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Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weatherby Jincy Willett
An Ordinary Birth
An Extraordinary Birth
Abigail Mather was special from the very beginning.
A fraternal twin, she had her birthday all to herself. Abigail was born, to Mathilda Wallace Mather, in the Providence Lying-In Hospital, on the thirty-first day of December, 1938. Six hours later, in the New Year, her twin, Dorcas, was born. Doctors and nurses exclaimed over this phenomenon, which had never before happened in the history of the hospital.
Here's oral history for you. Here's folk tradition. Hilda obviously didn't bother with any pesky, prosaic research. Why go down to the actual hospital and rifle through moldy files when you can get it from the horse's mouth?
Well, our filly has a convenient memory. We got this story, about the two distinct birth dates and being a legend in our own time, from Mother. Mother lived in a magical world, where the unbearable was blinked away even if it was ululating and pointing and hopping up and down in front of you, and the past was always rosier than actual experience. There was nothing wrong with Mother's mind, or her intellect, either. She was just, like her first daughter, remarkably good at fantasizing.
Abigail and I were born within fifteen minutes of each other on the last day of 1938. It says so on the certificates. We learned this, at the age of twenty, after having bragged for years about our unusual debut. I suspect the story started with Mother amusing herself, in a relatively innocent way, with alternate, more exciting versions of the great event, imagining different ways it could have happened, eventually hitting on this one, the most dramatic. After that it was a simple trick for Mother to forget that the story wasn't true.
Doctors and nurses did not ``exclaim over you, Mother. I wish for your sake they had. You never did get enough attention in this world. You weren't as good at it as some.
There was, in fact, something rather special about our birth, but it won't be reported in In the Driver's Seat. Abigail came first all right, and she was a breech. They had to knock Mother out, so intense was her prolonged agony, and rummage around inside her like a cow, but no matter how often or how firmly they turned Abigail, she wiggled herself back into her preferred position.
Ass first. That's how she finally came out. My sister mooned the world for two hours while, behind her, I choked for air and sustenance. My sister blocked the light with her pinchable, Rubenesque behind while I groped, disoriented and blind, for the exit. All I wanted was to breathe and see. Just let me live.
My sister emerged with a list of complicated, interdependent demands. They pried her loose, with infinite patience, a pair of strong, hairy, male hands gently cupping her loins and hindquarters, pulling, releasing, in a pleasing tidal rhythm. When they got her out she held her breath, deliberately I have no doubt, so that they held her upside down and spanked her and generally made such a fuss that when I, the afterthought, emerged (on my hands and knees, I picture it, like an old ragbag crawling across a cartoon desert), I was given only cursory attention. And they told Mother, who briefly fought her way through the ether to get the vital stats, that she had a child of either sex: ``A beautiful little girl--holding Tubbo aloft like the Wimbledon Cup--``and a boy--smiling in a kindly, commiserating sort of way, giving her just a glimpse of my homely little face, swaddling me like a hideous burn victim.
I was not a remarkably homely child. It was just the comparison. All things being relative.
This story, the one about my being a boy for the first half hour of my life, is probably true, unlike the other old wheeze. Mother told it often, but not with cruelty, and certainly not to aggrandize herself. Years later she was still outraged about their carelessness. ``I don't want a boy, she had told them. ``Now, now, they said. ``I do not want a boy, and I have not made a boy, and that's all there is to that. The doctors, unwrapping me to prove their point, stared at her, she said, as though she were a witch and had changed my sex after the fact.
Mother favored Abigail in character, and me in sympathy. Mother admired me. That was nice.
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