A Small Life
I hold the documents as gently as I would the child for whom I have searched for so long. A birth certificate. A death certificate. Four days apart.
My husband knew he had a sister but that’s all he knew. The family never spoke of her and Jim grew up an only child. He did not even know his sister’s name. Thoughts of having a sister, however, evoked a tangle of fragmented memories and emotions that over the years he tried to shape into a plausible scenario. My searches on-line for a female Smith born to Jim’s parents came up empty. It was only last summer, when Jim was seventy, that a cousin found a name on a family tree she had been given: Elizabeth followed simply by a “d”. No dates. The name was enough to find the records.
Elizabeth Smith was born on December 18, 1943 to Peter Dudgeon Smith and Mary Ann Syme. She was born at home at 36 Bentinck Street in Glasgow. Bentinck is a street of tenement buildings near Kelvingrove Park. Today the area is very trendy, but during the war two families often lived in a single tenement sharing the kitchen and bathroom. Such was the case for Jim’s family. His father was in the navy and away at sea for weeks at a time. Given the cramped living quarters, it was very likely that Jim was witness to the sounds and sights of his mother’s labour and delivery, at best confusing for a two year old but likely quite terrifying. Certainly he would have seen the newborn and perhaps even held her although no picture exists today to document this event.
Elizabeth died at home between four and eight a.m. on December 23rd. I vision her mother nursing her in the middle of the night, returning her to her crib, falling back to sleep herself only to wake sometime later to find the tiny body. The cause of death was listed as congenital debility, a vague term explaining little. Was it clear at her birth that she would not live long? Was she not transferred to a hospital because nothing could be done? Or might congenital debility have been a term for what today we call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and her death actually a shock to her parents?
Jim has a strong memory of his father being angry with his mother over the death. Was what Jim interpreted as anger actually grief? Or was it in fact anger? At what? His parent’s silence over the years is strange. Perhaps they felt Jim was too young to have remembered the event or they may have wanted to protect him from the tragedy. How much information he may have absorbed from adult conversations he overheard across the years is anyone’s guess. Collecting facts in bits and pieces without an understanding of the context would only serve to compound his confusion. He made what sense of it he could and eventually believed his sister was hit and killed by a car.
The location of Elizabeth’s grave is still not known. She is not buried with the Smiths in Greenock Cemetery. She may be with her mother’s people in Blantyre. What is known, however, is that Elizabeth lived for four days and is remembered by her big brother.