Shirley Bonnani gently rested Bella — the “winter baby” — against her shoulder as she chatted with guests at her daughter’s first birthday party.
The Sunday afternoon celebration at Deke’s Bar-B-Que in Manayunk was calm, peaceful even. There was birthday cake, adoring grandparents and plenty of warm smiles.
Nothing remotely resembling the drama that unfolded outside of Bella’s Roxborough home the day she was born — what Shirley simply calls “The Story.”
On a frigid day last January, Shirley woke up at 5 a.m. with her first contractions and several inches of snow blanketing the block.
Still, she remained was calm. Logan, her now three-year-old son, had taken 20 hours to deliver. She was sure she had time before she needed to head to the hospital.
“I said, ‘you know what? I’m going to take a shower just to take the edge off of the contractions,'” said Shirley.
The morning took a decidedly hectic turn after that.
As Shirley showered, she had a pair of contractions — almost back to back. It quickly became painfully clear that Bella wasn’t just on her way, but nearing arrival.
“I’m trying to come down the stairs and every step is just agony,” said Shirley.
Her husband Fabian ran down the street and got Logan strapped into the car before returning for his wife.
The steep block was still full of snow and nearly impassable. There was no way Fabian could safely get the car completely up the hill. Shirley would have to walk halfway down and meet it.
That plan went out the window when Fabian reached the house.
“I’m not going to make it. I think my water just broke,” Shirley told her husband.
Fabian grabbed a neon green sled and told his wife to hop on. Call it Plan B.
Shirley disapproved, but minutes later she was on that plastic disc, on a ride she’ll never forget.
“I felt every bump. I’m screaming,” she said.
Moments later, feet from Fabian’s car, Bella was welcomed into the world.
Two pushes and she was out.
By then, several neighbors, most of whom the Bonnanis had never met, were out on the street offering help amid their utter disbelief.
Fabian quickly bundled his daughter in a thin blanket and raced up to the house.
“We got in and I grabbed every blanket I could, wrapped her up, pumped up the temperature to like 80 in the house,” he said.
Neighbors, meanwhile, worked on getting Shirley warm.
“People are throwing coats and comforters and blankets on top of me, giving me a hat,” she said.
Four neighbors then carried Shirley — and that sled — into a nearby house to wait for the paramedics.
The first year
In the months since, Shirley and Fabian said they haven’t thought too much about that fateful day. With an infant and a toddler to look after, life is pretty busy.
“I don’t think about it until somebody reminds me,” said Shirley.
That’s been happening more lately. The chilly air, the snow and the slick streets are all reminders of that day.
Sometimes it’s friends who bring it up. Other times it’s one of the neighbors who got a front row seat to the miracle of life.
That includes Don Lafferty. It was at his place that Shirley kept warm in before riding to the hospital.
A year later, he said the thrill of that Wednesday morning hasn’t faded.
“It’s almost a let down because how could anything be as exciting as that,” said Lafferty, referring to this year’s winter.
Still, he’s happy with what the experience gave birth to: a friendlier block. There are more “hellos” and “how are you’s” and a little less isolation.
“You do feel a special connection,” he said.
For Shirley and Fabian, it’s been a refreshing change.
“I like that neighborly feel,” said Shirley. “It’s nice because I feel like the world is getting away from that.”
Fabian couldn’t agree more.
“You don’t realize how valuable neighbors are until times of need so definitely score one for city living and neighbors and humanity,” he said.
Naturally, the young couple hasn’t yet told their young daughter “The Story”. But they will, when she’s a bit older.
How could they not?