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The woman long considered a nobody walked down the street in the company of a police officer. Life looked different to Gladys Brown now that the whole town knew her name. The policeman was there to prevent her from fleeing and to protect her from a random attack by an angry citizen.
This story occurs in New England in 1959, a relevant detail. The nonentity was on her way to a town meeting. Because the town hall was too small for the expected audience, the speakers would address the horde from an outdoor stage in the public square. She was the subject of the meeting and feared the crowd’s wrath.
Gladys, who remained unbowed, recognized people heading to the square. “Good morning, Mr. Kaminski,” she said to Billy Vance. “How do you do, Miss Stanley?” she asked the startled Miss DiLorenzo. The Methodist minister seemed stunned when she called him Reverend Baumgarten, a Jewish name.
In fact, she was greeting them by their real names.
Reporters studied her avidly as she went by. “In their eyes,” she thought, “I’m just an old nurse with a pockmarked face.” She ignored them and their persistent questions. She had read their news stories, which were basically true. The nonentity who had run the hospital nursery for forty-five years had indeed switched babies.
The infant swaps began in the first year of her career. In those days, no tags were put on newborns, nor wrist or ankle bands. At that time Gladys was meek and very insecure. This was mainly because she was homely, came from a poor background, and had, to the town’s disgust, a Communist uncle. The community was prejudiced against people like her, and she shared those prejudices. Even then Gladys knew that she would never find a husband and would never have a child of her own.
One week she was caring for Mrs. Edward Braddock III. The patient was insufferable. After days of being bossed around and humiliated, Gladys struck back. The revenge she chose made her feel powerful for the first time. The Braddocks, who were descendants of the town’s founder, left the hospital with the son of their former cook.
Subsequently Gladys often exchanged infants. She would wrap the newborn in a blanket right after birth. Then, citing the need to wash and examine the little human, she would whisk it away before any relatives got a good look at it. Since the blanket covered everything but the face, she could even substitute a baby with hair for a bald baby or one with different-colored hair. Not all who entered the maternity ward exited with the wrong child, but many did.
The nurse picked the infant to award to a husband and wife based on how they had treated her. Nicer couples received a ‘higher quality’ baby.
Typically Gladys took into consideration the appearance of the two sets of parents before trading their newborns. This was to prevent doubts about parentage. However, one spring day in the tenth year of her lawless deeds, she felt resentful and moody when she woke up. Then the bus broke down on her way to work. That morning, an expectant mother made the mistake of provoking Gladys. After Sally Blegin worried aloud about entrusting her soon-to-be-born child to “some childless nurse,” the nurse retaliated.
Mrs. Blegin’s daughter turned out to be a “carrot-top,” unlike her raven-haired family. In fact, no one had ever before seen a red-headed Blegin. Furthermore, Sally was once engaged to “Red” O’Toole, so maybe... Two months after the infant’s birth, Mr. Blegin filed for divorce and moved away. The nonentity, who was transforming lives while remaining incognito, had become the most powerful person in town.
As decades passed, she started to feel untouchable. She no longer assumed people would spot the anonymous puppeteer in their midst.
Meanwhile, her baby swaps altered the lives of generations. Some of the infants involved went on to have children and grandchildren. A girl that the nurse in her first year had assigned to the dissolute Grupp family proceeded to give birth out of wedlock at age fifteen and was now a great-grandma.
Gladys kept occasional records on her substitutions. She jotted down some mismatches in a notebook titled Who’s Really Who. However, she did not truly need records since she vividly recalled each reassignment of a baby.
But eventually the woman began to face with dismay the prospect of retirement. She was having weekly disagreements with her new boss, Dr. Berkeley, who ruled like a tyrant over the top floor of the hospital. He favored the prettiest nurses, and wanted her to resign.
One afternoon the doctor made a discovery. It concerned a teenager who needed a blood transfusion after a three-car collision. The patient had blood type AB, and her widowed mother had blood type O. In short, the girl was not the widow’s daughter.
Over the years the nonentity had smiled coolly down on the town from the nursery window. Soon after the fateful auto accident, she had a terrifying insight. Dr. Berkeley, a tall man, was smiling in the same way down on her!
Gladys expected him to immediately denounce her for baby switching. Instead, he conducted a wide-ranging investigation. She grew increasingly alarmed as he spoke at the Lions Club, the Women’s Club, and the high school on the need for blood tests to detect anemia and leukemia. She understood the real reason for Dr. Berkeley’s sudden interest in the subject, and the threat he posed to her.