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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

A Death In The Family

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/20/2023
Occurred: 12/16/1955
Page Views: 441
Topics: #Autobiography #DorothyGene
The time we lost my baby sister.
Black Rose

My first experience with death came when I was about five. My father and his first son, "Billy", had extended the living quarters of the factory with a beautiful new room added beyond the master bedroom. This was to be where my sisters would sleep, though it doubled as a playroom.

Mary Joan and Louise had little twin beds, while Dorothy Gene slept in a crib beneath the high window between them. The crib can be seen at the right of the below photo of Mary Joan and Louise playing.

One night I was awakened from a sound sleep by lights and an awareness that something bad was going on. I stumbled into my parents' room, where my father was trying to give what I now recognize as the old-fashioned artificial resuscitation to little Dorothy Gene. My mother was frantic and told me to go back to bed. Of course, I couldn't; so I waited in the living room until I finally fell asleep on the sofa, to the sounds of sobbing. Dottie Gene had died in the night.

She had had a cold. Mom forever blamed herself for the little one's death, though there was nothing that could have been done with the knowledge and tools of the time. (There were, for example, no baby monitors.)

We kids were not allowed at the funeral, nor did I know there was such a thing. Dorothy Gene simply vanished from our lives. Whenever her name was mentioned, Mom burst into tears; so we learned never to say it. In later years I discovered Mom had, apparently, destroyed all photos she could find with Dorothy Gene in them.

On the other hand, Mom didn't let go of Dorothy Gene's baptismal gown until she was in her late eighties.

I was present when the police came to question Mom. It was just a routine questioning, but Mom couldn't talk about Dorothy Gene without sobbing, and all I knew was that the policemen had made my mother cry and I couldn't do anything about it.

To make matters worse, in her grief, Mama told me it was my fault, that she had overheard me saying I wished Dorothy Gene was dead. This wasn't possible, of course; I didn't know what death was, or even the word, much less the sentiment. But that was guilt I carried with me for years afterwards.

Where, previously, my recollection of dad's being home (instead of at work) was rare, after we lost Dorothy Gene, it seemed like he spent more time with us kids.

We didn't try to celebrate Christmas at home that year. Instead, we went to my half-brother Billy's house where his little girl, Diane, joined us.