Have you ever dropped something fragile and delicate?
You grasp for the object as it falls toward floor, only to miss by a fraction of an inch. You curse your carelessness. That is how I felt when I put Sheila on the Portland, Maine, bus.
Sheila Dacey was born poor, to simple parents. She was stoop-shouldered, had thin hair and bad teeth. Her father worked as a custodian and her mother cleaned homes and had babies. Neither parent was cruel or abusive. The only disservice they did her was to bring her into the world with entirely unremarkable qualities.
My mother was a child of immigrants who suffered the harshness of the Depression and the cruelty of bureaucracy. She was taken away from a mother who loved her but was unable to provide for her and was placed in a home where there was food and heat but little affection.
Because of that, and her inherent compassion, my mother often would mentor young girls who were poor and lacking direction. To Sheila Dacey, she gave her old clothing, inexpensive jewelry and advice. Sheila would come by for tea after work and occasionally stop on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons on TV.
Sheila was the youngest of her parents’ three daughters. Her sisters were more attractive and worldly. My mother contended that Sheila’s plainness was a blessing, since she would be less likely to “get in trouble” as her sisters had. At the time, I wasn’t sure what “getting in trouble” was, but I assumed it meant having a baby and moving to Maine since that is what happened to Sheila’s sisters.
Sheila quit school at 16; factory work was available and the extra money would help her family. Occasionally, she would turn up at our house with one of her many nieces or nephews. She was protective and proud of her sisters’ kids, bathing, dressing and changing them with great care and an inflated sense of responsibility. My mother would say, “That girl loves children. I hope she finds a husband to give her some of her own.”
My father would answer, “Whoever it is, I want to buy him a beer and one for his seeing-eye dog.”
Sheila met a man at work, he had a car, and they went for dinner and a movie.
The night of the big event found Sheila in a borrowed dress sitting restlessly while my mother applied makeup to her face.
There was no second date. Sheila gave birth less than a year later.
It was a couple of years later when Sheila decided to take her child and join her sisters up north. I happened to be visiting from Colorado when mother and child stopped in to say goodbye and ask for a ride to the bus station. My mother lay the sleeping baby on a blanket in my old bedroom and asked me to keep an eye on her so she and Sheila could sit in the kitchen and have tea.
As I stared at the child a sense of hopelessness overcame me. I was not so inexperienced to believe that, although raised in the land of opportunity — a country where every babe born could do great things — either Sheila or her child had much of a chance. Though I was probably in my early 20s I was old enough to know that the chances of this child having a good life were slim. I was convinced that, through no fault of her own, this baby was likely to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts.
I carried Sheila’s one suitcase to the Portland bus leaving from Brockton, Mass. The bad weather and the crying child worsened my mood; Sheila seemed immune. She was upbeat and excited and talked constantly to her baby, describing the three-hour bus ride and sister who was to meet them. Her disposition annoyed me; didn’t she realize that her child was doomed? Sheila seemed to read my mind.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
“You’re not scared?”
“No,” she said. “I’m excited.”
I was about to say something else when she interrupted me and continued.
“I used to worry that I would have nothing important to do with my life. My job is to make sure this baby has a good life. I can do that.”
I watched as mother and daughter disappeared into the bus. To me, like a falling figurine, they looked fragile, delicate and damned.
I’m delighted to say that I underestimated the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of a mother’s love. After graduating from public high school, Sheila’s daughter, Donna, attended a community college. She is now a schoolteacher in northern Maine. She is married with two daughters of her own. Sheila lives in an apartment attached to the garage and is much loved by her grandchildren.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was not so inexperienced to believe that, although raised in the land of opportunity — a country where every babe born could do great things — either Sheila or her child had much of a chance.