I recently read a David Sedaris story, about how his mother revived a puppy that was born the runt of the litter by placing it in a casserole dish and putting it in a warm oven. The oven acted as a makeshift incubator, and the heat revived the pup. This story reminded me of a tale my mother once told me.
When I started tracing my family tree some 15 years ago, people advised me to be careful. “Some stones are better left unturned,” they said. Others warned that I might find “horse thieves” while still others cautioned that I might discover “smoke in the wood pile.” I had no idea what this meant, so I started asking around. I found out that “smoke in the wood pile,” is a crude phrase, meaning that a researcher has discovered African ancestors in their family tree.
I never did find African ancestors in my tree, (as anyone who has seen me dance might have guessed), but I delighted in the idea that I might:
In my mind, I envision a St. Patrick’s Day gathering at the local K of C hall, and all of my white-haired, red-faced relatives are there. Everyone is full of drink and dressed in kilts and cable knit sweaters. I interrupt a Riverdance jig with news of my latest genealogical discovery. I pull out an old, yellowed photo of our sharecropper great-grandparents standing wide-eyed in a Mississippi cotton field. I’d point and say: “Here, on the left, is Grandpa Porgy, and, in the kerchief next to him, that’s Grandma Bess.” The party would abruptly end as the EMS workers arrive to administer the oxygen.
Although I never found “smoke" in my genealogical wood pile, it doesn’t mean that my search was free of scandal. After looking up vital records, I discovered that my father was born (February 1915), just two months after his parent’s wedding day, (December of 1914.) My father and paternal grandparents were long dead by this time, leaving my mother to defend her in-laws honor. When I told her about my findings, she was incredulous. “Oh that can’t be!” she said. When I produced birth and marriage certificates to back up my accusations, she said, “Oh, there must have been a clerical error at the town clerk’s office.” When I told her that I had already double-checked the dates with the church my grandparents were married in, she said, “Well, your father was born premature.”
“SEVEN MONTHS premature?” I asked.
“All I know,” she said, “is that when your father was born, he was so tiny that the midwife placed him in a cigar box and then placed it next to the pot belly stove in the kitchen.”
“WHAT?!” I said.
My mother explained that back in the day, everyone was born at home. If a baby was born too small or premature, the doctor or midwife would place it in a cigar box, carry it to the kitchen and place it near the stove. This worked like an incubator, and it saved the life of many a newborn child.
My mother’s story sounded a like something out of a fable written by the Brothers Grimm, and I couldn’t help but picture a haggard looking midwife calling out for boiled water, clean sheets and a box of Dutch Masters. Perhaps, I thought, this is where the tradition of fathers passing out cigars began. Maybe they just wanted an empty box.
“You probably didn’t know this,” my mother said, “but my brother Billy was born a twin. He was much smaller than his brother, and my grandmother, thinking he was a lost cause, put him in a cigar box and slid it under the pot-bellied stove. This way she could turn her attention to the bigger, healthier twin. Unfortunately, the bigger twin didn’t make it, but when they opened the cigar box, Uncle Billy had rallied and was doing just fine.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll buy the Uncle Billy story, but even if daddy was conceived on his parent's wedding night, he would have been like . . . seven months premature when he was born! What did they do, slide his cigar box in . . . a microwave!”
This would give a whole new meaning to “smoke in the woodpile.”