The following summer, my parents drove away—we were now the owners of a Model T Ford—to spend a weekend with the Petrows in Fremont. They had two things to celebrate—the Fourth of July and their sixth wedding anniversary two days later. They left Elaine and me in the care of one of Kearney's eight Greek families, but before the weekend was over Elaine developed a frightening, barking cough. A phone call brought my parents rushing home, but it was too late. She died at age one on their anniversary, July 6, of croup. Croup is a child's disease, a normally mild viral infection that restricts the upper airways. The worst cases occur not in the summer but in the winter and the early spring, and even in those cases it is rarely life-threatening. But this time the stars were cruelly misaligned. That Elaine died was bad enough. That her death occurred on the anniversary of a marriage that was tense at best can only have added to the pain. My father was a stoic. Of my two parents, my mother seemed to suffer far more.
A deep gloom descended over my mother and she could not escape it. Pregnant at the time of Elaine's death, two months later she went into early labor, two months premature. She called my father at the cafe to say she was having rapid contractions and needed to go to the hospital. He told her he was baking pies and couldn't leave, and sent someone else to take her. My brother, John, was born into her sadness.
And pretty baby though he was, he could not lift her spirits. Nor could I, as eager as I was to see her smile and feel her warmth again. But her life was as barren as the Nebraska winter that followed the summer of Elaine's death. "Just push me into the grave with my beloved Elaine," I heard her say once to my father. She couldn't even bear to hold my brother when he was a baby, something my brother never got over.
I had felt special, doted on, warm, secure, and all of that vanished. After Elaine's death, my mother was a different woman, cold, detached, and strange. I tried to be perfect and loving in order to please her: There we are, the two of us, in the kitchen of our house. I am standing over the register in the corner trying to catch the heat rising from the coal furnace in the basement, but my father keeps the heat low to save money and I am never warm enough, so I shiver, hug myself, hop from foot to foot. It's a little dance I do for her, hoping she will notice. She sits across the room at the table, with a heavy shawl around her shoulders, her fingers twisting the fringes at the ends, staring at nothing. Sometimes she hums, over and over, a sad tune that must have been a Greek lament. But more often she sits in utter silence. That is the worst. The silence is a clammy hand, and I try to drive it away with Mommy this, Mommy that, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. And she responds with more silence. That is why, today, I fill a pause with words, too many, some would say. In my experience, silence is a pall.