Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The 26th in a series on my family tree

Prompt: Identity

Identity is so deeply nuanced that it’s not a topic I can tackle in just a few days with any satisfaction. And so, I’ve landed on writing a very short piece of fiction based on a true story.

Here goes …


“One more push, dear!”

Mrs. Brewer, stalwart pioneer neighbour lady and some-time midwife more accustomed to assisting in the birthing of calves than human babies, erupted with glee as the wailing newborn slipped into her waiting hands after a long and uncomfortable struggle. It was just about 4:30 in the morning and the warm and dimly lit one-room log cabin appeared to heave a sigh of relief as Mrs. Brewer gently flipped the new life right-side-up and, without much examination, wrapped the tiny body snuggly in a soft, wool blanket before handing it to the young, exhausted new mother. “He’s got yer eyes, Alice, he ‘as,” she remarked matter-of-factly in a solid old country brogue. “Wails like his da’, dare say.” And winked.

Alice’s mouth curled into a faint smile as she held the wee bairn tightly to her and stared into its sparkling-by-lamplight brown eyes. A miracle if ever there was one; a miracle dear Dr. Kickham had told her never to expect. A vision of her stillborn twins of just a couple of years before floated through her memory; a tear trickled down her right cheek. She wiped it away with her free hand and offered a broader smile. She’d done it. A boy. Stanley would be pleased, at least she hoped he would be. A sharp twinge caught at her insides. She gasped.

“Ye not be done yet, hinny,” Mrs. Brewer cautioned and accepted the babe as the new mother reluctantly handed him back. She slunk against a mound of makeshift pillows and awaited the final indignity, her head turned so her eyes locked on the fire blazing in the nearby wood stove. It was the coldest night of February 1939; she’d been told the thermometer read 50-below. A raging snow storm howled outside the isolated cabin. Alice’s thoughts drifted to her well-meaning but irascible husband who was shovelling the next-door-neighbour’s long driveway so he could borrow his car and head to town at daybreak to collect the doctor for her after-care. “I hope Stanley’s kind to him,” she muttered under her breath. Alice liked the good doctor; her husband did not.

“What’s that dear?” Grandma Mary daubed a damp cloth across her daughter-in-law’s hot forehead. “Tis a fine baby, dear. A welcome grandson.” Alice smiled weakly. She’d finally done something right. Mrs. Brewer handed the baby to his grandmother and went to finish up with Alice.

Mary McDonall stared at the newborn grandchild, her first. “Such a lovely wee boy,” she cooed adoringly. “What’s his name?” She settled into the old rocking chair next to the bed and waited for Alice to answer.

The newly minted mother winced at the midwife’s unwelcome attention. “Steven Lewis, after grandpa McDonall, and Stanley’s and your middle name,” she whispered, and then turned away. She wished she’d been allowed to call her son William or Alexander, after her own father, but the push back from Stanley had been too much and exhausted her into submission. I’ll call him Lewis, she mused, for she felt no real fondness for her father-in-law, only fear.

Mrs. Brewer completed her ministrations, and looked at Mary. “Any chance ye be wanting to give that grandson o’ yours a wee bath, Mrs. McDonall? He’s in need.”

“Of course.” Grandma Mary removed the babe to a nearby wash basin which she’d recently filled with hot water and left to cool. “Now young Steven Lewis, let’s get you cleaned up, then.” She gently peeled away the blanket from the tiny birth-covered body and was about to hold her grandson over the basin when she hesitated.

“Mrs. Brewer,” she queried, “you sure it was a boy popped out of our Alice?”

The curious midwife looked up from her duties; she tilted her head quizzically. “What’re ya sayin’?”

Grandma Mary motioned for Mrs. Brewer to join her at the wash basin.

“Please take another look.”

Mrs. Brewer leaned in, squinted, and blushed. “Oh, my Lord, now would you look at that!”

“What’s the matter?” Alice propped herself up on one elbow and craned to see what was happening across the room.

“Seems we have here a case of mistaken identity,” Mrs. Brewer turned to Alice and apologized sheepishly. “Your wee bairn is a lass, dear.”

Alice’s heart leapt, and then sank. Joy for a boy, but what for a girl? She looked to her mother-in-law for reassurance. Mary caught Alice’s worried glance as she lovingly bathed her squirming granddaughter.

“She’s the first McDonall girl in two generations, my dear. Of course, we’re going to love her.” Mary brought the cleaned and freshly swaddled baby back to her mother’s arms. “What name will she have?”

Alice and Stanley McDonall with daughter, Lois Jeanette … outside the log cabin where Jean was born, February 7, 1939.
Source: Family Archives

Alice hesitated, but only for a moment. She and Stanley hadn’t spent much time discussing a girl’s name, but they had agreed on this. As she gazed into her daughter’s searching eyes she said, “Lois Jeanette. Lois for an old friend who died young, and Jeanette for the moving picture star, Jeanette McDonald. We’ll call her Jean, for short.” She wiped a hand softly against her newborn’s silken cheek. “Hello, Jean, my precious little girl.” ❦


Note: Lois Jeanette McDonall is my mother.

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

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