From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

George and Gracie’s Babies

Adopting babies was a popular thing to do among show business people in the 1930s. I was agreeable; Gracie wanted to have children and I wanted to make Gracie happy. But we just kept putting it off. We were on the road too much, the apartment wasn’t big enough, we had a picture coming up, there was always something. Then one afternoon we had lunch with another actor and he brought along his adopted daughter. The kid did all the right things—she smiled at Gracie and laughed at my cigar. As soon as we got home, we called The Cradle, a Catholic foundling home in Evanston, Illinois.

Months passed before we heard from The Cradle. Finally, they called and told us that we could have a baby if we came to Evanston immediately. Gracie and her friend Mary were on a train to Chicago three hours later. I stayed in New York.

They showed Gracie three babies to select from. How do you pick out a kid? How do you know which one is going to be tall and attractive and smart? How do you know which one is going to have a good disposition? How do you know which one is going to laugh at her father’s jokes? The answer is, you don’t, you can’t. It’s exactly the same chance you take as having a child naturally.

Gracie picked the smallest baby, a tiny five-week-old with great big blue eyes, and named her Sandra Jean. Sandra Jean Burns.

The Cradle offered to provide a nurse to accompany Gracie and Mary back to New York, but Gracie figured two grown women should be able to take care of one small baby. And the two of them felt very confident—until the baby sneezed. That’s when Gracie realized they were outnumbered. Neither one of them knew what to do, so Gracie covered the baby’s body with her fur coat. Sometime during the night, the coat slipped down and covered the baby’s head. When Gracie woke up and saw that, she thought she’d smothered her daughter. Making a lopsided cake was one thing, but smothering your daughter a few hours after you’ve had her? She grabbed the coat and watched helplessly to see if the baby was breathing. The baby was fine—it was Gracie who was having trouble breathing. So she sat up in the compartment the rest of the trip just watching her daughter breathe.

I didn’t get to pace up and down in a waiting room; I had Grand Central Station. Believe me, I was as nervous as any expectant father has ever been, and I knew exactly when my baby was due. The train pulled in on time. That was one of the rare occasions when a train conductor delivered a baby.

The first night we had Sandy at home Gracie asked me if I wanted to change the baby. “Nah,” I said, “let’s try this one out first.” That was about as close as I ever came to actually eating a cigar. I guess Gracie was a little sensitive. But what did I know about changing a baby’s diapers?

The thing about the baby that surprised me most was how much space something so small could take up. Our second bedroom, which had been my den, became her nursery. The kitchen was the operations center—that’s where we kept her bottles, her milk, her formula, her jars of baby food, the piles of clean diapers and some of the toys that overflowed from my former den. I don’t know, maybe there were some babies who had more toys than Sandy did. Santa Claus’s kids, for instance.

As it turned out, Sandy was such a delight that we decided she should have a brother.

Gracie picked out our son Ronnie because he needed her most. Now, that sounds like a line written by a Hollywood press agent, but it’s true. The other babies they showed her were all chubby and healthy, and she knew there was a long list of people waiting to adopt chubby, healthy babies. Ronnie’s crib was off by itself in a corner; maybe that’s what first attracted Gracie’s attention to him. She went over and looked at him. “He was so small,” she told me when she finally brought him home, “and he followed me with his eyes when I moved, and I knew I had to take him.”

He was premature, a nurse told Gracie, and for several weeks doctors didn’t know if he was going to survive.

Since I’m telling the truth, I have to admit that Ronnie was an ugly baby. People say all babies look like Winston Churchill; Ronnie made Winston Churchill look handsome. Ronnie looked like a wrinkled little man with a funny-shaped head. “What do you think, Nattie?”

I thought that if I was smart, I’d keep my mouth shut. “Look, you know I don’t mind responsibility,” I said, “but, Googie, why’d you pick a sick kid?”

“I just fell in love with his eyes. I know he’s not well, but we can make him well. It’s the same chance we would have taken if we’d had him, isn’t it?”

Ronnie had a tough first year. For a long time he couldn’t gain any weight, and his skin was so sensitive that we could only bathe him in oil and we had to wrap him in cotton. Gracie and our nurse spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices. Gracie fussed over him like I worked on our scripts. But Ronnie was a smart kid, and once he figured out how to grow, he didn’t stop until he was almost 6' 2" tall and much better looking than Winston Churchill.

Gracie had been right.

George Burns

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