I don’t know who my parents were. Some people have told me that they were a young couple who couldn’t handle the responsibility of a kid like me. Others have said that they died in a tragic accident and that I, somehow, was miraculously thrown clear, so clear of it that there is no record of any kind of severe accident anywhere near where I was found. And still other folks like to say that I wasn’t born of any human parents at all, but was left under the willow tree by fairies—they’re the ones I have to watch out for. I like to think that maybe they were big dreamers and their biggest dream of all was for me so when they came across this idyllic little spot with a stream and a bit willow tree, they got out of their car, had a nice little picnic and just figured that if they left me there, I would be found by a nobleman or a CEO of a big company; someone who they thought could give me the life they had always dreamed about. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that when I was about 6 months old, I was found inside a basket under a willow tree near an old dirt road on May 15th, 1982. Whatever theory people might have of how I got there, everyone seems to be able to agree that I was really lucky to be found when I was. The doctor estimated that I had been outside all alone for at least a day and a half. I was hungry and dehydrated and howling louder than Mr. Johnson’s Bassetts on a full moon. I guess that was how it was that someone found me.
Well, he’s not just “someone”. Mister James Bartholomew Blackwell, my father and on that warm afternoon in May, the man that found me in my basket. Being so young, I don’t remember any of the details, but I made James tell me so many times over the years, that I might as well have been an angel riding his shoulder.
James is, what some people might call, uncommonly tall. Close to seven feet though he never would let me measure him. Cars, were not always the most comfortable place for him to be and the hearse was no exception—don’t worry, we’ll come back to that.
He says that he was heading back to the funeral home when he started to get a cramp in his leg. He says that he got out just to stretch a bit so he could be back on his way when he heard a terrifying yowling coming from the direction of an old willow tree. James has never been one to back away from a curiosity, so when most people would have hightailed it out of there, he came right toward the sound and found me squalling in my basket. He said that he didn’t know how long I’d been there, but that there was still a lot of fight left in me and he admired that something so small could cling to life with such a voracious ownership. My lust for life is something that he would bring up again and again in my life.
He says that when he leaned over and came into my view I opened my big brown eyes and closed my mouth. I guess I’d never seen someone like old James before. Either way, he says that I was just quiet long enough to let him drive to the store and get some formula and a bottle. James says that I ate two full bottles in one go, I was so hungry. When he took me to the doctor James says that he was worried that they were going to find something wrong with me or that they were going to tell him that just by picking me up, I had become more damaged than I was before. But the doctor surprised everyone with the good news that other than a little dehydration, I was going to recover just fine. James says that I was so tickled by that news that I peed all over Doctor Samuelson.
Once it was determined that my health would not be an issue, everyone could concentrate on the real question: what should they do with me? Highland’s Hope is a small town just south of the Iowa/Missouri state line. It’s a bit generous to call it a town. It’s more like a community of people who just happened to build around each other. The population didn’t go over 3,000 the entire time I was there. Well, it did once, but after Sadie Jenkins lost the baby people didn’t make such a big deal out of it anymore. At any rate, with the town being so small, it’s next to impossible to keep a secret, especially a secret as unusual as an abandoned baby. There was speculation, of course, and those who figured that they had a right to, started scrutinizing all of the young women to see who may or may not have been capable of hiding a pregnancy and also the first six months of a baby’s life (the answer is no one). They held a town meeting to decide what to do with me. Everyone came out of it and almost everyone brought a dish to share and the Matthews boys brought their guitars so it turned into more of a public picnic than a regular town hall. It was my first such gathering, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. After everyone had gotten a taste of Mrs. Cravett’s blue ribbon peach cobbler and Davey Matthews was convinced to quiet down for long enough, Mayor Sugarbush called the town to offer up some suggestions on my behalf. Highland’s Hope was too small to have anything like an orphanage or home for wayward boys and girls and the closest such place was over 100 miles away. Daniel Bartlet offered to take me up with him the next time he went to visit his girl in Ames. It seemed settled until nosey Miss Jasper suggested that the Ames authorities might come around asking questions that no one had any answers to. With that in mind, everyone decided that it would probably be better if someone just raised me here. But, of course, when the mayor asked who would open their doors to a strange little baby found in a basket on the side of the road, it may as well have a concert of crickets.
What it ultimately came down to was who would want a little foundling like me. I will always love James for stepping up that day and saying that he figured that since he found me and, by all rights and accounts, saved my life, that he was responsible for making sure I made it through the rest of it. As soon as James settled that, everyone else piped in with a congratulations or some advice or some reason why they didn’t volunteer themselves. I’ve never held that against them and neither, to my knowledge, has James. So that’s how it ended with me going home with James and him carrying two baskets, one with me sleeping soundly inside and one filled with foil wrapped paper plates, heavy with leftovers from the pot luck.
According to James that first night went about as well as can be expected. The neighbors tell a different story. According to them, I was up every hour on the hour screaming into the night with all of the power of my little lungs. James brought me into his room in my basket and I apparently quieted right down. I think I just didn’t like being alone anymore.
James was the owner and operator of Highland’s Hope’s only undertaker and funeral home facility. That wasn’t saying a whole lot considering the size of Highland’s Hope. To give this quirky little town some credit, my random appearance wasn’t the only strange thing to ever happen here. Highland’s Hope had an inordinate number of fatalities considering the small population. Most of them were not residents of the town.
None of bodies that turned up either inside the town’s boarders or just on the outskirts were linked to any of the residents in any way that wasn’t anecdotal. Except for Miss Rose Landers. She was the oldest living resident of Highland’s Hope. She never married. The town ledgend told that she was madly in love when she was young, but that her father didn’t approve of her young man. It was a different time; when the color of your skin meant more to folks than the size of your heart. His name had been Thomas Jones and he was found drowned on the bank of the creek. His clothes were dry, but when they found him, he might as well have tried to breath in all of the water in Abber County. Even though Rose’s father had been investigated—since he was the only one of any record to have any kind of beef with Thomas—he had never been found guilty or in the least bit suspicious. Thomas’s death had been ruled an accidental drowning. Rose had insisted that her family pay for the funeral. Thomas had very little family and Rose had been forbidden to attend. That didn’t stop the rest of Highland’s Hope from turning out to do their own version of rubbernecking, complete with homemade casseroles and baked desserts. No one speaks about it any louder than a whisper. It is, for all intents and purposes, the town’s greatest scandal.
You can learn an awful lot about a town from their dead. And since James’ family had been the undertakers in Highland’s hope for generations there was a whole lot of history that flowed through those doors.
Deaths were just as telling as births. When you’re born, you automatically take on the problems of your parents. I heard that one of the few times I made it to church—The child will pay for the sins of the father.—I don’t think they meant that in a literal sense, even though I’ve seen plenty of grown up kids put in the position of having to pay back the loans of their parents. I think when this was written, they were speaking more of the weight of a parent’s personality; their soul, I guess. Especially in a small town, you are known by your family. You are not just John Doe, you’re the son of Jane and Jack, the brother of Sally, and the cousin of that no-account Daniel. The opinions that people hold of the members of your family weigh more heavily than the impression that you, yourself, make. If they have a positive impression of your family, then when you do something good, it’s attributed to your steady up bringing. If your family was viewed as “less than” and you made a mistake, regardless of size, it is automatically connected to being brought into the world as part of “that” family.
I suppose that was why I never minded being a foundling. I didn’t have any family for anyone to judge me by. Don’t get me wrong, being a foundling has its own set of difficulties—no one wants to be the “weird” kid in a small town high school. That kind of thing never goes away.
You would think that somehow you could escape that in death, but there is no such luck. Even in death, you are judged by those whose company you had no choice to be born into. Mostly that judgement came in the way of attendance. If we had a significant number of the town show up it meant one of two things, the deceased was either greatly loved or greatly hated. If only family showed up then it meant that they were type of person who didn’t make waves. They didn’t stand out in any way in particular—these people fascinated me because I couldn’t figure out how to keep from making waves. It always seemed like wherever I went, a tsunami was likely to follow. And if no one at all showed up it meant that the deceased was a member of Highland’s Hope’s unclaimed. When I die, I don’t honestly know who will show up. Probably the whole town since they’d want to see if my birth parents would reveal themselves in my final moments. I don’t think they would, but one can always hope.
My earliest memory is holding the hand of a dead woman. Her skin was cold and dry and she smelled of the embalming fluids that James had just used to replace the natural fluids that had stopped pumping sometime in the last week. I didn’t know her name then. Later, James would tell me that it was Lacey. I know that because I still have the picture I drew of her in a stack of old school work and her name is scrawled in my child’s hand across the top. She was in the dressing room and James was putting her in a beautiful peacock blue skirt suit. It was the color of the suit that had drawn me in there.
Usually, James kept the doors locked when he was working, but I guess he figured that since I had been put down for a nap that it would be easier to work with the door open. It was cold in my room, that was why I woke up. The goose pimples on my arms and legs drew them inward to try to keep warm against my stomach. I had pulled a thin blanket over me, but it wasn’t enough to keep my 4 year old muscles from contracting. I woke up and went to sit in the big living room where the fireplace was. James had lit a fire that morning and it would still be the warmest room in the house. I pulled my favorite sweatshirt over my head, gave the purple unicorn on the front a friendly pat and headed down the chilly hallway.
I saw the flash of blue out of the corner of my eye. To a child an open door that is usually closed is like the magic and I still remember the sense of wonder that filled me when I pushed open the door even further and saw James dancing around the beautiful dead woman on the table. I knew she was dead. James had been very honest with me from the first moment that I showed any awareness of my surroundings. He explained the process to me repeatedly over the years so I never held the same fear of the dead that I knew a lot of my friends did. To me they were the beautiful husks of someone’s life.
Lacey was no different. He had brushed her snowy white hair out behind her and had sewn her eyes and mouth closed so that she looked like she was listening to a beautiful piece of music. I know that whenever possible, James used a picture from when they were living to give them the most realistic and life like look possible, but I had a hard time imagining that some of them ever experience the level of peace in life that James seemed to give them in death. He had already put make up on her, tasteful and minimal; just enough to give her back some of her missing warmth.
She was lying on the table wearing a satiny slip and a pair of nylons. A pair of black pumps was sitting on the side table next to the jewelry that James would place on her as a part of the finishing touches. The blue suit that I had seen on my way down the hall was being taken off of the hanger. I knew that I probably wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I hoped that if I was very quiet and respectful of the beautiful dead lady then James would let me stay. He had been whistling a tune when I came in. I know that he saw me because he stopped. James was always self conscious about his whistling. Even though I told him repeatedly that I thought that his ability to whistle anything from memory was one of the most impressive things about him, he insisted that whistling was something that someone only did in private.
When he didn’t ask me to leave or promise me a piece of pie if I let him finish I knew it was okay to stay as long as I didn’t get in the way. He took a lint brush from the counter and ran over the suit to get rid of any errant pieces of lint that may have been lingering. Then he proceeded to dress her. I learned later that, to some it looked like he was dressing a life sized doll, I always saw it that he was helping them get dressed for the last time. He didn’t struggle with their clothes, he took his time and dressed them with the same care that most people reserved for the living.
After Lacey was dressed and he had slipped her shoes on to her impossibly tiny feet and had put on her jewelry, he stepped back and looked at her.
“What do you think?” Even if I expected it, I was always startled when he spoke. He didn’t usually break the silence that cocooned his embalming rituals.
“I think she’s magnificent.” I had just learned that word and even though I wasn’t entirely sure if it was the correct one to use, it felt right.
James nodded and walked out to prep the coffin. After he walked out I wanted to get a closer look at her. That was when I reached up and touched her hand. She didn’t magically sit up and come back to life. She didn’t wink at me. There was no ghostly presence and the only chill in the air was the one of a poorly insulated house in winter, but as I stood there holding that dead woman’s hand I felt calm and I hoped that she felt that way too