The Jersey Blanket

The Jersey Blanket

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

The Jersey Blanket

By cultivating the beautiful we scatter the seeds of heavenly flowers, as by doing good we cultivate those that belong to humanity.

Vernon Howard

“Stella, I have to go back to work.” Mac’s face was white and strained from being a widower with a new baby. “I don’t have anyone to help me with Billy. They told me at the hospital that without breast milk he’ll die. They said he might die anyway. They said they’ve done all they can for him; he’s just too small.”

Stella was still nurturing grief and guilt having just watched her friend Sarah die after childbirth. At the age of forty, Stella had given birth four months previously to Lydia, her own healthy baby girl. Now Sarah’s distraught husband, Mac, stood before her, holding his four-pound infant swathed in a jersey blanket. Billy’s face, no bigger than Stella’s hand, peered back into her eyes. How would she care for two babies? It was 1930; she had two other girls to feed, and Stella would have to ask for additional leave from her job in the hosiery mill. Her husband, Ed, had to move north to find work in the glass cutting industry. What would he say about another mouth to feed?

The steel in Stella’s spirit could never be manufactured nor sold for profit. She put her fears aside to give Mac the answer she knew in her heart was the right one. “Yes, I’ll take him and do my best to bring him around.”

My grandmother, Stella, didn’t allow the word “defeat” into her vocabulary. She ran a boarding house while working in a hosiery mill. This by itself would have been a challenge, but she was also willing to try to give this motherless baby the same start she was giving her own child.

The babies ate on different schedules; Stella seemed to always be feeding. Billy’s mouth was so small she pumped her milk into a teacup and filled a medicine dropper with the liquid to feed him. By the time she was finished, little Lydia was howling for her turn to be fed. Lydia’s diapers were much too large for a premature baby. Neighbors in the community donated men’s T-shirts, and Stella used her sewing skills to fashion them into tiny diapers. The older girls became proficient in cooking and cleaning to enable the boarding house to maintain the income they so desperately needed for survival. Stella’s oldest child, a teenager, watched the two babies while Stella pieced feed sacks together to make her daughters’ school clothes.

Stella heard Mac’s voice over the hum of her sewing machine as he walked in the door for a short visit. “Stella, he’s looking so much better. I’d love to take him home, but I’d only have to bring him right back to you when I go to work.” Mac’s voice caught in a sob as he kneeled over the dresser drawer that held his tiny son. “One day you can come home with me, Billy-boy, I promise.” Tears washed Mac’s face as he kissed Billy’s tiny head.

“Don’t worry, Mac. You’ll be able to take him home once you get a little more money ahead. If you have to be away from him, it’s better now than when he really knows you’re his daddy,” Stella comforted.

Months passed into a year and a half, and Billy and Lydia began to toddle and play together. Any delay in development that Billy might have experienced was overcome through the attention he received from four females in the house. Billy mimicked Lydia’s constant chatter to develop language skills of his own. Stella loved Billy as if he were her own son, convinced that nourishing a child with praise and affection was just as important as a good meal.

Billy had just turned four when Stella received the phone call she knew eventually would come. “Stella, this is Mac, I want to bring somebody over to meet you tonight.”

After agreeing to the visit, Stella went to her bedroom and sobbed. “Dear God, this begins the end of my time with Billy. Show me how to face this loss, take me through this grief.”

Stella liked Mac’s friend, Margie, immediately. The couple planned to be married, and Billy would have a new mother.

As Stella packed Billy’s clothes, she found the now-worn jersey blanket Mac had wrapped him in that first day. Holding it close, she decided to keep it. She knew that Billy’s heavenly mother, Sarah, would be proud of her for nurturing Billy as her own. “Thank you, God, and now help Billy’s new mama give him all the love he needs, and I pray you’d allow me to see him now and again.”

In the years to follow, Mac made sure Billy never forgot Stella. They visited her on special holidays and birthdays. Some twenty years later, Stella received a phone call. “Mama Stella, there’s somebody I want you to meet. Could we visit you tonight?”

Billy’s voice was deep and confident.

“Sure, son, come on over.” Stella enjoyed talking to Billy and his new fiancée. They were exactly right for each other. They married, and in a few years, they began to have children of their own. When Stella learned their first baby was Billy Jr., she threaded the needle on her sewing machine with light blue thread. Gradually, the worn jersey blanket took on new life, the tattered edges neatly trimmed with blue thread.

When her task was complete, Stella called Billy on the phone. “I have a gift for the new baby. Bring your family to see me.” Proudly, Stella presented Billy and his wife with the blanket.

“You put it around him Mama Stella,” Billy said as he handed his firstborn to the woman who had saved his life twenty-four years earlier.

Stella swaddled this precious newborn inside the jersey blanket and held him close to her heart, remembering another little Billy so long ago. Her steel blue eyes penetrated Billy Jr.’s brand-new parents. “Wrap this little boy with love warm as a blanket, and he’ll always come back to you,” she said as she passed Billy Jr. back to the arms of his devoted mom and dad.

Ann Coogler

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