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Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Deep Calm Breath

by Katharine Valentino

The story has it that the knock came long after the family had gone to bed. Dr. Waller answered the door nonetheless, for in those days, doctors were on call 24 hours a day. Standing on the porch were two swarthy men with long black hair, wide sleeves, intricately stitched vests—and knives. Come with us, they commanded. The doctor nodded soberly, reached for his medical bag, and left the house with one of them on either side.

My mother was never sure she actually saw her father leave with the Gypsies, but she always said she could somehow remember their knives glinting under the porch light.
As my mother tells the story, the men took my grandfather to their campsite and, still in lockstep, marched him within a circle of women attending one of their own. I don’t know that the gypsies had princesses, but whoever the woman was, she was of that caliber. She had been in labor for many hours. She was gray with pain and close to death. 

In my imagination, my grandfather stands still for a moment. He has already lost one woman in childbirth. He takes a deep, calm breath, looking at that moment exactly like the sepia photograph of him that my mother always kept on her bureau. Carefully, he sets his bag down on a blanket next the woman and kneels beside her. He washes his hands in a pail of water. Then, he goes to work.

Some hours later, the knives are put away. It is not necessary to threaten this white man to make him do his best for a Gypsy.
I know that the Gypsy princess lived. I know this not because I remember the end of the story I’m telling you. I don’t. But I do remember what my mother told me about my grandfather:
In a career spanning four decades, most of that time as the only doctor in Angola, Indiana, my grandfather delivered thousands of babies. He drove a horse and buggy, or later on, a Ford Model T, to outlying farms where births were often already in progress by the time he could be summoned and arrive. He delivered babies with frightened husbands or children as assistants. He delivered babies in antique bedsteads, on scrubbed kitchen tables, even on un-scrubbed floors. He delivered babies with no more equipment than would fit in the kind of medical bag you now see only in old movies. Despite all that, my grandfather lost only one woman in childbirth.

That woman was his wife.

The child was my mother.

In my imagination, the circle of gypsies opens. My grandfather sees the amount of blood on the blankets. He stands very still for a moment, grief slicing through him. Then, he takes a deep, calm breath. Life. Only life. This woman will not die. His pain will be with him forever, but this woman and her child, too, will live.

When he goes to work, his mind is clear and his hands are strong and steady.

Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA in journalism, summa cum laude, from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at somewhat more interesting jobs, occasionally even being allowed to write some technical thing or another. In 2012, she retired and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others in Eugene.