Grandpa’s Birthday

This was written 12/31/08.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. He was born the last day of December 1927. Today he is 81 years old.

Since today is his birthday, I will tell you the story of his actual birthday, 81 years ago.

Grandpa is the sixth of ten children. Grandpa’s brother Doug is about five years older than Grandpa and what I am telling you is primarily my reconstruction of what he told me about Grandpa’s birthday. Doug is nearly 86 years old but is still very healthy and active for his age, and has a sharp memory. However, like everyone he sometimes gets facts mixed up, and, since he was only just short of 5 years old when Grandpa was born, his memory of the event is that of a young child. Also, I have not had the chance to have Doug read my re-telling of his story here, so it is possible I may also introduce some errors. I say all of this because there may be family members (you know who you are) who will quibble with certain portions of what I am about to tell, so I simply preface this by saying it is my rendition of Doug’s story of Grandpa’s birth.

Grandpa’s birth was eventful–an event just short of a tragedy. It all started when great-grandma, still pregnant with the baby, fell down the stairs. Just hearing that can make you flinch, and Doug remembers it with the vividness of childhood trauma.

She was standing on a step-ladder at the top of the stairs, Doug said. I think he may have said she was cleaning. One can imagine it was just before the new year and the pregnant mother with a bunch of little kids under foot was trying to get the house cleaned for the new year. Or maybe with the baby coming she felt the urge to “feather her nest” before its arrival. In any case, she was big and awkward in the final days of her pregnancy. Most people wouldn’t have even tried to clean their house that close to term, much less get on a ladder. But she was in a rush, and wasn’t thinking.

She fell, Doug said, down the stairs, landing on a metal bucket full of water. Thinking about it is enough to make you recoil in horror. It is the type of story the ends with dead babies, and even dead mothers. “I saw her lying there,” Doug said, and when he spoke he had the faraway look of someone seeing a memory all over again. “There was blood.”

It is not hard to imagine the stark terror a little 4-year-old boy would feel finding his mother laying at the bottom of the stairs, contorted in pain and bleeding, her own fear of losing the child inside her painted on her face. She went into labor and was rushed to the hospital for a difficult, breach delivery. Both mother and baby survived, and a baby that could have been dead was born December 31, 1927. But all was not right with Grandpa.

“His head was crooked when he came home,” Doug said. Grandpa had Torticollis (also called Wry Neck). It was the result of the fall, Doug said. And for some ten years Grandpa was the little boy with the crooked head. Then as a boy of about 10 or 12 years he underwent surgery to correct the problem. Afterward there was a neck brace, and physical therapy. Grandpa still bears the scars from the surgery today. Long thick scars run up both sides of the back of his neck. It looks like it must have been terribly painful surgery, but if you met Grandpa on the street you would never know he had been born with Torticollis.

Doug said the year he got his neck fixed was the same year he accidentally stuck his hand in the corn chopper and lost the last joint off his pointer and index fingers. But that is a different story.


–Before I wrote this Grandma told me that Grandpa’s oldest sibling Anna had said that some other baby had died when their mother fell down the stairs. However, Grandma also said she heard this from Anna after she had begun exhibiting signs of dementia. Because of this, and the fact that the assertion was third hand while Doug told me his story himself and was quite clear and firm in his claim I have deferred to his account.

–There is some dispute over what was the direct cause of Grandpa’s Tortillis. Doug claims it was because of the fall and one can certainly see how he would reach that conclusion: Mother falls down stairs, baby brother comes home with crooked head. But other people have asserted other reasons. Grandma said she was told that Grandpa was involved in a breach birth (Doug did not give me that bit of information) and she thought the doctors had damaged him trying to get him out. The website I linked above for Torticollis says that:

Torticollis may be:

* Inherited: Due to faulty genes
* Acquired: Develops as a result of damage to the nervous system or muscles

If the condition occurs without a known cause, it is called idiopathic torticollis.

Torticollis may develop in childhood or adulthood. Congenital torticollis (present at birth) may occur if the fetus’ head is in the wrong position while growing in the womb, or if the muscles or blood supply to the fetus’ neck are injured.

So, the official possibilities are (a) Genetic defect (b) Wrong position while in the womb or (c) injury to the neck. Any of those is possible. A difficult breach birth, with doctors struggling to get the infant out, could certainly injure the neck. And having the mother fall down the stairs on a metal bucket could also injury the neck.

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