From childhood to adulthood, I lived with a misconception about my place in our family.

“When I look at those pictures now, when I recall those many family visits and when I look at me with my curly hair, smiling at the camera surrounded by my cousins, I wonder how different it would be if I were not in the pictures. After learning what Dad later told me, could anyone else be in my place?” Carole Clarke Cochran writes. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock.com

We Clarkes were a tightly knit band of four: mother, father, son, daughter. My brother was the third generation with the same name; I was the first girl with my grandmother’s family name of Claybrooke.

The uncles and aunts and Clarke cousins had distinctive names, too. Who had a grandmother named “Effus,” and a grandfather nicknamed “Loulie”? Who had aunts named “Myrtle” and “Lucille”? Uncles named “Carlyle” and “Bernard”? And all served up with a Southern accent, which became “Cuhlahl” and “Buhnud”? And my name, Carole, became “Cahl.”

Three Clarke brothers, who grew up on a farm in Virginia, produced all girls, and my dad was treated like a prince because he had a boy and a girl. When you are young, you do not notice these things, but when our parents age and begin reminiscing, we listen, and we are often quite surprised.

Our band of four Clarkes lived in a Northern city, spoke and acted and thought differently than our Southern relatives, but we all loved being together. My brother and I remain close, and we talk about the vacations, holidays, reunions, birthdays, funerals and weddings we attended with our Southern cousins. Photos show us hugging and laughing and taking pictures. These many memories were captured and preserved by my mother in scrapbooks, and passed on to me, the memory keeper.

When I look at those pictures now, when I recall those many family visits and when I look at me with my curly hair, smiling at the camera surrounded by my cousins, I wonder how different it would be if I were not in the pictures. After learning what Dad later told me, could anyone else be in my place? Would I have not been born? Would my brother not have a sister?

The secret was revealed by my dad in his later years. Mom had passed away. My brother and I listened to my dad, and learned what our parents went through before we were born, and how long they kept this to themselves. It must have been painful for my parents to talk about it, or even think about it. My cousins had never heard it, and my aunts and uncles never mentioned it, if they even knew it.

We learned that Mom had lost a full-term child, a boy. We learned how she looked and felt as she left the hospital, watching new mothers in the elevator, with new babies in their arms.

Perhaps that is why she was so proud of us, loved us so much, defended us to others. Perhaps she wanted to spare us the story of her “first-born” child. When I heard the long-kept secret, I was sad, amazed and dazed. If that child had lived, would I have been born? Would my parents have decided that a family of four was “enough”? Then the smiling curly-haired girl would not be in the scrapbook pictures, and would not have the fond family memories that she now treasures.

Who knows? But I did ask Dad if they named the baby boy. He said, “We just called him ‘Sonny.’ ”

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