That Was Before – Novel Excerpt

June 1953

Compared to Dr. Levi’s office on the North Side of Chicago, a bright and airy space on the fourteenth floor of a steel and glass building with windows so large Nettie thought nothing other than circus tents would have been big enough to serve as curtains, the pediatrician’s office in Sister Lakes felt as small and dark as an outhouse. Nettie had rechecked the address three times before entering the converted Victorian home, and once inside, found she needed to walk through a law practice, in what must have originally been intended as the parlor room, to reach the doctor’s waiting area.

Dark purple floral wallpaper covered the walls, except for the naked streaks where it had been tugged off; a few dog-eared corners up by the top of the molding begged to be yanked, the house’s hangnails. All of the windows, from the big bay in the front to the chessboard-sized windows on either side of the fireplace, were framed in rich mahogany and covered in fraying lace curtains, which hung limp and uneven like a dress falling off the shoulder of young girl in her mother’s gown. The windows also seemed to be painted shut—for what other reason could there possibly have been for keeping them closed on such a lovely, early summer day?

Nettie had requested the first appointment of the morning, and the temperature and humidity in the house were already on the rise. Droplets of sweat formed on her forehead and upper lip, breaking through the layers of foundation and powder she’d put on an hour before. She was anxious to have a doctor confirm that there was nothing wrong with David, anxious to hear anything he’d tell her, but hoping, so hoping, he’d say it was all in their heads.

With David held tight to her chest, Nettie sat on one of the badly-patched ornate sofas in the waiting area. Given the room’s built-in cabinets and decorative pillars, she guessed it to have been at one time the home’s dining room. She imagined the dinners and parties that must have been held there; she saw hats with feathers and layered petticoats. Nettie couldn’t think of a single Victorian home within Skokie, but Evanston was full of them, and Nettie loved driving past the grand houses, Lake Michigan close by, the greenest grass on every lawn, cut to the exact right height. Marion and Michael, Astrid and Herman, Lev and Vera, just like her and Zeke, all lived in one-story homes; their houses were flat, square and utilitarian, nothing like the gingerbread house she was sitting in now.

The city of Sister Lakes, the town closest to Yarrow Branch, could be fully walked, one side to the other, and then back again, before lunch. It was where the family went to do their grocery shopping, where they had their hair done, went out for ice cream, or spent a night bowling. Other than the main drag, which held most of the town’s businesses, and a half dozen other isolated stores with their own parking lots, Sister Lakes was mostly made up of old homes with wrap around porches, a third of which were flying American flags; the Fourth of July and Flag Day were only a few weeks away. A few of the homes had been kept up well, but the majority of houses, especially those on the smaller side streets, looked discarded and gloomy. Their green and tan facades crumbled like pieces of two-day-old cake. Nettie often wondered how one could keep up such an imposing home—it seemed the residents of Sister Lakes had not figured it out either.

On sunny days, the action all happened on the two lakes, Margaret and Elizabeth, bodies of water named for the first set of twins born to the town, which was really no more than a prairie then. Marion and Astrid jokingly referred to the lakes by their own names, and regularly, after one too many cocktails, claimed to have been Margaret and Elizabeth in a past life. One afternoon, the week prior, while Nettie had watched them splash and laugh around in Lake Elizabeth, she wondered if it might not be true; the twins were never happier than when the family was summering in Yarrow Branch. And neither was Nettie.

But still, there was something about Sister Lakes that felt worn, like the whole town belonged in an attic. Loose shingles and deformed steps were as common as mosquitos at dusk. The streets were packed with cars, making it look like a busy little city, but it didn’t take long to learn that the traffic was entirely caused by day-trippers. Water skiing, swimming, and boating were the true appeal of Sister Lakes. Nettie couldn’t imagine how quiet winter must have been in the little town, and outside of the shopkeepers, and one Yarrow Branch employee who was born in Sister Lakes, she had never met a year-round resident of the town before walking into the doctor’s office that day.

“Can I help you?” asked a tall woman with wavy chestnut hair piled high on her head and a cup of coffee in each hand. She was staring at David in his light-yellow romper, and had a pencil tucked behind her ear, making her seem official in a place that looked anything but. Nettie guessed her to be one of the lawyers’ secretaries.

“Oh, I’m sorry. We’re a bit early for our appointment.”

Nettie had become so distracted by the home’s flaking wainscoting, and the gaps in the flooring, the wide, wooden planks warped from water damage, that she hadn’t noticed David starting to fuss; the woman with the pencil clearly had. Nettie watched her lips purse and her face contort as if she were sucking on a sour lemon drop candy. Obviously, she had no children of her own.

As David’s cries grew louder, Nettie cooed his name in a sing-song voice and tried to bounce him on her knee. When that didn’t work, she stood to sway with him, aware the whole while of the growing number of eyes on her son. David’s wail echoed through the whole first floor and swirled right up the staircase to the rooms where, in the house’s previous life, parents had tucked their children in to bed and sang them songs and read them books. With the spacious home’s acoustics, David’s cry sounded as if it were coming from everywhere at once. It could have just as likely belonged to a sad ghost in the attic as it did a red-faced boy waiting to see the doctor.

The others in the house might not have been able to translate David’s misery, but this cry Nettie knew well. Life had become, in the last two years, a never-ending cycle of dry to wet, made worse by adding a second child; right as she changed one’s diaper, the other one needed cleaning up.

“Might you be able to point us to the doctor’s powder room?” Nettie asked the woman, who continued to stand directly in front of her, gaping at David.

“We share one here,” she answered in a syrupy Midwest accent.

“Oh,” Nettie said, realizing her question had gone unanswered.

The woman had thick curves and a tight royal blue skirt that pulled at her hips like a bandage on a swollen sprain. Her excess wasn’t like Nettie’s, it wasn’t leftover, repurposed baby weight. Her stomach was taut, and her breasts were full and high. She was no more than five years Nettie’s senior, but her style and composure made Nettie think she had spent a century enjoying uncontrolled stares and had become a professional at asking them to linger. She might as well have been Cleopatra, and the more Nettie looked at her, the more certain she became that this woman was too shiny, to striking to be working in a dilapidated office.

They stood there, David bawling between them, for a few more seconds before the spell broke and the beautiful woman—because that’s exactly what she was, Nettie knew—remembered what she’d been asked.

“Right, you wanted to know where the ladies’ was?” She pointed to her left using the full coffee cup, spilling some on the floor. “The door under the stairs.”

“Thank you,” Nettie said to the woman, who was already walking away. Nettie glanced down at her own skirt, a linen pleated tan hand-me-down from Marion, which hung below her knees and had flecks of dried formula dotting the side. Her blouse, pale peach with tiny roses, was wrinkled at the waist, and her brown belt drooped slightly in the front.

“He should be with you in a minute,” the woman shouted over her shoulder.

“Oh, do you work with Dr. Bennett too?”

The woman stopped and walked back to Nettie. “I work for them all. There aren’t too many girls roun’ here that finish school. It’s all kids and—”

Nettie interrupted, “Where does everybody go?”

“As far as they can get,” she chuckled. “Go right on back when you finish. The office is past the kitchen, you can’t miss it. Just knock and say your name, ‘case I’m not back yet to introduce you.”

“Thanks.” Nettie nodded and held David’s head against her neck, trying to both comfort him and muffle his cries.

The bathroom, unmistakably a converted closet, was nice enough. A seafoam green toilet and matching pedestal sink added a touch of spring color to an otherwise dreary space. Hand towels embroidered with the initials G.L.B. dangled from a brass rack below a framed postcard of a European-looking city on the water with mountains in the background. Chapel Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland was written in smudged black ink on the white border. Nettie lifted the picture off the wall to see if she might be able to read anything written on the backside of the postcard, but the frame was sealed.

When David was clean again, and his jumper buttoned back up, he let out a great sigh from deep in his belly; he had exhausted even himself. Nettie saw a final tear pull down heavy towards his dimpled chin as she propped him, sitting, in the corner between a basket of decorative dried roses and the wall. David jerked a bit, moving his body away from the scratchy wicker basket.

“You’re ok, honey. I just need to rinse and dry my hands and I’m all yours,” Nettie said to him in her most gentle voice.

In the mirror hanging over the sink, Nettie watched David as he adjusted to his confinement. Finally settled, he leaned forward and began touching the black and white honeycomb-patterned tiles under his body. He pressed down softly on them as if playing a little ditty on a keyboard, and after a short while, spread his full chubby palms over the cool surface, seemingly delighted by the smooth texture and slight crevices that separated the octagonal black pieces from the faintly yellowed squares.

David looked so perfectly beautiful that Nettie found herself doubting their visit. She hadn’t told anyone she was taking him to the doctor. Maybe it was because she didn’t want to cause alarm or maybe, most of all, it was because she didn’t want Esther to find out and think her concerns had had anything to do with it.

In the weeks since Esther had arrived, Nettie learned that unlike Vera, who found a way to be positive about everything, Esther was perpetually miserable. She was the piano dangling overhead, and every day Nettie watched as another one of its intricately woven cords snapped. The rope would be threadbare soon.

“She’s Russian, vhat you expect?” Lev had answered when Nettie asked why Esther always looked so unhappy.

“But you’re Russian and you’re happy?”

“Is cause I have pretty American daughter-in-law.” Lev patted her hand and walked off whistling.

The fact that Esther spent most of her days alone with her parrot and had yet to actually try to say hello to Nettie or her children didn’t do anything to loosen the knot in Nettie’s stomach, the knot Ester’s paranoia had created. Nettie caught Esther gawking at David whenever they were in a room together, and had seen her, more than once, pointing at him and whispering into Vera’s ear, one hand cupped around her mouth like a girl on the schoolyard. Babbling, blathering, always in Yiddish, and always about her son. Nettie was sure of it. And though it troubled her greatly, Nettie felt that Vera too had started looking at David differently. Recently when Vera held him, it was as if she was exploring his face, searching for a clue, checking for a sign or symptom that would either allow her to agree or disagree with her sister.

After drying her hands on one of the monogrammed towels, Nettie opened her purse and took out her powder compact and a cream blush from inside the silk pouch she carried her makeup in. She applied both in the mirror before suddenly having the sense that something was missing. Where was David? Hadn’t he been present in the mirror behind her own reflection? Nettie turned around and gasped. David had tipped over and the side of his head was balanced on the edge of the basket. Dried petals surrounded him; they were stuck to his skin, in his hair. His eyes were focused straight ahead, and his arms lay at his side unmoving, as if they were no more alive than the petals scattered around his body. There was no noise coming from his mouth, simply a held smile and a bit of drool at the corner of his lips. If he hadn’t blinked, she might have thought he’d turned to stone.

Nettie dropped to her knees and pulled David’s clumsy body off the porcelain tiles. Against his mother’s skin he reanimated, and Nettie kissed him over and over. There didn’t appear to be any damage, no bruises, cuts or bumps, but then again, why would there be? His tumble had been so quiet, so small, she hadn’t even heard it happen. It was as though he just slid, like Jell-O coming out of a pan. Nettie rocked him back and forth as much for her own comfort as for his, and he gurgled a surprised and excited sound before smiling wide, showing off his new tooth.

When Nettie was a little girl, back in her family’s home, her mother had sung “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” to her before bed each night, and by the time Nettie was eight or nine, the song had become a duet, a ritual performed under the covers. Mother and daughter would hold hands, or Nettie would snuggle into any of the warm, soft places on her mother’s body until sleep would overtake one or both of them.

When she was first pregnant, Nettie imagined herself singing the song into her son or daughter’s tiny ear, chanting, For your smile is a part of the love in your heart, and it makes even sunshine more bright, but when she opened her mouth to sing to Judy, she found a blackness swirling around where the words should have been. She was hollow and had no energy to speak, let alone sing. That black feeling only grew more sinister until Nettie assumed her entire heart was covered in soot; it didn’t go away until Judy was almost a year-old and then she was already pregnant with David. At nearly two, Judy had heard the song less times than Nettie’s mother had sung it to her in a single evening. But sitting on the bathroom floor, Nettie sang to David, verse after chorus after verse. And when he wouldn’t meet her eyes, she sang louder. She said his name. But David stared off at something Nettie couldn’t see. Is he looking at the door handle? The keyhole? Like all babies, David enjoyed anything that glittered or glistened.

Nettie stood up with David in her arms, wiped off the tears that had formed but not yet fallen, and walked back to the doctor’s section of the house. Without saying her name or knocking, Nettie entered Dr. Bennett’s office, a wood-paneled three-season room with a screen door that led to the backyard. From what she could see, the yard, like the rest of the house, was in desperate need of care; the grass was completely overgrown, and the weeds had definitely won the battle for territory. Her father-in-law would have been horrified.

“Excuse me,” Nettie said.

Dr. Bennett glanced up from the work on his gray metal tanker desk. “You’re Mrs. Orloff, I’m guessing?”

“Yes, Nettie. And this is David. I’m sorry to barge in.”

He put out his half-smoked cigarette and closed the open notebook. “That’s alright. We don’t have a great system here.”

Dr. Bennett walked over to one of the glass cabinets on the side wall and pulled from it a folded floral sheet, which he draped over the exam table. “Alrighty, what’s the problem? I think Carroll mentioned your little mister has a cold or fever.”

“Oh no, nothing like that.”

“Well, whoops.” He shrugged his shoulders. “My mistake. I must be mixing up patients, this is the busy season for us.”

“We’re at Yarrow Branch for the summer,” Nettie said, approaching the table. “Don, the resort manager, sent us? He said you take care of his kids.”

“Don Walters?”

“I’m not sure of his last name. Dark hair, tall. Thin?”

“I don’t think I’d call Walters a thin man, more like a two-ton sack of potatoes!” Dr. Bennett laughed and slapped his knee. “But I’m sure I know your Don, I see lots of the children here. There are no other pediatricians within twenty miles. GP’s only.” He reached out his arms for David. “Here. Give him here.”

Nettie did as she was told and handed her son over.

David looked tiny in Dr. Bennett’s arms, which swaddled all but his pink face. The doctor was probably in his sixties, but had the broad shoulders and strong, taut neck of a much younger man. He reminded Nettie, ever so slightly, of her own father. Both men stood a full foot above her and wore thin wire-rimmed glasses, but the similarities in appearance stopped there. Dr. Bennett’s starched white coat could not have been more different than her father’s denim factory uniform, which she rarely saw him out of. She remembered the thick layer of black grime that was always matted to his skin when he came home at the end of day and how it would rub off on her cheek when she hugged him.

“He looks like a healthy guy. Most of the kids are coming in with chills and blue lips. They can’t wait to throw themselves in the lake. Makes you wonder where their mothers are and why it takes them so long wrap up their shivering children.” Dr. Bennett held David out in front of him and gave him a little squeeze as if he were inspecting a piece of produce. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the lake is too cold at this time of year.”

“David hasn’t been in the lake yet,” Nettie said, reaching out to hold David’s dangling hand.

“Mrs. Orloff, what is your concern? He has good color. He’s about five months, am I right?” Dr. Bennett tilted David’s head back and squinted, peering into his open mouth. “His teeth are coming in right on time. Height and weight seem adequate. Maybe he’s a little on the small side.”

“He’ll be twenty-six weeks on Tuesday.”

“Yes, sure, a little petite. We can weigh him.”

“It’s just that my family has me alarmed. Sometimes, it’s like David doesn’t focus his eyes. That’s what they say, my family, I mean. I don’t know how to explain it. And his body, he’s different than his sister was. She was quite strong by this age.” Nettie felt tears welling up again in her eyes.

“Would you like to take a seat?” Dr. Bennett looked away from her and gestured towards his desk chair.

It was obvious her visible emotion had made him uncomfortable, so she accepted his offer and walked to the desk, leaving David in his arms. “Could I trouble you for a light?” Nettie asked, digging in her purse for her cigarettes.

“Yes, of course. I keep one right in my bottom drawer.”

Nettie glanced up to see Dr. Bennet walking towards her; David sat slumped, alone on the floral sheet.

“Wait, you can’t leave him there like that!” she yelled out, and pushed past Dr. Bennett to get to David, who was slouching considerably to the left, as his weighty head slowly towed his body towards the edge of the exam table. “That’s part of the problem, he falls over.”

Nettie grabbed David from the table and clutched him tightly to her breast. Despite her best efforts to contain her panic, it was mere seconds before giant tears were rapidly streaming down her face. Nettie’s fear and anxiety, and everything she’d been holding in for weeks had erupted, and it took her full willpower to keep from losing her breakfast as well.

“Mrs. Orloff, please calm down. He’s absolutely fine, there’s no need to go to hysterics. Nothing happened.” Dr. Bennett put his arm around Nettie and brought her back over to his chair. Once she was seated, he took David back from her and opened one of the heavy steel drawers, pulling out an engraved Navy lighter and a gold cigarette case. He placed both on his desk on top of a splayed stack of patient charts and his well-worn notebook.

“I’ll take a look at your David, but you must understand that children develop at different rates, and some sit up before others, some crawl late. I had a sweet little girl in here the other day who was walking at eight months, if you can believe it.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” Nettie said, bringing her cheek to the shoulder of her blouse to dab her tears. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and then dried her skin off with her skirt. Damp marks stretched from her left knee across to the right like zebra stripes. Nettie knew she’d broken about a dozen rules of etiquette, but she thought even Emily Post would have given her a pass in that moment.

“Might you like a hanky?” Dr. Bennett looked around, snapping his head from the bookcase to the cabinet and back to his desk. “I can’t find where Carroll put the tissue, but I can give you a towel to use or a sheet? Carroll tends to reorganize things. I can call her in?”

Nettie sniffed in whatever mucus she could and felt the excess moisture drip down the back of her throat. “Oh, no need. I’m okay. I’ll be okay, really.” She lit one of the cigarettes.

“Why don’t we start over. Can you tell me when you began worrying that something was wrong? What symptoms are concerning you the most?” Dr. Bennett was clearly eager to move on from her outburst. Had he never had a parent cry in his office before?

“I don’t know if there are any symptoms. I mean, just now in the bathroom I was worried. He tipped over and then stopped moving, and then he wouldn’t look at me, even when I said his name. Also, we were celebrating my birthday a few weeks back and my mother-in-law’s sister mentioned to another family member that she thought something was wrong with his eyes.”

“I guess I should wish you a happy belated birthday then.”

“Thank you.” Nettie took a long drag on her cigarette. “But David, I feel he’s, I don’t know, too floppy. We know a boy from the neighborhood who screams a lot and won’t look at anyone in the eye, and he flaps his arms like he’s trying to fly away, but David isn’t like that either. David truly doesn’t cry much, though I’m sure you heard us in the bathroom. I don’t know what’s wrong, but now I can’t stop thinking he’s not ok.”

“It’s easy for overbearing grandmothers to make new moms nervous.” Dr. Bennett smiled at David and David gave him a gigantic gummy smile right back. “What you’re telling me sounds like family chatter. Most families have that, jealousy mostly. And a pretty girl like you, I’m sure you’ve experienced jealousy in spades.”

Every doctor Nettie had been to since first becoming pregnant, including the one who’d delivered both her babies, and Dr. Levi, their family physician, would at some point compliment her on her hair or her dress, or they’d say she had a charming smile. Nettie often wondered if Zeke had been the parent in the exam room if the physician would have complimented him on the shape of his legs or told him that his trousers were swell, or his hat was sharp. It would never happen, she knew, nor could it ever happen, as Zeke taking the kids to the doctor instead of her was an impossibility. The thought of Zeke packing a bag for the babies, shuttling them to the office, waiting for the nurse, and holding Judy and David when they got their shots was nothing more than laughable.

Dr. Bennett continued, “You’re working yourself up, I see it with mothers constantly.” He placed David on the table, keeping one palm on his belly. With his free hand he pulled a stethoscope from his pocket and brought it up around his neck. “Would you mind if I removed his clothing, or would you feel more comfortable doing it?”

Nettie walked over to David and began unbuttoning the long row of pearl buttons that ran up his spine, mimicking his tiny vertebra. She took off his socks. “Diaper stays on?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

Nettie folded David’s clothes on the edge of the table as Dr. Bennett continued his examination. Each time the doctor placed the metal end of his instrument on David’s bare skin, Nettie saw her son twitch like a teeny pulse was being sent through his body. She knew, of course, that the doctor was listening to his heart, his lungs, and generally making sure her son was healthy, but it was also unsettling seeing her son so exposed in the arms of a stranger.

“Mrs. Orloff, I know you mentioned that your daughter was stronger by David’s age, but you should know that I often see girls developing and excelling at a faster rate than boys. Could you hold him a second?” Dr. Bennett asked and walked to the cabinet where he grabbed a few more medical utensils Nettie didn’t recognize and placed them in his pocket.

“I have many nieces and nephews, everyone has always been healthy,” Nettie added.

“And I see no reason to think anything other than that for David either.” Dr. Bennett winked at her, and for a split second there was something about the tilt of his head and the way he pushed his shoulders back and crinkled his eyes that made her sure he was flirting.

Dr. Bennett’s hands navigated various contraptions in and out of her son’s mouth and ears, all with flashlights no bigger than dollhouse bulbs. David sat still in Nettie’s arms, barely a whimper, even when his eyes were checked and his eyelids spread apart like the wings of a moth pinned and mounted by Dr. Bennett’s large fingers.

“He’s a perfect pink, inside and out,” said Dr. Bennett. “You can put his clothes back on him now.”

Nettie dressed David quickly. “My husband tells me I’m silly, but I can’t help but wonder if I’ve done something wrong, or if there’s something I should have done but didn’t. I’m worried that I’m to blame for him being behind, if that’s what it is.”

“You’re both doing fine. I have no doubt he’ll catch up as soon as you stop worrying, and if he’s still struggling with his muscular development by fall, bring him back.”

But Nettie wouldn’t be near Sister Lakes come fall, she’d be back in Skokie. And soon David would be crawling, no doubt, because he was fine, the doctor had just said so, and then he’d be walking and running, and she’d be out of breath trying to keep up with him. Dr. Bennett had said David was fine, and she just needed to stay calm.

“Feel free to call with anything else. Anything. I’ll tell Carroll she can put you through directly to me.”

And with a handshake they were dismissed. Nettie was happy to be out the office; she had no sense how long they’d been inside. The streets were already lined with people walking from their cars, towels thrown over their shoulders, wearing not much more than their bathing suits. It was hotter than an oven outside, and as Nettie drove by Lake Margaret, she thought for a brief second about pulling the car over and jumping in with David, but as she’d told the family she was out picking up groceries for dinner, she thought it best not to come home empty-handed and dripping wet.

The rest of June continued to pass quickly, with mornings dedicated to swimming, playing tennis, or crafting in the clubhouse, and evenings spent chopping vegetables for supper or bathing the children after day camp, a chore which often resulted in tears from at least two of the children and almost always one of the adults. Afternoons, Nettie’s favorite part of the day, were filled with lounging, reading, and cocktailing, most often in the yard, while the babies and younger children napped. Every Tuesday it was Nettie’s turn to do the laundry—the number of sheets, towels and clothing was endless with sixteen people living in the house—and though the women shared the work, Nettie couldn’t believe how often she found herself standing alone in the backyard, pinning delicates, cotton shirts, housedresses, and pillowcases to the clothesline while the others sunned by the pool.

By keeping busy with Mari and Astrid, and the babies, of course, Nettie was, within a few weeks, able to push the incident in the doctor’s bathroom to the back of her mind. The only thing she could say for certain was that David had taken a tumble, and whatever it was that had made his body freeze up—likely shock, she’d decided—had ceased within moments. It hadn’t happened again, and Dr. Bennet didn’t seem concerned in the least. She had wanted a professional, an expert, to examine David, and that’s exactly what she got. A pediatrician was a baby expert, and if Dr. Bennett thought David was healthy, then who was she, a housewife and high-school dropout, to disagree. “Mother’s intuition is often flavored by doubt and tinted by fear,” the most recent issue of My Home had said, and Nettie thought upon reading it that that was absolutely what had happened with David. Add the extra anxiety of family gossip into the mix, and Nettie was grateful she hadn’t been sent off thrashing and blubbering to an institution for crazy women.


Thalia Mostow Bruehl’s work has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, 12th Street, Playgirl, and more, and Bruehl was recently nominated for her first Pushcart. Bruehl has an MFA in fiction writing from The New School, where she also received a BA and was one of the inaugural Riggio Honors Scholars. Bruehl lives in Chicago with daughter, husband, and little white dog.