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We Don’t Boil Babies

You don’t remember Grammy saying the words, although you were there. You were the baby. You’ve heard the story a million times, if you heard it once. “We don’t boil babies,” is the punch line—at least the way your mother tells it.

Your mother is a great storyteller. She backs that tale all the way up to the afternoon picnic the day before you were born. Oh, she tells you, she stuffed herself. Sauerkraut and cracklins! Pork sausage and chili! She knew she was in labor but still, she ate. She was eighteen. What did she know? She could have asphyxiated when they put her under—she knows that now—because they did that back then, you know, put you under.

And your father? He was at the picnic. But then Pappy loaded him in the pickup and hauled him back to school. Dried manure flew from the truck bed as they bounced down the lane. Oh, they all knew she was in labor. But Pappy said: What was he going to do? Best not lose that scholarship.

(You have questions you never ask, because you know better than to interrupt your mother’s performance. She has turned her light on you, and you soak it in like a moonflower. But you were born on a Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine Pappy, with his leathery farmer’s tan and oil-soaked cuticles, sanctioning a mid-week picnic.)

But I digress, your mother says, time and time again.

There are photos: Your mother in a voluminous printed dress, lost and wide-eyed in a sea of wrapping paper, ribbons, and a highchair. Her mother, younger than you are now, in severe cat-eye glasses and modest beehive. Your aunt, fourteen, looking smug.

And then there is you: In black and white, squinting at the camera through a glass bassinet. Swaddled and semi-sleeping. All that hair! You didn’t cry. You were a good baby.

Thank goodness Grammy came into the kitchen when she did! Your mother chuckles as she says this. She was only eighteen. What did she know?

You picture yourself: Tiny arms and legs writhing like points of a flickering star. Jerky infant kicks and salutes from deep within a tin tub on the kitchen table.

Thank goodness Grammy came into the kitchen when she did. Your mother laughs. What did she know about bathing a baby? Just that the water should be sterile… But Grammy took the steaming kettle from her hand. Your mother was only eighteen.

You are almost twice that age when you tell this story at a dinner party. You laugh where your mother taught you. Forks pause, mid-air; wine glasses return gently to the table. That’s a terrible thing, your friend’s husband says. Was your mother ill?

You stab something—a bit of lamb? a Brussels sprout? —on your plate and shove it in your mouth; make a show of chewing. Keep chewing until the conversation moves on, and then tuck the smallest buttered potato in the hollow of your cheek, for the rest of the meal, while you reconsider all the other funny stories your mother told you.

Alicia Dekker recently earned an MFA in fiction from Queen’s University of Charlotte where she was an editorial assistant for Qu Literary Magazine. Her work has been published in The Quotable and Barely South Review, among other places. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, as well as selected as a finalist in Mikrokosmos Journal‘s 2019 fiction contest.

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