Within Arm's Reach - By Ann Napolitano

Part One


My grandmother gave birth often, which I suppose increased her odds for tragedy. Her firstborn, a sweet, chatty daughter, died when she was three years old from dehydration and the flu. My mother had become the oldest McLaughlin child by default, and three more of my five aunts and uncles were already walking or crawling, climbing over furniture, and driving my grandfather, whose heart had broken with the death of his first baby, crazy when my grandmother became pregnant with twins.

Today twins are considered a high-risk pregnancy. I’m sure they were then, too, but my grandmother had four kids under the age of six to clean, dress, feed, and teach manners to with the help of Willie, the live-in black maid. My grandfather was a lawyer and on the weekends he played golf and in the evenings he drank scotch. This was long before the days of coparenting, long before it was even a word.

My grandmother had to get my mother and Pat into neatly pressed uniforms and off to single-sex Catholic schools every morning. She had to keep the two youngest home with her while she and Willie split the cleaning, laundry, and cooking. She had to write letters to her mother and her husband’s mother each week, updating them on the family’s life. On Sundays, out of respect for the Lord, she met the challenge of keeping all of the children quiet and prayerful in their bedrooms without toys or any books other than the Bible.

Pregnancy, even of twins, did not get in the way of the daily routines. It couldn’t, really, since my grandmother was, for the first eleven years of her marriage, more often pregnant than not. So she picked up toys and assigned the children chores and shushed them around their father and kept an eagle eye on their manners at the dinner table and supervised prayers before bedtime as her five-foot-two, petite body swelled. She occasionally allowed herself a small nap while she sat upright at the kitchen table, a bowl of peas waiting to be shelled under her fingertips. But that was it. Birthing children, making a big family, raising it up right was her main job. She ignored all sharp pains, any warning signs that something might be wrong. She was never one to complain. Even now, at the age of seventy-eight, she refuses novocaine at the dentist’s office. She lies perfectly still, hands folded on her waist, while the dentist, shaking his head in amazement, drills into her teeth.

My grandmother went into labor very suddenly one night after she and Willie had finished serving the evening meal. She set down a bowl of broccoli and pressed the heels of her hands hard against the edge of the table. “Children,” she said. “Meggy, elbows off the table. Your father and I will be eating later tonight. Kelly”—her sharp blue eyes on my mother, the oldest now that the true oldest was gone—“you’re in charge here, understood?”

She walked carefully out of the dining room, aware of the children’s eyes on her, turned the corner, and collapsed. The doctor didn’t make it in time. Willie boiled water and carried a stack of clean towels to the bedroom and wept while my grandfather, scared and therefore annoyed, stood by the head of my grandmother’s single bed and told her to keep it down. He cursed the doctor for his slowness. He cursed Willie for moaning under her breath at the sight of blood. He cursed his pipe for not lighting on the first try. He cursed the children in the other room for their existence. He cursed his first child, his sweet baby girl, for dying on him and leaving him here like this. Shipwrecked and lonely. Useless.

The doctor, his pockets filled with lollipops for the McLaughlin children, showed up just as the twins were born. Stillborn. My grandmother must have felt it. After the long last shudder of labor she turned her head to the wall, shut her eyes, and began to wail. My grandfather and the doctor were shaken by the noise. The doctor bent over the babies, one boy and one girl, making sure that there was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could do.

My grandmother’s cries got louder.

“Now, Catharine,” my grandfather said, looking from the still, purplish babies to this woman whose contorted face he did not know.

The doctor gathered the infants in his arms. “Get them out of here,” he said to my grandfather. “She can’t take the