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The Baby Book

It was probably in the early '80s when I wandered into a local bookstore a few blocks from my little apartment in New York. I had nothing but time then and seemed to spend a lot of it poking around second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. I walked out of the store that day with a baby book from the 1920s—partially filled out—commemorating the first year of a child's life. Entitled Our Baby, it was smudged and a bit tattered. Its beautiful illustrations and type brought to mind a different era. Handwritten notes listed celebratory telegrams, the baby's first gifts, developmental progress, and other vital bits dear to every new parent. I didn't like the contrast, though, between the book's carefully recorded details and its later life in an anonymous shop. With the confidence of one possessing little life experience and a thick phone book, I thought, "I'll find where this book belongs."

I made determined attempts to research the child's name at the library but each time came up empty. Using 1980s technology didn't help. Life became busy and my enthusiasm dwindled when, continually, time invested produced no results. And so the purpose of acquiring the book fell away and it simply became one of my things. I moved to a bigger apartment, and then to another. I got married and relocated, became a mother and moved again. Our Baby survived each pass of sorting, donating, and disposing. Of course it did. I wasn't done with it yet.

What became of this child? She was born in the fall of 1924. Some of her first gifts were a prayer book, hymnal, and quilted satin coat. I had details of her early life, captured in beautiful penmanship, but everything beyond that was a mystery. It seemed this little girl loved to play with her mother's fur-lined gloves, but how did she have fun in her later years? She "walked alone at nine months, two or three steps," but where did life take her as an adult? One episode must have been particularly frightening: "At 7 months climbed over the edge of her bassinet and fell, but was caught in mid-air by her mother." She was blessed to be born into a nurturing home; was she equally fortunate making her way as an adult? Every five or ten years my curiosity would wake up and I'd take another crack at these questions. At some point the maturing internet was able to answer back.

Three days ago, in the thirty minutes between finishing a job estimate and welcoming my son home from school, I rediscovered the book, hopped online, and—to my wonder—found a niece of the little girl. I gave her a call and, after her initial surprise and delight, she was able to fill in some of the mystery.

Mary Claire was raised in New York. She had curly reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. She had a younger brother and sister, and a cocker spaniel she loved playing with. She was athletic and, at 5'2", qualified for the basketball team at her small all-girls high school. Mary Claire had a lot of fun with her sister, dancing and singing popular songs from the '40s together at holiday gatherings. She majored in economics at Vassar College, where she liked to stay up all night playing bridge with friends. She was in love and then had her heart broken when her fiancé was killed in the Pacific during World War II. Later, Mary Claire married and, along with her husband, headed a thriving travel agency in New York. They did not have children. She traveled extensively—to France, Portugal, South Africa and Egypt, among other places. She was a list-maker and kept careful notes of the outfits she'd worn abroad. She liked to bake and entertain with her husband. Mary Claire was happy.

She passed away in 1978. Our Baby is now in the hands of her niece, her namesake.

After 35 years of wondering, it's satisfying now to have an understanding of the life of this person, born long ago, who in her first year was warmed by the gifts of a tiny crocheted jacket, a pink wool blanket, and a loving family. Delving into corners of the past and then discovering what happened in later years . . . it's just my favorite kind of time travel.

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