You imagine you have met your great grandfather, Doctor Eugene Lawrence Haskins, in a stained, sepia photo: his beard trimmed to a half an inch, his hair greased gently to the left, his cheek barely meeting that of his new bride, the two of them looking left, off in the distance and out of the frame at the rosy glow of possibilities. At the time, however, the newlyweds fixed their eyes upon the tear in the burgundy velvet where the photographer had nailed the back drop to a dingy, plaster wall.
You dream about your great grandfather after the round of story telling late last night, how he lovingly brushed and braided the manes and tails of Sally and Charlotte, the two mares that pulled his wagon, just as he would plait the locks of his three young daughters before grammar school. In your dreams his strong hands with his tender fingers comb through your blond curls, settle upon your temples, and pull back your tresses firmly with equal, comforting pressure so as not to pinch your scalp.
You hear that the doctor brought his eldest child, your grandmother, with him from Iowa to Chicago whenever possible looking for a cure for her congenital malady. You like the idea of the belching steam engine and the rhythmic clacking of the 300 miles of rails as the train carries them to Wesley Memorial Hospital and the University’s medical school. Your grandmother’s spine warps between her shoulders and hips. You’ve already surpassed her four feet eight inches and you’re only in fourth grade. When you are a young woman and your grandmother is eighty-two years old, you will comprehend how the doctor failed in spite of the trips to the far side of Illinois: her ribs will complete their morbid twist inward, incarcerating her lungs, and she will suffocate in her sleep.
In the meantime, when your mother becomes pregnant, you will wonder why your grandmother is stricken with sickening, worrisome anxiety. She cannot be assured enough that your mother’s pregnancy is free from bee stings, rusty nails, rat poison, dog bites, burn barrel smoke, icy steps…
Your sister will be born as bright as a spring elf and you will learn that your father once had a little sister too. He called her Marjorie Jean, but she was born listless, sent away to Woodward as a toddler, and died at the age of eight without her mother and father by her side. Decades later you will find her tombstone, one among hundreds of eight by twelve inch identical granite slates in row upon row upon row that reads M. Lindstrom and nothing more. The attending physician at her birth was the town’s only doctor: the mother’s father, Doctor Haskins. You will learn that he incompetently delivered other babies like Marjorie Jean, with little urge to suckle and wandering eyes, who slept for extra ordinate amounts of time…eventually flunking first grade, speaking very little, but then even less…men and women roaming about the town with sloping shoulders and slack, expressionless faces.
This is Doctor Haskins, the doctor that no one will speak of when you are older except with regret and bitterness. He is your kind, capable great grandfather you think you know in the sepia photograph and who’s braided your hair in the dreams of your mind.
Wendy A. Skinner’s stories have appeared in The Potomac Journal of Politics and Poetry, Technicolor Magazine, Rock Paper Scissors, and Dust & Fire. She won the 2010 Carol Bly Award in Non-Fiction and is an MFA student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Say hello at www.wendyaskinner.com.