them in complex and varying sequences, saving the black ones for last.
As the ferry approaches Seattle, the city grows bigger. A bell rings, and a man on the loudspeaker says that passengers should return to their cars. On the drive home, we fall asleep in the back seat, and when our parents wake us up, we are home. It seems like we have been gone a long time, but everything looks the same to us as it was when we left.
Debra Dean is the author of four critically acclaimed books that have been published in twenty-one languages. Her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent book is Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One. Essays and stories have appeared in LitHub, Psychology Today, Missouri Review, Manoa, Image, Mid-American Review, and Calyx, among others.
A native of Seattle, Debra and her husband live in Miami, where she is a Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University.
Artwork: “Ebb and Flow” by Rachel Wold
Acrylic on canvas