Memoir

I Found My Grandparents’ Sorrow Buried in a Trove of Forgotten Letters

They rarely talked about the tragic loss of their first child. Sixty years later, sifting through my grandfather’s old letters helped me see their lives in a whole new light.

I Found My Grandparents’ Sorrow Buried in a Trove of Forgotten Letters

My grandmother was in labor too long, and the baby kept hitting her head on my grandmother’s pelvis, trying to get out. She should have had a C-section but wasn’t given one. When Paula was finally delivered, they discover she had sustained a cerebral hemorrhage. She developed hydrocephalus – the buildup of too much spinal fluid and pressure on the brain – and died a few months later.

Had she been born a little later, she could have survived. The same year Paula was born, 1949, surgeons Frank Nulsen and Eugene Spitz developed a successful treatment for hydrocephalus: a shunt implanted into the caval vein with a ball valve, relieving the pressure. Prior to that, hydrocephalus was a death sentence.

This isn’t part of the story I grew up with. The story I know stops at Paula’s death. I always silently tack on what I think of as a semi-happy ending – the birth of the three children my grandparents would go on to have: my mom, Aunt Sue, and Uncle Larry. It’s a static story, a fact of life: Paula died and my mom, aunt, and uncle lived.

I don’t think there is any more to the story until I find my grandfather’s Korean War memoir while helping get my grandparents’ house ready to sell in 2008. By this point, I’m 26 and my grandfather has already been gone for five years.

The memoir is a polished version of the collection of letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during the war. As I read through it, I’m surprised to see Paula’s name. My grandparents rarely mentioned her beyond her birth story, and I have never heard my grandfather’s version of events. I read quickly yet carefully, my eyes gobbling up the words:

Only once did I feel and wonder whether I was going to crack completely. There was no future; there was nothing to hope for but wait for the inevitable end death which came to our first baby several months after birth. Our catastrophe, our ordeal under fire, happened only two years ago do you remember? Our baby girl, named Paula after my beloved grandmother, was born after a difficult labor of 24, 48 hours; a Caesarian section should have been done. The pediatrician said that our little darling had sustained a cerebral hemorrhage, that hydrocephalus would develop, that it was only a matter of a few months. We kept the beautiful little tyke at home for a month: she gurgled, she laughed, she thrashed about, she feasted on breast milk, even on baby food; we laughed, we enjoyed her antics, we thought how wrong the doctor’s dire predictions were. For a month we lived in paradise but our joy was short-lived: we had to send our baby to a hospital to die slowly as its head grew progressively larger until you could barely look at it, until I felt numb and helpless. Tears are streaming down my face as I write this account.

The tidy narrative I’ve created in my head disappears with each new painful detail my grandfather reveals. I realize I’ve never really considered what it had been like for my grandparents to live through the experience. But now I can see them going from expectant parents to new parents and a baby with a brain injury. I can see how scary and devastating the prognosis must have felt in contrast to the hope of that first month with Paula. And then to watch your child slowly die, becoming more and more unrecognizable to you every day. Now that I’m a parent, I know there is no semi-happy ending to this story; there’s no ending at all. My child would always hold a space in my life.

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Paula and the author’s grandmother, Ruth Goldstein. Paula’s head is bandaged probably because of an operation to reduce spinal fluid buildup.
Paula and the author’s grandmother, Ruth Goldstein. Paula’s head is bandaged, probably because of an operation to reduce spinal fluid buildup.

My grandfather’s description allows me to imagine Paula alive for the first time. Up until now, I don’t think she ever felt real to me. I want to learn more about her, but my grandfather doesn’t refer to her again in his letters. Instead, I find other Paula-related items. I find my grandparents’ early love letters and a photo album that begins when they were dating and continues on into the first year of their marriage. My grandfather wrote detailed captions to accompany the photos. Because of them, I discover that my grandmother had gotten pregnant almost right after they got married. The album abruptly stops toward the end of her pregnancy with Paula, with a couple of photos obviously removed. All that remains are my grandfather’s captions and the photo corners to mark where the photos have been.

One caption reads, “Five months pregnant and hiding her growing belly.” The last caption is, “Nine months pregnant and cooking dinner.” I fill in the photos with imagined images – my grandmother posing with her body half turned and a little behind a friend or relative. My grandmother with a frying pan, smiling, no longer able to hide her protruding stomach.

I find a Valentine’s Day card my grandfather sent to my grandmother a couple of months before she gave birth. On the envelope he wrote, “To my sweetheart approaching her greatest moment in womanhood.” On the front of the card is a young girl with blond curls in an elaborate dress, holding a parasol. My heart drops when I read his hopeful words, his original message getting buried in hindsight.

I also discover receipts for flowers they sent to Paula’s grave, year after year. At first I think the receipts are for one of their grandparents, but then I see the section the person is buried in at Hebrew Memorial Park: Baby G – 116 – 5779. The receipts start in the 1950s and go all the way until the ’90s.

I ask my mom, aunt and uncle about the flowers and none of them know about it. Of the three siblings, my mom was always the family historian. If my aunt or uncle had a family question, they would ask my grandmother or her. But even she doesn’t know about the flowers or the photo album.

“They sent flowers? For how long?” my mom asks.

“Years,” I say.

Her eyes widen a little. “I didn’t know,” she says, shaking her head. With each new discovery, I slowly begin to see the ricochet effect Paula’s death had on my family. I see connections between family stories and quirks where I haven’t before.

I wonder how my grandparents felt when my grandmother became pregnant with my mom. If they were nervous about my mom’s health, or if having a scheduled C-section date was reassuring. Was the date they choose for her birth – April Fools’ Day – their way of lightening the situation? How was my mom treated differently than Sue and Larry, who came seven and nine years after Paula, respectively?

My mom sometimes talks about feeling a certain amount of pressure from my grandparents as the oldest (living) child, though my aunt and uncle don’t think she was treated any differently. Of course, just because they didn’t notice any difference doesn’t mean there wasn’t. They both note that my mom has always been introverted and sensitive, that she is prone to people pleasing. She might have turned out that way anyway, but her personality traits also match what my grandparents might have needed after Paula – a highly intuitive and sensitive child who went out of her way to please/comfort them.

Paula shows up in other aspects of my mom’s life as well. My mother’s middle name – Faith – is a direct reference to my grandparents’ experience. Likewise, it was important to my mom that both my brother and I have names that honor Paula, so my middle name is Pamela and my brother’s is Paul.

My mom was also forever worrying about my brother and me getting sick. She was extra vigilant about us taking vitamins, moving away from people who coughed or sneezed, and taking jackets even when it wasn’t cold out (68 degrees!). Every time we sneezed, she’d have us wash our hands, even if we hadn’t sneezed in our hands. Eventually, she began to advocate for sneezing in the crook of our elbows (something I just could never get behind, even if Bruce Willis did it, like she claimed).

A screaming Paula.
A screaming Paula.

As the years went on, she washed her hands too frequently, until they were cracked and bleeding. She closed public restroom doors with paper towels. I didn’t realize until much later that these habits (along with hoarding, which my grandmother also did) were symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental illness with symptoms that can include compulsive fear of harm or death coming to loved ones.

She passes away in 2013, two years after being diagnosed with a cancer that might have been treatable had her doctor caught it earlier.

I try to imagine how things might have been different for my mom if Paula had survived. She would have had a sister to teach her things and set an example. My grandparents would have got out some of their parenting kinks on Paula. And of course there wouldn’t be the weight of her death hanging over all of them.

Then again, had Paula lived, my uncle Larry might not have been born. My grandparents only wanted three children, and with Paula in the picture, my grandparents might have stopped at Sue. Sometime before Larry became a doctor, my grandmother dreamt that his hands would do good things (like surgery), reassuring her that Paula’s death was not in vain, that Larry was meant to be alive.

The last Paula-related items I find are negatives. I peer at them cautiously, careful not to get my finger smudges on them. By this point, I know all the family pictures so I expect to see familiar images. Instead, I see an unfamiliar baby crying, getting her diaper changed, being cradled in my grandmother’s arms. My grandmother looks down at her, a smile taking over her face. The baby has a bandage on her head. In other pictures, if you look closely, her head appears slightly enlarged.

I can’t believe it! My grandparents threw away the original pictures in an effort to move on, but had saved the negatives.

I rush to get the negatives developed. When I return to pick up the pictures, I quickly open the envelope and grab the first photo. Then I just stand there for a while, taking in her features, thinking how much she does and doesn’t look like my mom.

Mostly I am struck by how normal the pictures are. Paula seems just like any newborn adjusting to the outside world. Had I not known the backstory, I wouldn’t have guessed the outcome.

There is also something surreal about finally being able to see Paula. I have spent so much time imagining her, a real image almost seems unimaginable. Yet there she is, the real Paula, no longer needing to be imagined. This is Paula alive, before her story comes to an end, before she becomes a part of our family history. And in these pictures, that moment in time, she will always be alive. A story in motion, without an end.