Katianna Milena Bovinich adored Helen from the day Helen stepped over the broom. Four feet and ten inches tall, Millie had always been superstitious. If someone accidentally stepped on her foot, she lightly stepped on the other person’s to keep the peace, a common practice in Russia. One’s new year was cursed if the first person who knocked on your door was a girl.
Here in the States, Millie applied Southern superstitions to her own from Russia. Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch in Russian folklore, never left a trail behind her because she swept away all traces of her path with a broom. A Southerner friend had sworn that you could peg a witch, or the like, by leaving a broom in the middle of the floor. A witch would pick it up and set it in a corner. A Christian would step over it. Millie tested the theory to see if Helen had bewitched her son. Helen left it alone because her own mother had told her it was an insult to pick up another woman’s broom. She passed the test.
Eight months pregnant, her belly moving in a ripple with the baby’s sweeping foot, Helen sat outside on the cement porch step, pretending to sip yellow dock tea — a bitter medicinal herb that Leo dug up this side of the woods. From here she could see Carl in the distant field plowing up the winter rye. She could see Leo bringing the sheep in from the apple orchard. Helen heard the screen door squawk open and snap shut when Millie came outside.
“Come sit with me,” Millie said, cutting off a small wad of chewing tobacco with her pocketknife. “Cold cement not good for you. Not good for baby.” Biting down on the tobacco, holding it between her teeth, she closed her pocketknife and slipped it into her pocket.
Millie was no farmer’s wife. She didn’t shuck corn. She didn’t shell peas. No, Millie made a good living on Harvard Avenue in Cleveland at Harshaw Chemical Company ever since she’d learned to speak English in 1934. Helen never asked what her job was there, just knew that she’d left the cooking up to Leo all these years because he hadn’t liked her borscht or holodets.
Helen stood up, holding her back, holding the rail. Millie plunked down on the porch swing, her legs apart like a sailor, and discreetly spit tobacco juice through a straw into an empty Coca-Cola can. The minute Helen sat down next to her, Millie set to patting Helen’s knee, a slow pat, shoulder bumping in affection.
Helen liked how physical Millie and Leo were. She liked how Carl was physical, too, always touching. It felt odd at first, hugging hello, kissing goodbye. Quite the opposite of how she’d been raised. Mornings, Millie knelt before Leo and fed his old-man feet into compression socks. A double pat told him each sock was securely in place. Evenings, Millie sat on Leo’s lap and he read the newspaper to her, a joint effort. She held one side and he the other.
The baby must have been stretching, a definite foot pushed hard by the way Helen’s belly moved. Millie slid her hands over the movement. “It is good she moves so much.”
“Why do you think it’s a girl?”
“She moves in rhythm to a Prokofiev symphony.”
“Maybe she will be a ballerina.”
“You must not speak of future success. It is better to be silent, even pessimistic, until success comes true. You don’t want to bring bad luck.” Millie dry-spit over her left shoulder, three times in succession.
“My mother says that I shouldn’t love my baby too much. That showing affection would only coddle her. She said it will make her strong. What do the women in Russia do? How were you raised?”
“If you do not show love, she will be hard, not strong. Some Russian women are afraid to love their children because so many die. My mother die when I was very young. I don’t remember her much,” Millie said, matter-of-fact, then spit through the straw into the can again. “My mother was killed. It was czarist regime. We were in a crowd in St. Petersburg. They call it Bloody Sunday now. Troops were ordered to open fire — was Russian Revolution. 1905, I think. The last thing I remember is holding her hand.”
“How awful.” Helen squeezed her hand. “What did you do?”
“I go with my grandfather,” she said. “Very stern. Very proper. Grandfather say I die many times, and come back to him. He say chudo, miracle.”
“What did he think about you coming to America?”
“I think he would like it. America — a country for all nations, of all nations. He died. Revolution of 1917. I was thirteen. I was servant girl for food rations.”
“It must have been hard for you.”
“No so hard now. America is good. Very good.” Millie planted her feet and stopped the swaying motion of the porch swing. “I think I will lie down for a little bit. My stomach’s not feeling so good.” She’d kept quiet about feeling sick up to now, as not to worry Helen in her pregnancy. Which must have been hard. Millie was terribly ill.
Millie’s life ended on June 12, 1952, from acute radiation syndrome, a fancy way of saying cancer. Harshaw Chemical Company’s Harvard-Denison Plant, where she’d worked for 10 years, turned out to be one of the largest manufacturers of uranium chemicals in all of the United States.
The day Millie died, throes of sorrow threw Helen into labor, and a newborn girl shifted the household from comforting the dying to nurturing new life. It seemed only fitting to honor Millie’s memory by naming her granddaughter Katianna Milena Bovinich. Helen would call her Katie.
In a crowd of mourners at Millie’s funeral, Helen watched Leo hold her tiny person for the better part of the day, visibly careful of his hook.
Helen missed her confidant, the woman’s wit and wisdom, her spirituality, superstitions and all. Millie was the mother she wished her mother could have been, the grandmother she wished her child could know.
“She’s so much like Millie,” Leo said, wrinkles pinching the space between his brows. “I wish she could see her.”
Helen rubbed his back softly, those horrid tears returning again. “I wish that more than anything.”
Helen was trying her best to pull weeds, three-month-old Katie squirming inside a quilt- lined laundry basket, a babushka over the top. Just the two of them, alone in the spent strawberry patch, amid a half-acre garden carved out on their land, cabbage and acorn squash ripened beside cornrows where yellow beans and okra neared the last picking.
It was September, the time of year for picking grapes, the peak of goldenrod, the end of elderberries, a yawn and a stretch from when the apples would turn red. Birds warbled and twittered. Helen didn’t know what kind they were, meadowlarks or barn swallows, but it was pretty all the same. The cornstalk tassel drifted her way, its pollen glittering in the sun, foretelling the harvest moon. What was once a peaceful retreat was now the breeding ground for worrisome thoughts.
She barely paid attention to a fistful of pokeweed and wild parsnip. She yanked off the tops, a daunting picture of Millie’s face on her mind. Out in the midday sun, Helen’s scalp burned something awful, a kerosene smell still fresh in her hair. Who would have thought she’d get head lice by working at the Higbee’s Beauty Salon? Just about everyone was crawling with them because of some lousy woman and her six lousy kids who’d come in for haircuts. A lesson learned: rich people caught lice like anyone else.
She uprooted the timothy weed, but not the dandelion. Pulling those weeds aggravated the sores on her hands where permanent wave solution and hair dye had eaten her skin away like acid. She’d come close to wearing her churchgoing gloves to pull weeds, the only gloves without holes. But they would have been ruined out here, even inside out. So she’d wrapped strips of a cut-up pillowcase between her fingers and over her hands to protect them.
Helen pulled hard on a bunch of wild parsnip that was choking a strawberry plant, but only ripped off the tops again. It was terribly frustrating. They’d grow right back next spring.
She was glad that Carl couldn’t see her as the useless farmhand she was, though he’d soaked her hands in Fels Naptha soap that he’d shaved and dissolved in a brass bucket of water, bathing each hand as if he could wash the sores away. She’d seen the doctor, and he’d given her some sort of cream. That didn’t help. He suggested rubber gloves, but she couldn’t wear them at work; they were thick, clumsy. She wondered why Higbee’s hadn’t fired her, anyway. She was terrible at cutting hair.
She heard Katie cooing. Millie had always believed that babies talked to angels. Helen believed it, too. She believed it with all her heart. Of all the childhood diseases — measles and mumps, whooping cough and the croup — polio worried her the most. Her mother made sure of that by keeping statistics of children paralyzed by polio, 57,000 in one year alone, the worst confined to an iron lung like the McCluski boy.
She stood up from a squat, assessing two long rows of weed-strangled strawberry plants, and squeezed her eyes closed through a tireless breath, wishing they would just plow it all under and start over fresh.
Weekends were spent on endless chores now that she’d gone back to work. Leo made enough money to support the household, but without Millie’s paycheck, Carl felt he had to chip in. The Red Dot Potato Chip tin was emptied of its last dollar and put away to rust in the root cellar. And Helen’s tip money? She took the escalator upstairs every night after work and put that (two dollars on a good day) toward a two-hundred-dollar freezer.
Although Leo objected, nothing would change Carl’s mind to contribute to his household physically and financially, such that they could barely make payments on their own fifty-acre lot.
He worked double shifts welding at the Ford plant and helped his dad harvest alfalfa. Helen could see him now, in the distance, through the wind-swept dust.
Tall as ever, terribly thin, Carl fared enough muscle to sling a cinderblock a fair-enough distance. His perpetual tan revolved through stages of sunburns and peeling. He kept apple cider vinegar on hand to soothe his skin. Helen kept kerosene on hand for whenever she’d bring head lice home from the hair salon. Instead of collecting lightning bugs in a mason jar, they collected nits that Leo burned in the trash.
Leo came walking her way, his bowlegged strides jangling coins and such in his pockets. He sang a happy melody, a song from the radio.
Well now, I went ridin’ the other night,
I picked out a horse, oh, my what a sight…
Leo’s white whiskers were unshaven, his suspenders strained with the weight of his belly. His hooked hand conducted make-believe banjo pickers. The closer he got the bigger his smile grew, a blessed diversion for Helen, who covered her own bashfully, as if smiling might curse this moment of happiness.
The name of my horse was a Ding Dong
While I was ridin’ I was singin’ a song….”
He waltzed amid a trodden patch of Queen Anne’s lace, beckoning her to join him, his real hand still purple from picking grapes. He scooped her strong in his arms, his hook supporting her back, and danced with her in the midst of butter beans gone to seed.
I said, giddy-up, giddy-up a Ding Dong
Giddy-up, giddy-up a Ding Dong.
The sound of laughter — the perfect escape in the dead of day.
“Where’s that baby of mine?” Leo asked, diverting his attention to the basket of baby. He pulled back the scarf, peek-a-boo style. “Kat! How is Grandpa’s little Kat-ski?” He picked up Katie and cradled her close.
“You can call her Kat. But I’m calling her Katie.”
He whispered in Katie’s ear, “You’re ‘Kat’ to me,” and breathed a kiss in her hair. Then he turned to Helen. “Look at all these buttercups. You hardly see one this time of year. Flowers bloom wherever she goes.”
“And the angels rejoice whenever she hiccups,” Helen teased. She picked a buttercup and set it in Katie’s hair.
Katie sneezed a whole-body sneeze with a look of surprise. It was funny how a sneeze could set them to laughing. It was funny how an old man’s joy could calm her so.
Helen stayed in the moment, watching his face. “Grandpa, your face,” she said, a look of uncertainty. “Something’s been biting you. It’s not lice, either.”
“Of course it’s not. I don’t have lice.” He handed the baby to Helen and rubbed his face one-handed, then looked down his sweat-stained shirt. “It doesn’t itch.”
Sullen, thinking of what it could be, she looked past him, past dozens of diapers that flapped on the clothesline. “Have you ever had measles?”
It came on slow. The tiny red bumps showed up on Leo’s face first, then on his trunk, lastly on his extremities. Hundreds of thousands of millions of bumps, each blending into the other. The risk of death was high for adults, higher for infants.
Millie had said not to look for things to fret about. But these fretting things had it the other way around. These fretting things looked for Helen.
She’d been inoculated by having the measles herself, but Carl hadn’t. And neither had Katie.
Leo was good at keeping to his room, allowing no one in except Helen. She brought him oatmeal in the morning, and yellow dock tea and aspirin for fever. He downed a tablespoon of raw honey with black pepper for coughing. She brought him dinner at noon, boiled chicken and green beans that Leo had canned. When his cough worsened, she even rubbed a camphor peppermint liniment on his chest and neck. Then he developed a headache and she strengthened his dose of aspirin. She brought him turnip and garlic soup, thickened with mashed potatoes. The food was bad because Helen was bad at cooking. He kept to his bed, a high fever, coughing like crazy, the window shades drawn because the light hurt his eyes. Confined to his darkened room, he sipped on whiskey to ward off the shakes.
Within a day, Leo’s coughing spells prompted choking fits. By the next day pneumonia set in. Helen stayed home from work. Fanny Crocker took care of Katie until Carl could get home from work.
Leo was taking penicillin every day, and high doses of aspirin. But he was still getting worse, the vaporizer spitting steam and camphor until it ran down the walls. His fever was 104.
Helen would empty an ice cube tray in a mixing bowl of water in the kitchen. Dunking and wringing one thin bath towel at a time, she was glad that the cool water soothed her hands. She pressed the terry cloths against Leo’s hot speckled skin. He would shiver, the kind a drinking man gets when his soul sees spiders coming out of his eyes.
She couldn’t help think about elderly couples who were so close that when one died the other died, too. Helen wasn’t about to pick out another coffin. She had twenty-four hours to break his fever, or they’d run him up to a hospital. His brain would swell, or he would drown in his own fluid. That’s what the doctor said.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, she spoon-fed him cottage cheese and applesauce, the box springs squeaking with every move. His hook on the nightstand, next to a picture of Millie, beside a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.
She wouldn’t let on to feeling sorry for him, or he’d know how sick he was. She spoke softly to ease the mood. “Carl picked a bushel of tomatoes today,” she told him. “I don’t know how your son can grow up on a farm and still pick tomatoes before they’re ripe.”
Canning talk would bring him around. Canning kettles stood idle at this time of year when canning should had been nearly done. Nearing the end of a summer’s work, from picking to cleaning, to stewing, to filling jars, Leo had already put up beets and pickles, corn relish and green beans, Swiss chard and okra and blackberry jam. He knew how many jars to put up for the winter and kept a count as every lid sealed.
“He laid the tomatoes out on the picnic table. You should see them,” she said, a slow smile coming out to play. “Red on one side and green on the other.”
“Millie used to pick them green. He’s like his mother that way. … I don’t know how I can be burning up, and my feet are so cold. Where’re my socks?”
She brought his socks and then she realized that he couldn’t put them on himself, not one-handed. He was too sick to latch up his hook-hand. So she fed his old man feet, yellow toenails, bunions, and all, into compression socks like Millie had done when she was alive.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, a glazed look in his eyes. “Why aren’t you at work?”
He surprised her and hurt her, too. How could he ask that after all they’d been through? She wanted to say, “Because I love you, because I wish you were the man who raised me.” But that wouldn’t sit right, saying something sappy like that. Men didn’t go for sappy. Wringing out a cold towel in a moment to think, she finally said, “You’ve had my cooking. We’ll all starve to death if you don’t get well soon and make something decent to eat.”
That seemed to suffice. He settled into his pillow and closed his eyes, the squeaky mattress spring silent at last. She sat very still on the edge of the bed, watching him settle into sleep.
He slept all day, and when he awoke that night, his fever was down to 100.
It came on slow for Katie, too, first on her face, then on her trunk, lastly on her extremities. By the end of the day her fever was 102. Helen fed her crushed baby aspirin and blotted cool cloths against her skin. Katie’s breaths quickly gurgled into choking coughs, Helen wiping her down in rubbing alcohol. By ten that night her fever was up to 105. Helen called Doc Adam’s office but no one was there. Carl was at work. Leo was sick in bed. Close to panic, not knowing what to do, she reached out to the most unlikely person — her mother.
Marta came quickly, banging her car keys into the storm door, like always. Helen let her mother in and was stunned to see Vladameir, too. He stood inside the door, his hand on the knob.
“Where is your new family now?” he asked.
“Carl’s at work. Leo’s not well.”
“Look at you — alone with a drunk and a sick baby you never should have had. You never should have come to this house.”
Helen stared at him, hating him, wanting him to leave. The baby coughed in fits.
Marta set a pan of water on the stove. “We’ll give her some sugar water,” she said to Helen.
“She won’t drink, Mom. I’ve tried.”
“Go get a bar of soap and I’ll cut off a sliver. We’ll put soap in her rectum. It will flush out the sickness.”
“We need to take her to the hospital,” Helen said. “I told you that over the phone.”
“Oh, stop it. You act like she’s the only child in the world who’s ever had the measles.” Marta opened the refrigerator and smelled the buttermilk. “How long has this been in here?”
“I don’t know.” Helen turned off the stove. “We have to leave now.”
“You”re overreacting. Give her a cool bath and her fever will break.” Marta dumped the buttermilk in the sink, opened the refrigerator again, and smelled a jar of pickles.
“By all means, clean out my refrigerator. Take everything out that smells bad. And scrub it down. If that’s what you came to do.” Helen bundled her baby in the laundry basket. “Don’t mind me. I’ll take Leo’s truck.” She slipped on her shoes and stuffed her purse inside the basket’s edge beside her baby. Her father lorded over the door, arms folded, grimace louder than words.
“You can’t drive a truck,” her mother said in her familiar pitch. “As far as I know, you can’t even drive a car.”
“Never you mind,” she said, hurt, mad, scared — focused. She’d practiced driving the truck out to the field so that Leo and Carl could load bushel baskets of green beans they’d picked to sell at the West Side Market. They would have her drive it back to the barn, Carl riding on the running board, Leo in the back. But it was a waste of time to explain all that.
“Move,” Helen said to her father, in stiff control. “If you’re not going to help me, get out of my way.”
Her father grabbed her arm, hard. “Just who do you think you are? You’re a nobody. And who do you think that baby is? It would have been better off dead instead of being born a Slovak. And a girl to boot. Did you ever think about what that does to me?”
She jerked out of his grasp, her eyes on the door, no words to give. Her feet moved in slow motion like in a bad dream. She turned the doorknob, balancing the makeshift bassinet on her knee, feeling like she would vomit.
Leo surprised them. “That’s my granddaughter you’re talking about, and that’s my son’s wife. No one talks like that in my house.” An empty sleeve hung by his side, his shirttail out. “I’ll drive, Helen. Go get in the truck.”
Helen shuffled out the door. The screen door snapped shut behind her. Leo stepped into his boots, a pillow imprint fresh on his speckled face.
“She’s overreacting,” Marta said, filing out the door, her husband behind her. Leo locked the door behind himself; his chin rippled from holding back.
“She’s your problem now,” Vladameir said, a smirk cutting through the dark.
Leo got up close to Vladameir and spoke softly. “If you ever set foot on my land again, I’ll get my gun. I don’t want to start a fight. I just want you to know. Plain and simple.”
More was said but Helen couldn’t hear them now. She set the basket on the seat and climbed on the seat beside it. Katie was so very still.
“Sweetie … ” was all Helen could say, her fingers dusting her baby’s face.
It was a long drive to Berea Hospital.
Katie died that night. No one knew why. A doctor said that sometimes babies just forget
In the emergency room, Helen prayed fervent prayers, her face glistening wet. She asked God for a miracle. She said, “I’ll do anything. Millie said she was a miracle. Make Katie a miracle, too.”
And then it happened — the baby cried, each sound a miracle. Chudo, as Millie would say.
Featured image: RowanArtCreation /Shutterstock
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