Each time my grandmother bore at home her 13 children, her legs spread wide, bruised and bloodied in the narrow bed, her back burning with labor for twenty-two years, my tiny Welsh grandfather played his fiddle as a birth announcement in the cool dark of the family parlor, behind crisp lace curtains hiding their gray mill town.
Charlotte, our Aunt Dot, told us that tale, their oldest girl, whose stories marred the arc of sweet Smith myths formed for family consumption, tales to delight along side my father’s five year sucking at Nannie’s mustard nipple, as she rocked and swayed him to “The Highwayman,” riding that ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor. Or how five Smith boys, a team, shot baskets in the kitchen, until Nannie, tired of weaving among them to punch down her dough, would swat them all and send them away with a “piece,” a hunk of bread slathered with jam.
“Sister Janet died of leukemia or pneumonia or we don’t know what at age 21,” the old version goes. Like Nannie’s other still births , Janet refused to live, to join the loving stories, the family verse.
Dot, in her thin house dress and soiled scuffs, her sofa littered with old candy wrappers, her kitchen sink amok, a woman of the 50’s working both “inside and outside the home” at the drugstore to make Christmas for her twins, sixty years later retold Janet’s ending.
Janet the fianceed beauty, the family’s pride, died with her legs spread and bloodied, the fetus hacked from her womb, like a pink, new bud from the family tree. Not a Smith at all, perhaps, but Rhiannon, the Welsh queen, mother of Pryderi, stolen at birth, whose name means simply “loss.”