Being the mistake

When my parents were married many decades ago, I wasn’t aware of the occasion. But, I was there — carefully hidden beneath the layers of white wedding dress. Yes, I was the “secret baby” who would suddenly arrive shortly after their nuptials.

Was it a “shotgun wedding?” Well, seeing how I was born shortly after they walked down the aisle, I’d say it was more of a “cannonball wedding” or maybe an “AK-47 wedding.” And I have no idea how they explained me to the people who were excited to judge them.

I’m guessing all the secrecy had something to do with the fact it was 50-some years ago, when times were different and chastity was allegedly prevalent. There was also the issue of religion and the theory of people having pre-marital encounters. But I’m certain it had more to do with my grandmas than anything else — one was concerned with public perception and the other was consumed with the variety of ways a soul could be condemned.

When I was 10, I was shocked into reality twice in one month. First, I had to learn the truth about where babies come from. Then I learned that all during my existence, I had been labeled a baby of shame because my parents had “given into sin.”

The announcement was made while a cousin and I were playing on haystacks. As we jumped around, sneezing and laughing, she suddenly called me a derogatory name. I stopped and stared at her, shocked. I knew it was a bad word — one only used by my father when he was angry with someone. It started with a “B.” That’s all I’ll say.

“Why did you call me that?” I asked, absolutely baffled.

“That’s what Grandma Mueller says you are,” she replied.

I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

My cousin explained, in a kid-sort-of-way, how the word is used for someone who was conceived out of wedlock.

“Your parents had sex before they were married,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I heard people talking about it. Grandma says she’s worried your dad is going to go to hell now. And if they ever get a divorce, it’ll be all your fault.”

I was done with the haystack jumping. At that point, I wanted to jump off a cliff.

But I didn’t say a word. That night, I stared at my parents as they teased each other at the supper table.

“They seem happy,” I thought to myself.

But the next day, they got in a fight over a bill someone forgot to pay — and I felt guilt like never before. Sure, they made up in a half-hour but now I was worried I had ruined their lives.

My parents always told us about right and wrong. But they also said no one was perfect and sometimes people make mistakes. While that consoled me — as far as Grandma Onie’s alleged prediction that Dad was going straight to hell — it also made me feel like I was a mistake.

So I decided to investigate.

I faked a vomit session to get out of piano lessons and while everyone was gone, Mission Impossible began. I ran to the box of Mom’s wedding souvenirs stored in the back of her closet. With my heart beating 100 mph, I rooted through the half-burned candles, cake top, earrings and pictures of Grandpa Pete walking Mom down the aisle.

I stared at Mom in that white gown. She didn’t look pregnant, I told myself over and over. And I should have known what that looked like, as I’d seen it a million times before.

Unfortunately, however, there was a picture of Mom and Dad, holding hands at the entrance of the church, looking at each other. The profile, up against the light coming from outside, hinted there may have been a little more Mom than usual.

Then I discovered some proof. There, black lettering on yellowed napkins proclaimed “Mel and Cheri” with a date and a year.

I did the subtraction. I came up with a number that was the same as my age. I subtracted, added and refigured. But I knew I’d answered my question already. It was true.

“How old were you when you got married?” I asked Mom, as we did dishes. She said she was 19.

“Were you happy when I was born?” She said it was one of the happiest days of her life.

“Was Dad happy when I was born?” Mom said he was.

“Are you glad you and Dad got married?”

I got a strange look and realized my questioning may have been too intense.

“Well, of course,” she said. “We both are. Are you worried about something?”

“Sometimes when you fight I worry that you’re going to get a divorce,” I responded.

Mom assured me that wasn’t going to happen. I felt better. I wasn’t going to be the ruination of their lives.

Now, the issue of Dad earning eternal damnation and it being all my fault — there was only one person I could trust with such a question. It was Jo Pofahl, my Catechism teacher, who knew something about everything — including going to heaven and being sent to hell. The trustworthy lady told me she sincerely didn’t think the folks were going to go to hell.

“Plus, I think they’ve gotten their penance already, seeing how they have to raise so many kids,” she said, chuckling.

I rested easy at that point. That evening, I saw my parents kiss by the refrigerator. I witnessed the penance Jo talked about, as they tried to get six kids into the bathtub. And when we prayed before bed, we asked to be blessed and forgiven.

They never got a divorce. I’m pretty sure they’re both in heaven. I think they loved me. And they never made me feel like I was a mistake.

 

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