FICTION

Search for PETER

Would she ever forget: "It’s a boy and his name is Peter"? And now there was no Peter—only another woman’s child

ANITA ROWE BLOCK December 1 1944
FICTION

Search for PETER

Would she ever forget: "It’s a boy and his name is Peter"? And now there was no Peter—only another woman’s child

ANITA ROWE BLOCK December 1 1944

Search for PETER

Would she ever forget: "It’s a boy and his name is Peter"? And now there was no Peter—only another woman’s child

ANITA ROWE BLOCK

CAROL stood in front of the department store, trying to decide what she would do next. It was only four o’clock. She had been shopping since one-thirty and now she couldn’t think of another thing she needed. St. Catherine Street looked gay. There was a sense of excitement about it, as if everyone who passed was on his way to a party. The window next to her was filled with hats, each one decorated with flowers or fruit, ostentatiously declaring that spring was really here. The snow was gone; the air was actually balmy and she thought she would walk home. If she walked slowly it would take more than an hour and perhaps on the way she would think of an errand or chore that would bridge the gap until six o’clock when Jerry came home.

She caught glimpses of herself in the store windows and she stopped, pretending to peer at the displays, but not really seeing them. I’m too thin, she thought, staring at the wide grey eyes with their faint shadows. I look much older than 27, she thought. But she didn’t really care.

At Atwater she turned up to Sherbrooke and continued west. Men looked at her chic suit and slender, graceful legs but she didn’t notice. She walked more quickly now, stopping to look into each carriage, dodging bicycles and roller skaters. A small boy on a scooter collided with her and she bent to pick him up. He had a dirty face and a runny nose. Calmly she brushed him off, righted the scooter, but she didn’t talk to him, she just walked on.

Boys were skipping stones in the pond in Westmount Park, and she thought: It really is spring.

Peter loved spring. When he was three he had walked with her in the park, right here, and he had said, “It smells funny. I like it.” He pronounced his l’s from the very beginning. He never talked baby talk. He was always quite grown up for his age and Jerry said he was a “little old man.”

He had balked at a stroller when he was three and a half. “That’s for babies,” he had said and his large brown eyes were sternly reprimanding. “I’m not a baby. I’m a big boy.” So that winter he had braved the winds, his small body bent only slightly, the collar of his polo coat turned up “just like Daddy’s.” He had taken growing up very seriously. She remembered the day they came from the Lafontaine Zoo and Peter was proudly holding his pin wheel high. A little boy, smaller than Peter, had yelled, “Look at the sissy. Only sissies have pin wheels.” He hadn’t thrown it away, he hadn’t answered the child, but the next Sunday at the Zoo he had asked for a flag.

She was at Marlowe Avenue now and she realized there was really nothing else to do but go home. Maybe she would do her bills. It was April 2 and most of them would have come in the morning mail. She walked toward Côte St. Antoine Road, her mind a blur of thoughts. Try as she would she couldn’t help remembering.

Five years ago at this time Jerry was leaning over her happily. “Wake up, lazy. You’ve been asleep for hours. Carol, I can’t wait any longer to tell you.” And she had smiled dreamily. “It’s a boy and his name is Peter.”

“What do you mean, his name is Peter? He wasn’t born with a name,” she protested weakly.

“This boy was.”

“Jerry, that’s not fair. You promised we’d call him Ronald if he was a boy and Peggy if he was a girl.”

“How can ‘he’ be a girl?” Jerry was a quibbler of old. He had walked around the small hospital room excitedly and Carol suddenly had wished he would leave. He was making her dizzy, and besides, if he liked Peter that was all right with her. She was too sleepy to argue.

And four years ago he had sent her gardenias with a card—On account of last year at this time you were pretty busy and on account of I love you. And three years ago it was a small gold heart on a narrow velvet ribbon. And two years ago he had sent a charm bracelet and the charms spelt out, “Peter and I love you.”

Last year he had forgotten. They were both too busy trying to be brave.

She walked on steadily. For months she had made an effort not to think about Peter. But today was different. Today was his birthday and she had spent it trying frantically to fill in time—to keep busy. There had been no distractions, for even her mother had been afraid to call her. No one had called—for today was April 2. No one had wanted to impose on her solitude. After all, what could they say? “We’re sorry your little boy died. We’re sorry you can’t have another. We’re sorry ...”

HER MOTHER wasn’t at home when she got there but Jerry was, waiting in the dim cool foyer, with his sandy hair and lean, strong body. He reached for her quietly and pressed her to him. She remembered how when they were first married she had felt completely safe when Jerry held her, as if nothing could ever hurt her.

He murmured huskily in her hair. “How about being a little mother again?”

“Jerry!” It was an anguished cry. “How can you?” “Mrs. Mathews called. She wants us to come over right away.” He was eager, his words tumbling out quickly.

“You mean—”

“Yes, darling. She has a little boy she thinks is just right for us.”

“Oh, Jerry! Hurry!” She was halfway down the hall, her eyes bright and shining.

All the way over in the taxi they talked excitedly. Wasn’t it lucky they hadn’t moved—sold the house? The nursery was there, airy and sunny, with its low bookshelves still decorated with a child’s crayoning. There would be baby clothes to buy. Perhaps he still wore diapers.

“How old is he?” she said breathlessly.

“I didn’t ask a thing. I was so darn glad to hear her voice I just said that we’d be over the minute you got home.”

She could see how thrilled he was. “Jerry, do you think it’s terrible for us to be so happy when—”

“Look, Honey.” His eyes took on a deeper blue at moments like these. “Nothing could be more perfect. He’s here for us on the very same day that Peter Came to us. Can’t you see how right that is?”

For the first time in almost a year he spoke the name and they looked at each other timidly. All the heartache and anguish that went into the word wafted gently in the Spring breeze around them. The world was suspendéd for one cruel moment and then their life went on again.

“Jerry,” she asked breathlessly, “can you imagine any mother giving up her child?”

“It’s tough for them.”

“But how can they?” Darling, tiny spaces between his baby teeth; fat creases in his arms and legs; solemn brown eyes. “How can they, Jerry?”

“Question of necessity, Honey. It happens all the time. A couple don’t have enough money and they want to give their child advantages. Today it’s even more understandable. There are English children whose parents were killed; girls whose husbands died before the child was born and they’re left with no means of support. Loads of reasons.”

“But to give up a baby, jerry!”

AND then they were sitting in the same overhot room ot the Adoption Home, with its faded Japanese lanterns and the colored blocks with which they evidently tested a child’s mentality. Carol remembered how the first time it had hurt her because the bright paint was chipped. This visit was so sudden that she had had no time to prepare for it. Fervently she hoped that her lipstick was not too bright and she kept her gloves on so that the red nail polish would remain hidden.

“You’ll never know what you did for us today.” That was Jerry.

Carol wanted to say something but her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth and she felt vague, in another world. There would be bedtime stories again,

rough-and-tumble games in bed on Sunday mornings. Christopher Robin. Why, my goodness! We’ll have to go away again in the summer. She hardly realized she was speaking. “How—how soon could we have him?”

Jerry and Mrs. Mathews were smiling at her but she didn’t care. It had to be soon.

“I would say as soon as you wish, Mrs. Standard. You’ll want your own doctor to look him over and if everything is satisfactory you could take him right home.”

It came out before Carol could stop it. It was a whisper but they heard. “Oh!—Thank you, God.”

Jerry’s hand was squeezing her arm. “Don’t mind my wife, Mrs. Mathews. She’s slightly crazy.” And he laughed happily.

This was wrong. They shouldn’t act like this. The first time they had been so prim and proper, trying to impress Mrs. Mathews with their capabilities as solid and sane parents. She had said then that it would take a year or longer and now it was only seven months.

Mrs. Mathews took a white folder from her desk. “I’ve been particularly anxious to have this child shape up for you. Since the first day I saw him I had you both in mind. I waited three months for his intelligence tests to come through and we’ve watched his development carefully.” She smiled at them. “Ihn perfectly satisfied that he is the right youngster.” She returned to the folder. “He was born on Oct. 13. That makes him almost six months old.”

Carol looked out of the window. That meant size one year rompers and diapers. She still had a small duck that he could sit in and rock back and forth. The carriage would have to be brought up from the cellar, repainted and upholstered.

“He weighs 173-^ pounds.” Mrs. Mathews leaned back in her chair and held the folder up. “Let’s see. Our worker reports that he is unusually active, sits up and crawls and has made an attempt to stand.”

Carol opened her suit coat. That meant a play pen.

“His outstanding qualities are good health and intelligence. Now if it’s convenient for you we could drive up and see him tomorrow.”

“Drive up?” Jerry asked.

“Yes. You see we place our children in what we call boarding homes. Actually it is a family with children of their own. We find the home atmosphere better for our babies. They are mostly in the suburbs. Now I

can arrange with Mrs. Norden to have him ready at —say 10 o’clock?”

“Yes. Oh, yes,” Carol gasped.

Mrs. Mathews looked so pleased that Carol removed her gloves.

“It is customary for us to give you as much of the background of the child as we can. The mother is quite attractive, comes from a healthy family. She was employed as a domestic until she became pregnant. She has had an elementary school education. As in most of these cases we know very little of the father. We’ve tried repeatedly to question her about him but, quite frankly, I’m afraid that she herself doesn’t know much. From what we can gather they met at a dance hall. It was a one-night affair and she hasn’t seen him since.”

THEY didn’t look at each other. Jerry clenched his teeth so tightly that his jaw muscles protruded. He was trying not to be sick and the effort brought a flush to his forehead. He'could feel his shirt clinging to him, bathed in sweat. Carol sat in a daze, trying madly to focus her attention, always about one sentence behind Mrs. Mathews.

Finally Mrs. Mathews had finished. She was waiting for them to say something. No one spoke for a long while. “Shall I make the appointment?” she asked gently.

Jerry looked quickly at Carol. She didn’t seem to hear a thing. Her face was a white, tense mask. He said,

“I’d like to think it over.” ít was cold, stilted. “Certainly. I can understand. Let’s see. Shall we say that you call me here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock, and if you’ve decided it will still give me time to cancel my other appointments.”

“That will be fine. I’ll call you tomorrow at nine,” Jerry repeated and Carol found she was shaking hands, looking into Mrs. Mathews’ understanding eyes, and then they were outside. Jerry didn’t talk all the way home and after a quick glance ut his face Carol refrained from questioning him.

Jerry left her in the living room and went upstairs to shower. She knew he wanted to be alone, and in a strung!» way she was grateful not to have to discuss the child now. Her mind felt blank and everything around her unreal. She moved from one chair to

Continued on pane 34

Search for Peter

Continued from page 17

another. Finally she walked deliberately to the desk, unlocked a drawer and took out an album. She turned to a page marked “six months,” then she gazed down at the picture of Peter at six months old. Brown curly hair, big black eyes, small button nose. When she had stared at the picture for a long while she returned the album to the drawer. The blank numb feeling had left her.

She waited until she had changed her clothes, until dinner was over before she faced Jerry determinedly. Even then the hurt, the grim tight set of his mouth was hard to watch. He was walking around the room restlessly, “Movie?” he asked, avoiding her eyes.

She shook her head, “Maybe later. Jerry— we must talk.”

He knew that dogged tone in her voice. Sometimes it was amazing the amount of beating she could take. He I went over and sat on the arm of her chair. “All right—but 1 had a hunch that you and 1 had the same reaction. Ethought talking it over wouldn’t he necessary.”

“I know. You’re right in a way, Jerry. I did feel hurt and well—even disgusted. But I’ve changed.”

She was silent and he didn’t interrupt. He knew she would continue. She said, “Darling, you were horrified. You and I had some crazy preconceived notion that this child would come from people like us. We were being foolish. We should have realized from the beginning that couldn’t be true.” Her voice warmed, “Jerry, this baby is six months old. We have a whole lifetime ahead of us to mold and train him—to have environment work. We aren’t being fair. We originally told Mrs. Mathews we wanted a baby. We didn’t ask her about the baby’s parents or background. If she had told us nothing we would have taken the baby and felt we were the luckiest people in the world.”

j She kept seeing brown curly hair, big black eyes, a tiny nose. She had i had to fight for Peter, through hours of

pain and sweat, but that fight was nothing compared to this one. This was a fight against prejudice, against age-old tradition and against Jerry. For the first time in months she was crying, “Jerry, I know what you’re thinking. I know what you feel but you can’t blame a baby because of what his parents did—or what they were like. Jerry, please, I want to see him. If we see him, darling, and we fall in love with him that will be enough. We’ll let our emotions sway us. Just let’s see him. I know that will be enough to convince us.”

His love for her almost choked him at moments like this. He felt it welling up in him. He kissed her hair, “You win, Carol. We’ll go and see him anyway.”

THE drive up was pleasant enough.

It was like Jerry to tell Mrs. Mathews, “I hope you’re not disappointed in us. I called you every two weeks for seven months and when you finally had a baby for us I wanted to think it over.”

Mrs. Mathews seemed smaller and less formidable out of her office. “Of course not, Mr. Standard,” she said. “It’s a big step and I know just how you feel.”

Carol, wedged in between Jerry and Mrs. Mathews, didn’t talk. Her arms had that acliing emptiness that had kept her awake for weeks after Peter was gone. She was happy, though, for any minute now they would be filled. Any minute* now Peter would be back with them. His hair would be slightly damp, all brown ringlets. He would be playing intently as he always had, as if the most important thing in the world was that a square peg went into a square hole and a round peg in a circle. Any minute now he would look up from his game for a brief second to welcome her solemnly and then immediately he would concentrate on his puzzle again. Not until the game was over, perfectly finished, would he turn to her. Any minute now Peter would be hers again. Why, he might even have a ring of zinc salve in the crease beneath his left knee where he perspired and had a tendency to a rash.

Mrs. Mathews saw her flushed face and expectant eyes. She said, “You know, Airs. Standard, if you want you can take the baby right back home with you and we can have your doctor look at him at your house. We don’t usually do it that way but I’m so sure of this baby that we can stretch a bit.”

A few moments later Jerry swung the car to a halt before a shabby-looking frame house. A large woman smiled at them and asked them in. The house was stifling, and smelled of cabbage.

“Will you leave your coats down here?”

Mrs. Mathews helped Carol. She said, “We can go right upstairs.” But Carol was halfway up.

“Don’t you want to wait for your husband?” Mrs. Mathews called, but Carol ran on.

At the head of the stairs there was a room with a small white crib, and a baby peered curiously out at her. She walked in and stood silently in front of the crib. A second later Jerry stood next to her.

The baby had on a woollen jacket and the room was at least 80 deg. His blue eyes looked from one to the other. He had golden down on his head. Quite suddenly he smiled, a happy jolly smile, and Carol sat down hard on a chair. Why, this wasn’t her baby! Her baby had been serious, with brown questioning eyes. He had had curls, dark curls, and he only smiled if someone cajoled him. Why, this plump, blond, fair, jolly baby was nothing like hers. Jerry was talking to him and Carol looked around for Airs. Mathews. There was some mistake. This baby wasn’t hers at all. But Mrs. Mathews and the other woman had discreetly withdrawn.

“Hello there, fella.” Jerry put one finger out and the child grabbed it and drew himself up. He teetered on his small, plump legs and Jerry put a steadying arm around him. “Well. Not bad. Want to walk, don’t you? How about coming over and saying hello to this lady here?” Jerry picked him up and plumped him in her lap.

Mechanically she put her arm around his back so that he wouldn t fall. The child had on woollen panties. Carol didn’t believe in dressing children so warmly. They eyed each other steadily and then he grabbed at a gold button on her dress.

“Hello. Why don’t you talk to me?” Distantly she smiled at him and he started to jabber. She said, “Yes yes,” encouragingly and he grew enthusiastic, chubby legs kicking and eyes bright. Jerry knelt next to her and together they played with him. Coldly she tested his intelligence. She put a compact out of his reach to see what he would do. He did nothing. The compact wasn’t important to him. Peter would have spent all day trying to get it.

She felt Jerry’s eyes on her, questioningly. Jerry was leaving the whole thing up to her. She shook her head faintly and put the baby in his crib. She stood looking down at him. Jerry took her arm and gently propelled her to the door. They waved “bye-bye” to the baby and like casual visitors left.

Carol found it difficult to see the stairs. She almost tripped and Jerry held her arm tightly. The disappointment was too much to bear. She had come for her baby and he wasn’t here. It was like those fantast ic stories about children being mixed in a hospital. How could people be so stupid! She would have known her child anywhere and she would know if it wasn’t her child.

Mrs. Mathews discussed babies and placement most of the way home, ignoring their own incident. Jerry kept quizzing Carol with his eyes. 1 hey

asked, “You all right?” and she’d nod back at him.

They were on Sherbrooke Street when Carol said, “Airs. Mathews, I think we’d rather not take him.” She looked at the woman helplessly. “Do you mind?”

“Mrs. Standard, this is something for you and your husband to decide. You mustn’t feel in any way responsible or indebted to me.”

Jerry was there, waiting to take over for her. “We can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Mathews. Perhaps you’ll have another baby for us.”

“I’m sure I will.”

They left it at that. But Carol could see that Mrs. Mathews was disappointed. Her eyes looked tired, and for the first time she looked quite old.

“Will you be able to find him a nice home?” Carol whispered.

“My dear, we had 800 applicants last year and we only had 59 children to place.” She patted Carol’s hand. “So you see there are many more families who want children than there are youngsters for them. You won’t have to worry about him. He’ll be well taken care of.”

And Carol nodded dumbly.

JERRY was very careful to see that Carol was busy every moment the next week. It had been almost a relief after the 24 hours of strain to go back to their normal life. For a brief period Carol had forgotten that an outside world existed but now she had her usual routine —only a little more so. Her teeth needed cleaning; she had her two days a week at the Red Cross; there was the Hospital Ball; Jane Archer was in from Toronto and that meant a luncheon. They were busy every J evening and Jerry managed to keep lier ¡ out very late so that when she went to | bed she was so tired she fell asleep immediately.

Her mother caught her hand in a revolving door and in every spare moment Carol sat by her bedside, listening to long disgruntled speeches about the horrors of the modern age. Coming back from one of these soultrying visits she found herself alone literally for the first time in a week. She was on a Westmount bus, glad of the moment’s respite from the whirl of the days gone by. The bus lurched and swayed and she looked out at the fleeting faces. It stopped for a red light and Carol found her throat way parched and her palms were wet. Her old tricks of memory, agonizing moments, were returning.

A child had just rounded a corner in a baby carriage. The child was Peter— she knew it and the more she tried to reason and reassure herself the more convinced of it she was. A moment later she pushed recklessly through the crowded bus. Rudely she almost knocked over a woman. The door just missed closing on her and then she was outside. The light was against her and she dashed in and out of the way of cars, her heart in her mouth. As she raced down the street her bag flew open, and one of her hands clutched her hat securely on her head, crushing it.

She reached the carriage and breathlessly said to an amazed nurse, “Wait —please wait.”

The baby looked at her suspiciously and promptly began to cry. The nurse rushed around to the front of the carriage, tucked the child in more j securely and handed it a zwieback.

“I’m sorry, nurse,” Carol said. “I j thought—I thought I knew the baby.” j She was glad the child had stopped crying. It had made her feel so guilty. I’ve got to the point where I frighten children, she told herself bitterly.

Something was happening. Some-

thing had happened inside her. And j quite simply in front of the corner drugstore she admitted it. The baby she had thought was Peter hadn’t looked anything like him. It had been fair with blue eyes and blond hair. It had looked like the other baby—Mrs. Mathews’ baby. With a background of shaving cream, pine bath salts and a special on tooth paste, the whole new vista opened.

She walked rapidly. When she got home Jerry was energetically cleaning his desk drawers and the den was in ; a mess. Papers were strewn wildly around the room and he greeted her j helplessly, “If 1 ever get conscientious again I hope you brain me.” His hair stood up boyishly and his hands were grimy. “I was going to surprise you and now it’s more mixed up than before.”

It was Nora’s day off and methodically Carol set about cleaning uji. Jerry sank gratefully in a chair and watched.

“By the way, Carol,” he said carelessly, “do you want to stop in and see Mrs. Mathews tomorrow?”

She looked at him quickly but he was scanning a sheaf of typewritten pages, i “If you want.” Her hands were trembling.

“Might be a good idea.” He didn’t lift his eyes from the pages.

Carol came over and stood in front of him. Unconsciously she straightened her shoulders. “Jerry.”

“Mmn?”

“I only want to see Mrs. Mathews if you do.” Her heart was stilled for what seemed like an eternity. Now—now she should tell him! But only if he understood. Only if he felt as she did.

“Darling,” he pulled her down on his lap and his eyes searched tiers anxiously, “I can’t get that kid out of my mind. I’ve been afraid to say anything. I didn’t know whether you had changed your mind about him. God! Carol, every day I’ve been scared stiff. Suppose they—gave him to someone else!”

Jerry understood! Jerry always knew —always felt the right way. She smoothed his hair. “It doesn’t matter, Jerry. Really it doesn’t. I found that out today. Because almost all babies look something alike. It isn’t their coloring, it isn’t even their mannerisms, it’s just the simple fact that they’re babies—needing protection and love. A round cheek, a snubby nose, it all adds up to the same thing. If they belong to you they’re more beautiful than the others but actually—actually, Jerry, they’re babies!”

He jumped up and swung her to her feet. He faced her triumphantly and his voice rang with wonder. “That’s it, Honey—that’s the secret we needed to find. That’s the answer and leave it to you—you found it. Just as long as it’s our baby it will be the most perfect child on God’s earth.” He shook her gently. “What are you waiting for? Get to the phone.”

She smiled at him and then went to the telephone. She dialed the number and when she finally spoke her voice was steady. “Mrs. Mathews, this is Carol Standard. You probably have placed our baby but have patience with us, please. We want a baby—any baby.”

The voice that answered was as trembling as her own was calm. “Your baby is waiting for you, Mrs. Standard.

I rather hoped you would call and I decided to wait for a month before doing anything about him. So many mothers who have lost their own children become confused and don’t realize that their new baby may look a little different. It happens all the time.” “We’ll get the car and pick you up in 10 minutes. We can drive right up.” Jerry had been pressing his ear to the phone. He hung up the receiver and like children, holding hands, they ran from the house.

MRS. MATHEWS mopped her face.

It was another warm April 2. She heard a child laugh and then great confusion—and they were in her office. Carol, gay and charming in cool beige— Jerry, and the baby, adorable in a minutely checked hat and coat. He walked now. Everyone talked at once. There were t he final adoption papers to sign. The baby ecstatically dipped his fingers in the inkwell.

Carol said, “Oh, Mrs. Mathews. We’d like a sister for our son. Only this time we leave it up to you.” She smiled faintly. “We tflon’t want to know anything about her background. We’re only interested in the child.”

They left after a half hour and Mrs. Mathews listened to their voices ringing in the hall. “Jerry, you’ve got his leggings twisted. What’s the use! You two men never listen to me. I’ll have to get me a daughter.”

Mrs. Mathews smiled. She was tired but every once in a while it was worth it. It was late but she went through her files. She was looking for a little girl— intelligent, healthy, background didn’t matter—to place in a good home with a young attractive mother and father, one child, age l) ¿ years—named Peter.