- The Earliest Memoryby Donna G. (aka Sam Duck)
This work has reached the exceptional level
It felt raw, even after 95 years
A Fascinating Life
: The Earliest Memory by Donna G. (aka Sam Duck)

When my grandmother, Kathleen, broke her hip, I went and sat with her in the hospital to keep her company while she waited for her surgery.  She was a little loopy from the pain medication and she told me some stories of when she was growing up in rural Manitoba in the 1920s and 1930s.

Her earliest memory was of her little sister, Shirley.  The memory haunted her, even after the many decades of her life, and she told me the story with tears in her eyes.

There were 12 children born to Grace and Thomas Burrell (10 girls and 2 boys), and Kathleen had only two sisters who were younger than her.  Some of her older siblings were married and in their own homes by the time little Shirley was born. 

Like Grace’s other babies, Shirley was born at home.  It was a fairly easy birth, and everyone was amazed at her perfect little fingers and toes and her full head of curly blonde hair.  She was the darling of the entire family, being the youngest and presumably the last of the Burrell children.

Kathleen remembered the day, that horrible day, when Shirley was almost two years old.  She was toddling about, getting into everything she could reach and requiring constant supervision. 

It was Wednesday; laundry day (as is, was, and always will be).  Grace had to go into town, and didn’t like to leave the laundry, as each day had its own work and worries.  However, it was important that she go to town when the wagon was going, and that week, the wagon was going to town on Wednesday.

The two oldest sisters that were still living at home assured their mother that they would take care of the laundry.  Grace knew that both were totally up to the task and had no compunction about leaving them to it.  She cautioned them to be careful not to burn themselves as they heated the kettles of water on the wood-fired stove.  Laundry, at that time, was done manually in a big tin laundry tub where they soaked the clothes in boiling water before using sticks to beat out any dirt and bugs, and then, when the water was cooler, used a laundry board to scrub the difficult stains.

One of the great things about having 12 children was that Grace never had to worry about the little ones being looked after.  Five-year-old Kathleen, four-year-old Joyce and little Shirley would be supervised by their older sisters.  Their two brothers were not expected to have anything to do with watching the children or doing the household chores.  They were men and did men’s work.

Grace kissed her babies and left for town, an errand that would take her the entire day.  Phyllis and Margaret got to work heating the water for the laundry tub.  Shirley was restless and couldn’t seem to get settled to play, and Kathleen and Joyce only wanted to make cookies.  They asked and wheedled their older sisters until Phyllis finally gave in and said they could watch her make cookies if they stayed out of the way.  The three little girls gathered around the kitchen counter and watched the magic of oatmeal and raisins becoming delicious cookies before their very eyes!

Meanwhile, Margaret had the water on the woodstove to heat, and it had just come to a boil.  Phyllis told Margaret to go ahead and fill the washtub in the other room while she finished scooping out the cookie dough onto the baking sheets.  Kathleen’s mouth watered at the thought and the smell of those cookies.  They looked so good already, she could almost taste them.

“I’m going to have two cookies” she said to Joyce and Shirley; “Shirley, you can just have one because you are so little…”  She looked over to where Shirley had been standing, hoping to get a reaction out of her little sister. 

Shirley, however, growing tired of waiting for cookies had decided to go where the action was, and headed into the other room to see how full the washtub was getting.  Margaret was just coming back to put the pot that had contained the last load of boiling water away in the cupboard.

What they all heard next was something that none of them would ever forget.  A scream like a wild animal caught in a trap. 

And then, nothing.

They all raced into the front room where the laundry tub was filled with boiling hot water, and saw Shirley, looking lifeless, draped over the side of the tub with her hands, arms and head in that cruel, burning water.  Phyllis was the first to react and quickly lifted the little body out of the water, setting her down on the hard floor.  As she put the toddler down, Phyllis cried out because she was left with pieces of Shirley’s skin on her hands.

As they watched, they saw Shirley’s chest start to rise and fall.  She wasn’t dead, she had just passed out from the initial shock and pain of falling into the water.

“Mother!”  Kathleen yelled, “Mother, help us!”  But Grace had been gone for more than an hour.  Kathleen was sent to find her brother so he could go for help as soon as possible.  She found Charlie, and before long, he was jumping on the bare back of the old work horse and urging the mare to run as fast as ever she could.

Kathleen could hear the high, thin, haunting screams coming once again from the front room, before she even got back inside the house.  Concerned about her sister, she ran and got Shirley’s rag doll from the crib in their small bedroom beside the stairs.

As she hurried back, she smelled the burning smell of forgotten cookies coming from the kitchen.  She knew better than to touch the stove but thought someone should get the cookies out of there before there was a fire to go with the horrors of the day.  She slowly edged into the front room.  She just had time to whisper to Phyllis about the cookies being burnt before she saw Shirley again, surrounded by the other girls. Herb, too; her other brother had heard the ruckus and came running.

Shirley did not look like the little sister that Kathleen knew.  She had puffed up like a piece of popcorn and was a bright red color with blisters bigger than Kathleen had ever seen.  She kept moaning “Too taht, too taht”, and Kathleen knew that it was a new word that Shirley had just learned for when someone had tightened her diaper too much.  “Someone needs to unbutton her clothes, they are too tight”, she yelled.  But when she looked closer, she saw that Shirley had no clothes on at all, her sisters already having cut them off.

“Honey,” Margaret spoke softly, “It’s her skin that’s too tight.  She is swelling up something awful and doesn’t fit her skin anymore!”

Horrified, Kathleen ran as fast as her feet would take her out to the barn, and hid behind the chicken coop.  That was her secret place where she went to be alone sometimes.  She liked to talk to the chickens, because, with all her sisters and brothers, she rarely had a chance to say much in the house.

She cried huge tears that made her gulp to get her breath between sobs.

“Oh, chickens, you don’t even know,” she murmured “Shirley is hurt bad, and it’s all my fault!”

Regret and guilt washed over the little girl in a sharp, painful rush. “I shouldn’t have asked for cookies!  I shouldn’t have distracted the girls that were doing the laundry. I should have watched the baby, not tried to make her upset about how many cookies she would get!”

Kathleen cried and cried, more than she ever remembered crying in her life.  She cried herself to sleep, and it was hours later before her brother Herb found her sleeping behind the coop and carried her up to her bed. 

She had often wished she didn’t have to share a bedroom with Shirley and her baby crib, but that night she would have done anything to see her sister’s little face peering out between the rungs, trying to stay awake as long as she could.

Perhaps it was a mercy that that’s where Kathleen’s oldest memory came to an end. She only knew that Shirley would never again sleep in that crib in the corner of the littlest bedroom. 

As an adult, she knew there must have been the required rituals that went with death in those days.  They must have had a wake, and a funeral.  People must have come in and offered support and brought casseroles and tried to console her family.  There must have been a little grave dug in the family graveyard on the other side of the pasture field.

But Kathleen didn’t remember any of that.  She only knew that her life changed that day and, deserved or not, she would carry guilt on her shoulders for her small sister’s death from that moment until the end of her own long life.

Author Notes
I sure hope I have it in me to write more than just this one chapter. My grandmother told me lots of stories, but although the basics are real happenings, I have imagined and fictionalized most of the details.


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