In 1957, I was two years old and had three older brothers and my first sister, Anne. My mother had five children under the age of five years, and it was her pattern to place me in the big cot for my afternoon nap; it had high sides, so my escape was impossible. I was lying flat on my back, drifting asleep and I could see my mother standing at the chest of drawers with her back to me. She was folding some small pieces of clothing and occasionally, looking out through the window. Suddenly, I noticed a little girl’s face looking in through the cot bars at me; she was smiling, and the wooden bars pushed her cheeks in. I tried to get my mother’s attention to show her this girl but failed. When I woke from this nap, I went around the house searching for the girl. It was this scrap of memory, dream, or imagining, that prompted me in later years to believe that I had a third sister.
By the time, I reached my seventh birthday I had forgotten about Anne, and when, in May of 1962, my mother brought home a new baby girl, I was thrilled with the notion of having a sister. In 1964, my second sister was born. As I grew older, my thoughts became preoccupied with the idea of having a third sister and, that something terrible had happened to her. Instinctively, I knew not to question my parents or close relatives about this. In the summer months and on holiday from school, my mother took down a brown cardboard box from the attic and went through a long process of airing the contents. I was confused and offended when my mother told me to keep away from the box and not to touch anything. The contents intrigued me, folded baby clothes; dresses, cardigans, little booties and some square pieces of cloth that were probably cloth nappies. The garments were off-white in colour, yellowed along the fold lines, and covered in a layer of fine dust. An interesting item in the box, a black and red rubber doll, attracted my attention and I pulled it from the box. I held it up and said:
“I remember this!” … I remembered chewing the black rubber shoes on this doll, and the smell and taste of the rubber. I checked the bottom of these little shoes, and I saw small teeth marks in the rubber. My mother grabbed the doll from my hands and said:
“Put that back that is not yours.”
I felt very hurt by this and wanted to say ‘They are my teeth marks on the shoes.’ but I remained silent and struggled not to make a show of myself by crying. My mother took out the baby clothes very carefully and brought them out to the clothesline. She pegged each item separately so that there was a long line of doll-like clothing hanging out to air. This ritual was carried out regularly, always on a sunny day, and while my father was away from home. I learned to stay back from the box, and my mother, and just watched as she focused on each piece in silence. Sometimes she seemed to be crying very quietly, but there were no tears on her cheek; a soft sound came from her barely moving lips.
One day, while walking to a local shop with one of my older brothers, I was about ten or eleven years old, I asked him if we had another sister.
“Yes, of course, we did, Anne!” He said.
My eyes and ears opened wide.
“How do you know?” My brother was only three when Anne ‘disappeared’.
“Aunty told us, by mistake, one time, when she brought us out to clean the graves.”
“Yes!” She said:
“That is your poor little sister and pointed to a grave. Then she panicked and told us not to say anything about her to Mam or Dad.”
My mind was jostling with a mixture of shock, delight, and confusion: shock that Anne died so young, delight that my scraps of memory had some basis in reality, and confusion at the secrecy and silence this event had engendered within our family.
I went on to tell my brother about my dream and asked many questions, but he did not have any more information. He did say that a large white angel, carved from stone, marked her grave and that she was buried in the same grave as our Grandfather, my father’s father.
Even into my fifties, I was not able to raise the death of my first sister with my parents. I held on to some sense of blame and a sense of deep, palpable sadness that I could not explain. As opportunities presented themselves to ask my mother about Anne and her death, I became sad myself and felt that I would break down in tears. There was a shame attached to this because I thought I was not entitled to this sadness, it belonged to my mother. There was also the risk that a direct question to my mother might hold the tinge of an accusation. The secrecy surrounding Anne’s death did lead me, in my teen years, to think up some bizarre explanations for her disappearance. Did she die by accident? Did someone harm her? Was there some element of neglect?
One day, when visiting my mother with my own young children, I ask if she had a photograph of my sister Anne. My mother said that she did and went out of the room to fetch it. We both looked, in silence, at a small photo of a baby girl sitting up in a pram. I felt a sense of grief that seemed out of proportion for a death that had occurred so long ago.
At this stage in my own attempts to piece Anne together, I had procured a copy of Anne’s birth certificate, but I could not track down her death certificate. Eventually, I found a copy of her death certificate in the records office; her surname had been misspelt, causing years of delay in my search. The death certificate confirmed that in May of 1957, when I was two years of age, Anne had died in a hospital in Abbeyleix, Co. Laoise, and the cause of her death was tuberculosis meningitis. She was just over nine months. I remember my father, in moments of anger and frustration, referring to the scourge of Tuberculosis in the early fifties. He worried when people came too close to a new-born baby, to either kiss or hold the infant, believing there was a risk of infection. In 1955, the year of my birth, there were approximately 900 deaths from Tuberculosis in Ireland. By 1960, with improved facilities and health practices, the number reduced by almost half. I began to understand my mother’s reluctance to let me touch the clothes, and toy, in her cardboard box. It contained her dead child’s clothing. The advice about controlling this infection in the fifties would likely have been to burn all garments that had come into contact with the infected child.
In her later years, my mother did speak to my younger sister about Anne and about dealing with Tuberculosis. She had a mistrust of medical facilities and personnel and explained that one of my older brothers came down with the disease, after Anne, and was hospitalised in Co. Wicklow. She travelled by train to be with him; this must have been a harrowing journey for her. On one of these visits, she decided to take her son back home and nurse him herself. The belief at the time was to feed the child a healthy diet and, when recovered enough, to get as much fresh air and sunshine as possible. My brother survived the disease with no complications and is alive today.
In his twenties, my late father had contracted Tuberculosis but managed to cure himself. He believed his recovery was due to eating a diet of red meat and doing strenuous exercise; getting a second wind. He went on to explain the term ‘second wind’: you run until you collapse because you cannot take another breath, then you breathe in, get up and run on.
The documents I have since gathered; birth certificate, death certificate, and a photograph of Anne, scraps of paper, are priceless to me. They validate the short life that Anne spent with me and me with her. They have brought her back to me and confirmed that the memories, dreams, and imaginings of a child had a genuine basis in reality.
(c) Phil Carrick