“Did your dad tell you about the strawberry birthmark?” my aunt asked. I was driving north with her on 35 in the summer of 1989, an occasional moth splattering plumply against the windshield.
“What’s a strawberry birthmark?” I asked, glancing quizzically at Aunt Dorothy in the passenger seat. Her silver hair fanned out along the bottom edge of the headrest.
“Huh! You should know this story. Your Great-grand Aunt Cora (my great-aunt) was a Dodd,” she said, uncorking a bottle of grape juice and handing it to me. “The Dodds were the only strand of our bloodline to be here in time for the Revolution. Not that being here early gave them much sense—the Dodd girls made scandalously poor matches. This Cora, for example, took up with an unsavory fellow. For starters, he was Canadian; moreover, he was already married. Where his first wife was no one knew, but he brought a daughter with him, an eight year old named Laylee Long.
“When he and Cora settled on a homestead near North Dakota, the neighbors saw right away that Cora hated that girl. Then when Laylee died suddenly one afternoon just after Cora’s first pregnancy started showing, the neighbors voiced their suspicions. The doctor performed an autopsy on the dead child. He discovered that Laylee had eaten a poisoned strawberry, so my great-aunt Cora was taken to jail.
“She spent the rest of her pregnancy in a cell.”
Dorothy turned toward me. “You’re pregnant,” she said. “You imagine her in that state looking out at the spruces and thinking of an incriminating strawberry. She was about to deliver when her case came to court. There, the doctor testified that the poisoned strawberry had not been chewed. The jury reasoned that a child would chew a strawberry if she did not know it was poisoned. Her swallowing it whole convinced them that she must have wanted to die. They called Laylee a suicide and set Cora free.
“As she left the jail, Cora went into labor and soon gave birth to a daughter—a daughter who had a strawberry birthmark smack-dab in the middle of her forehead.”
“Oh, Dorothy,” I interrupted my aunt, “you believe this?”
“I’m telling you what I was told,” she said, “Surely you’ve heard about some pregnant woman who was unfortunate enough to have a mouse run up her leg so much she slapped at her thigh and then when the baby was born it had a hairy mouse-shaped mark on its leg?”
“Well, yes,” I said, “I’ve heard of that.”
“Yet,” Aunt Dorothy went on, “that doesn’t prove that the mother killed the mouse by squashing it against her leg. Similarly, a strawberry birthmark on a baby’s forehead can’t be taken as proof of a mother’s guilt. It could be a sign of an understandable preoccupation with strawberries. Cora herself must not have felt condemned because she named the baby ‘Grace.’”
“Grace?” I asked. “The Grace I know?”
“Yes, our Grace,” Dorothy said.
“Anyway,” she went on, “the doctor announced that the birthmark should not removed until Grace turned two. A year and a half later, Cora gave birth to a second daughter, whom she named Esther. Grace toddled about the farmhouse delighted, calling her new sister, ‘baby.’
“And then the doctor showed up and cut that strawberry mark out of her forehead.
“Grace never learned a thing after that. Even today, ‘baby’ is the only word Grace says, and she has forgotten how to walk.”
My aunt rolled down her window as she and I passed the tree line.
“That is Grace, the Grace I know,” I said.
The pines and birches replaced the hardwood; lakes eased up to the road. The air at the window smelled of crushed fern. I remembered my childhood visit with Grace. She sat tied in her wheelchair, bobbing her head and saying “baby, baby” hopefully at me. I was on the ground with the damp of evening seeping into me. “So many old folk in my family!” I thought and I ran from Grace to the trees.
In the car we were silent, and soon Dorothy fell asleep.
I listened to the night as it came on.
The swamps moaned. I thought I heard our murky new world souls, squeezing up from the past. Musky swamp gas oozed up to hang over the rivers, mosquitoes hummed, Indian Paintbrushes slowly thrust up through moss, and the living muck shifted against the deep rocks.
The land we drove through was flat and wide and low. It seemed weighted down with the lives that had fallen upon it.
Through the night of the juniper swamp, I felt the old stories way-lay me. “Baby,” I said, nodding like Great-aunt Grace, “my baby,” and I laid my hand on my belly. As I drove, I became the lost mother of the poisoned girl, the mother abandoned in Canada. And I became Laylee, eating strawberries by hands full, not chewing. And I became Cora, pregnant and waiting in jail. And I became Grace with my forehead scarred.
Three months later, my baby was born with a birthmark, strawberry like Great-aunt Grace’s, placed high upon her left arm. I did not have it removed.