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Jeanne Althouse
Change of Life Baby

The summer I was nine, I played dolls with Uncle for the last time. It was 1954. Going to the movies cost 50 cents. Telephones were tethered to wires in the wall and long distance calls cost a fortune. Children were raised to be seen, not heard. Nice people did not talk about sex.

Uncle lived at Grandma’s house, which smelled of peanut butter cookies, Grandpa’s cigar smoke, and her old poodle, who suffered from incontinence.  Mother, consumed by the care of my younger brother and baby sister, born two years apart, sent me there often. I slept and played in the basement, where it was dim as a saloon in a John Wayne western. The one window near the basement ceiling was mottled from the lawn sprinkler outside that Grandma said Grandpa never aimed properly. Grandma spent a good deal of her day yelling at Grandpa for his errors. She was a large woman with straight thin lips and eyes that rarely smiled. Mother said Grandma was never the same after 1929 when she lost her new baby to diphtheria. Now they have shots to prevent diphtheria, Mother said.

One night, after Grandma, Grandpa and the dog were asleep, Uncle slipped down the stairs to my basement bedroom to play. Grandma was strict about early bedtimes and we felt daring, breaking the rules.

Uncle and I had played together since we were innocents, his seven years my senior qualified him as a cool older brother. Uncle’s four brothers and sisters, including my mother, were at least eighteen years older than he was. Mother once remarked to my father that Uncle was Grandma’s change -of-life-baby. I had no idea what she meant, but I knew that Grandma and Grandpa were old to have a boy of sixteen. That June, Uncle went around the house singing “Rock Around the Clock,” while beating the rhythm on chair backs and door jambs with the one drum stick he carried.

The doll we played with that night had fully jointed arms and legs and a movable soft vinyl head. We called her Baby. I took off her blue cotton dress, panties, and shoes and tucked her naked doll body inside my flannel nightgown, next to my belly, pretending the bulge was a live baby growing inside me. Uncle reached under the gown between my legs and slid her down my legs and out onto the sheets, helping her to be born. I had begun to develop two pointed nipples and I liked the sensations, squeezing the doll between my legs. I knew no words to describe what I was doing.

I did not think about what Uncle was feeling beyond playing doctor. In those days, before iPhones and Internet, a boy of sixteen could remain naïve. Uncle was tall and blond, with no whiskers on his cheeks; I am certain he had yet to be kissed by any girl who put her tongue in his mouth. He hated school and his grades were low, so to keep him out of trouble Grandma sent him off to band camp where he learned to play trombone. Sixty-three years later, at his memorial service, over two hundred people showed up to honor him as a band leader, teacher and original composer.

But all that happened much later, after Grandma found us.

The poodle had made a mess in the night and the smell of urine woke her up. Hearing our whispers, Grandma came downstairs, turned on the ceiling light and in its glare she stared at the doll on the sheets between my feet. Uncle said goodnight and scrambled upstairs to his room. Grandma turned off the light and left.

Very soon after this Uncle was spirited off to band camp, and we never played dolls again. 

I didn’t think about our interrupted play until years later when I had my own daughter. I believe Grandma saved both our lives. Sometimes it’s just one moment when children turn in a wrong direction, lost forever.

Toward the end of his life I visited Uncle at the memory unit of his retirement home. He recognized me, but he could not remember my name. The last time we said goodbye, he hugged me in the same loving way he had held me in my childhood. He was still humming the old songs. He drummed the beat with his fingers.