The essence of this story is absolutely true; it's just the finer details that have faded. I suppose I could ask my brother, Grant. He would know for sure as he was intimately involved, but he, like the rest of us, would embroider or diminish certain details, depending on whim, memory, and what he wished were true. And so, family legends are created, and this is one of ours.
My mother had a difficult time conceiving, enduring several miscarriages until I came along, then my sister, Janet, a couple of years later, (with two other miscarriages in between) and then three brothers in two years.
When I was five, my sister died. She was only three years old. Equine encephalitis, the doctors pronounced; a virus carried by a mosquito, probably from an infected horse. I've wondered, in the entire world, how did that one mosquito choose my sister, traveling however far, to infect her, and kill her.
Months later, baby Gene was born. He died at six months of age, from an adverse reaction to the polio vaccine, said my mother (another family legend, I am lead to believe). His death certificate said pneumonia. My mother said no, it was an adverse reaction to the polio vaccine. She knew in her heart, and we didn't question her knowledge. The three of us who remained did not finish the series of shots and we survived. That was her proof.
The family was in a long period of mourning, losing two children so close together. My father handled crisis the way he always did; he drank until he ran out of money. My mother, in retrospect, was, understandably, depressed, emotionally unreachable, somnolent, wordless.
It was my grandmother who bought the matching headstones for the babies. Two white lambs, in repose, fluffy white fleece carved into white stone. She said they were Lambs of Jesus. They had sweet faces, with soulful eyes, watchful and waiting. Little brass plates were embedded into their chests, the names of the babies they safeguarded and the dates of their too short lives engraved in simple print.
So years passed, and each year, my mother and grandmother would go to uptown to Woolworth's to buy plastic flowers to lay on their graves for Memorial Day. More years passed; my mother moved out of state and mailed money to my brother so he could do it for her as she was no longer able to make the long drive north.
As sometimes happens, good intentions and heartfelt promises are not kept, and plastic wreaths with bright grosgrain ribbons never found their way to the babies' graves.
One day, a neighbor knocked at my brother's door. "Hey, Grant, I've got something to tell you. I was up to the cemetery and I saw that those two lambs that belong to your family aren't there. You know how you can't miss them, they're being right as you come in and all. Practically the first thing that you see, and they're so unusual that you kind of look for them if you been to the cemetery before. Did you take them to get them cleaned or repaired or something?"
Stunned, murderous outrage swelled in his chest. "Are you sure? They should be right there! They've been there for nearly thirty years; nobody in the family has moved them! Maybe the groundskeeper moved them for mowing." The smoke spun off his tires as he sped down the road to investigate for himself.
He drove up the grassy lane, pulled up beside the family plot. Where two lambs should have been were two deep rectangular imprints in the earth. He called the groundskeeper; no he didn't move them. Noticed they were missing and figured maybe Grant had taken them for repairs. He calls me next, fury choking his every word, tinged with guilt for not having visited the graves. I share his guilt and wrath; we commiserate and rale. We vow vengeance.
We made a pact: Don't tell Mom. She had endured a lifetime of sadness and loss; we would protect her. We would replace the stones quietly and harbor our bitter fury. Days pass, there is no way to determine when the stones were taken or who would've done such a thing. Everyone he speaks with says the same thing, they remember the lambs, noticed they had been missing for a while, thought maybe they were being repaired, never thought to mention it.
Grant was driving home on his little country road and a force drew his gaze to his next door neighbor's flower garden. Nestled deep in the flowers were two white lambs in repose, serenely waiting and watchful. He punched the brake with his foot; his tires bit deep into the dirt road as the car stopped. In almost a seamless move, he put the car into reverse, backed into their driveway, and strode over to the lambs.
There was no mistaking them. The brass plates had been removed but these were the babies' lambs. He knocked furiously on the door. No answer.
He called me from home, and his fire fanned my own flames. He wanted to do bodily harm, but in a moment of reason, I convince him to call the local constable. Justice will be served without either one of us going to jail, I assure him. It would not come fast or severe enough for us we agreed.
Yes, the constable was very familiar with the lambs (didn't everyone?) He would make his own trip to the cemetery to verify they are missing. The waiting is interminable. He returns, grim, to make an official visit next door, but does not go alone. Grant is there, like hot granite; heat waves emanating from him. He does not feel as neighborly.
The neighbor is surprised, dismayed, horrified, devastated.
Several months ago, he had bought the two lambs at a yard sale some 30 miles away, someplace in Aetna, he thought. He had seen an ad in the paper for a yard sale, couldn't remember the address. The guy had a bunch of stuff, but when he saw the lambs he had to have them. He thought they were lawn ornaments.
Yes, he had seen the indentations where the name plaques would've been, couldn't figure out what the indentations were for, and didn't think anything further about it. He just knew they'd look nice in his flower garden at the front of his house.
Grant found the grace to concede that the lambs did look nice among all the flowers but they belonged somewhere else. The neighbor, now edgy with the thought of headstones in his flower garden, could not return them fast enough.
So Grant took them home, had new brass name plates attached, cemented the stones on a foundation. And they lay in sweet repose over their babies, watchful and waiting for Jesus.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. He called me to say that he had just returned the stones and they looked better than ever because he had them cleaned' the white fleece was whiter and the brass plates were shiny new.
We were silent for a moment, reflecting on the journey those lambs had taken and how they were miraculously returned to us.
"Hey," I said, "Guess what. Today's Mother's Day."