Saturday, October 8, 2016

Seen through the window. A memoir.... **and how we change things

My mother drove me there, I wouldn't get my license for another four years. I was 19. It was the end of November, and I had been sick since the beginning. I stayed in my brothers old room in the basement most of the time, it stunk, which left me perpetually ill.  My mother didn't want to take the chance that someone might come to the door and see me. She worried about it constantly. So it was the basement and the kitchen. Living room only at night because usually no one ever came to the door then. She made phone calls and decisions because it was what was best for her, for the family...and the neighbors. I'm not sure, to this day, whether it was considered at all, what was best for me or my child. She was in control and no body else was.

It was one of those grey and rainy days where everyone looks like something is wrong . We parked at the curb. The house was huge, and it looked like one of those houses where there used to be a mother and a father who talked to each other and children who took lessons and didn't fight every minute of every day and they all wanted to be there and there had to have been a lot of them because there were 6 bedrooms.  And there would have been a cook and a room for her just off the kitchen, and a room for a governess on the second floor, with a fireplace. (The rooms for the cook and the governess with the fireplace were actually there!)  Most of these grand old houses had no garage because they were built when cars were rare, there were horses. I was afraid to go in. Being afraid was just who I was, I'd never been anything else, I'd never even known anyone who wasn't afraid. I thought it would be like high school, and that no one would talk to me. I'd be left out because I didn't belong, I didn't belong so many places. Inside it was warm and smelled of cookies and the elderly woman that came to greet us looked like Heidi's grandmother. Plump and short and smiling. Her white hair was coiled around her head in a braid, like a halo. She had little wire rimmed glasses on and an apron and a smile that looked like it never left her face, and it didn't. It was like being in a Frank Capra movie for a moment, and I had no idea who Frank Capra was. Her name was Mrs. Horner and she made me feel like she wanted me there.

A whole lot of my life has been like a goddamn movie. Like it was scripted. One of those things that if you didn't know it was true, you'd think it could never have happened... to one one skinny, pale, lonely and pretty damn stupid girl who did not live within it, but only existed there, unable to see or speak.

There were shy introductions and a short conversation, I'm sure we had tea and some of the cookies, it only makes sense. Looking back, I think she probably made cookies every time a new girl came.  It was a welcome that set the tone for my stay. It was a warm buffer for all the pale sadness that would persistently and quietly interrupt each day for all of us who were there.

My room was on the second floor. The staircase was wide, 6 people, 8 people abreast?  with two landings, I'd never experienced anything so grand. I always felt kind of regal walking down it, like I was important and that someone, who could hardly wait for me, would be at the bottom.  I wasn't prepared for what I saw when I opened the door.  A line of 5 beds in a long narrow, dim room. All empty. Had it had patterned wall paper, pretty curtains, happy voices and where had they all gone? I took the bed nearest the bathroom and a small window. I remember laying there that first night and staring down the length of those empty beds and feeling a loneliness that went deeper than what I'd always known. I slept with my back to them that first night, and many others to follow, my knees pulled up to my chin. I was cold but I never moved, I never got up to get a blanket from the next bed.

She left me there in that quiet, shadowed room. She might have hugged me, but it wasn't her way and I'm sure I was crying because that was my way.  But she did leave something behind, silence.

 I came to feel, not long after those first colorless days, that things came into focus a bit, pale but slowly beginning to color.  Bit by bit I felt that I'd stepped out of the mistake, the place that didn't make sense and didn't protect me and the loneliness diminished a tiny bit, and that I and my child were protected here and it did make sense, as much as anything could at that time. In the end I would have given anything to stay there forever, with her. Eventually things got better for me as rooms were vacated. I was there for 8 months, 7 in this new one, across from the long tiled bathroom with the claw foot tub where I once laid in the hottest water I could stand to try to induce.  It had windows that opened out, not in, to green and fresh air. There was a window seat that you could sit on, which I only did at night so no one could see me, my mothers voice a tiny whisper in the back of my head.  It was the only room with one bed so it gave me something I'd never had, privacy.  I would lay in bed and watch her turn from side to side, like a wave on the ocean until she found the right spot. She'd push a little foot so far out that I could almost count her toes.  I would stand naked in front of the mirror and marvel at her size and at my body, which for one of the few times in my life made me feel beautiful, made me feel like it was valuable, it could do something - something good. A body that told me someone was with me and that I was with her. I remember standing with my back to the mirror and looking over my shoulder and thinking that from this angle you couldn't tell that I was pregnant -  wanting to go back to that and wanting it to stay this way.

A friend came once and we drove to the beach.  I held my hands on my big round belly and I showed her the ocean. I wanted to give her the whole damn-big-wonderful world.  The ocean was the best I could do and I felt some peace.

 My mother came often to visit, I'm not sure if it was dutiful or to save face, or that maybe she actually wanted to - but we rarely talked. Sometimes she'd drive us way out to the country where we probably wouldn't see someone we knew.  We'd go to little antique shops, that was her favorite thing to do, antiquing.  She'd show me the things she liked and I'd shake my head - because we rarely talked. She made friends easily and enjoyed visiting with one of the other mothers in particular when she came to the house because they were so much alike. I'd go to read or something and she would call out to me when she was leaving, I'd come down and hug her because I knew I was supposed to. She became quite close to the social worker.  Milly was chubby and posh and had perfectly coiffed blond hair.  She wore a lot of diamonds and drove a baby blue Cadillac and always ran up over the curb when she parked, I can't remember her ever not smiling, except when we told our stories. She smoked and had that foggy kind of laugh, I thought it was so cool, I wanted to laugh like that. She was good at her job because she wasn't there to counsel us, she was there to distract us. Even though we were scared to be seen, there were some dinners out at her personal expense, lavish desserts brought for late afternoon conversations, stories about her life, our lives, happy conversations so that we would forget what we usually couldn't. She often went to mass with us, the ones who were Catholic and felt pressured to do so. When she didn't go with us there would always be a nun who'd instruct us to sit at the back of the church and then would tell us she'd pray for us. Once one took my hands that I held together in fake prayer, into both of hers and said, "I consecrate your birth to the Blessed Virgin", the irony.  But I hoped it was true.  We all wore wedding rings, I think Milly might have supplied them and I know it was to give us a bit of dignity, but it usually didn't work and there was always a twinge of shame in it because we knew it wasn't fooling anyone. You can't take 5 pregnant scared girls out into the world and think no one notices, or knows.

 Our stories were all different but all exactly the same. The same fears, the same questions, shame and guts, with a connection to each other's that was good for some and didn't exist for some.  The thing that helped us all the most, was food.  Food is powerful, it can comfort when you feel helpless, when there is no one or anything else to offer comfort. A lot of us would come to the table with red eyes and emptiness, eager for that distraction. I don't think any of us had ever eaten like this. Foods that most of us could only have longed for before, more than we could ever eat and a completely unknown privilege of being asked what we wanted and being given it, as if it was the most normal thing. It was fun and it made up for a lot of other times when each of us, often and in our own way, would withdraw into a stillness and a quietness that enveloped us, because we knew what was coming and even food couldn't hold it at bay.

There were 8 of us, a couple that I don't remember, they left so soon after I got there that they just flash past my eyes, all blurry and ghost like. And five that are a part of my memory that can't be lost because they were so important, they occupied a time in my life that haunts me but that I don't want to forget, that I shouldn't forget. I hold onto it out of gratitude and respect and love. I loved them each.

The first one was a dark haired girl who left about three weeks after I came, I've lost her name and I've always felt that was such a mistake on my part, I wish I'd paid better attention.  She was very sad, more so than the rest of us and she never let go of her anger, she wasn't going to let anyone think this was OK.    She gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, she'd known from the beginning that she was carrying them.  I know the bond for all of us was, and remains, unbreakable, just like any mother's, no matter what the outcome. But it must have been especially strong if you're feeling it for two.  She insisted, with a command that couldn't be broken, that she nurse her babies before they were gone, and she did. We were all so naive then and it shocked us, but I was just smart enough to be humbled by a courage that I'd never seen before.  She was brave and I couldn't quite take it in. It awed me and it frighten me. I didn't really know what to think except that it was right and I don't think I've hardly ever made a decision in my life that felt as right.When I think of these times I remember her first. I hope, more than for any of the rest of us, that she found peace and a life that left her as little scarred as possible.

(all names have been changed)

Of the other 4, there was Amy, strong, blond and blue eyed, a giggler, the girl that got chosen first for cheerleader, the girl that always told a joke to stop the darkness. Through her sadness I think she kept the habit of this shield because it was the only way she could cope. We tried to stay friends afterwards but in the early years it's something you want to forget and you can't if you still see it in someone else's eyes.

There was Maureen. She was slight and shy and had an endearing sweetness about her. My mother and hers became close friends, she was the one that was most like my mother.  Maureen was like me, we had little courage and that made us close because there is a great need to comfort when you're so young and you recognize yourself in the other.  Maureen's baby was born with his brain exposed having not developed the back of his scull. His backbone was exposed as well and he died after two weeks. She stayed on at the house for those terrible weeks to be near him. They said he wasn't in any pain but none of us believed it.  I wanted to go with her to see him on the few times that her mother would take her, because I knew it would help her. But our mothers both wouldn't allow it.  It's hard for me now to imagine an adult having so much control over a daughter in this situation, but that's what it was like. She didn't say much during those two weeks and when she did it was always in a whisper as if she didn't have the strength to push the words out.  She told me that she felt that she had done this to him by always keeping her belt tight at school so that no one would know.

Jane was a long haired hippy, wearing flowing tapestry that made her look free, like no one could hold her back. She walked with long strides as if she was late for something.  She rarely spoke to anyone but we weren't offended because we knew it didn't reflect on us, it was actually a strength that kept her above the pit. She was the only one of us that had no doubts about her decision.  She knew it was right for her baby and for her and I hope that she continued to carry that thought, but even so, it hits you down the road no matter how right you think you were.  She had her baby at night and was gone the next morning.

Maria was special.  She was Mexican, short and sweet and more innocent than any of us. She didn't speak but a handful of English. I'm very good with things like sign language so she and I could talk. We could even tell jokes in sign.  She cried a lot, especially at meal times, I think she missed her own food, and would lay on the couch with her back to the dining room.  She was visited by an older man, I could never figure out who he was, even with signing she wouldn't tell. They would speak rapidly in Spanish and she would sob through her words and she would hang on to him when he left and cry for him not to go. After she gave birth she wanted to go home to Mexico as fast as she could.  I think her leaving was the hardest for me because we became close in not only our pain, but the intimacy of silent communication.

Renee was the beauty. She was funny and, unlike a lot of rich girls then, she was generous and kind always doing some thoughtful little thing for someone . Her parents lived out of town and when her labor began, I was the only one left at the house to accompany her to the hospital. I remember we went in a taxi and it was the first time I'd ever been in one. Mrs. Horner called for it because I didn't know how. I was holding her hand when her water broke and I was so sad for her because I knew I was not the one that should have been there. When she left she left me her pretty clothes. I've always wished I had kept the blue blouse to remember her.

I was the last to go. Catholic Charities was shutting down this program and I was two weeks late. Two weeks beyond the close date, two weeks without Mrs. Horner, two weeks completely alone in this huge house that I knew would soon not protect me nor my baby any longer. I never felt frightened.  Milly would come in the evening and bring me dinner and sit and watch television with me until about 10:o'clock. She'd leave asking me if I was OK and I always said yes, because I was, it was my home. But now it seems unbelievable that a 19 year old pregnant girl was left alone at night in that huge house.

My water broke late one evening just before Milly left, luck is not the right word.  She took me to the hospital where I spent the next 6 hours alone on a gurney in a pain that took me to a place I couldn't have imagined, with my arm tied down to keep an IV in.  The nurse had pushed the needle in so hard that it was bent when they pulled it out.  I delivered in the dark of 5:AM.  There was no doctor. A nun in a white habit delivered me and the attending nun walked to my side afterwards with a small, wrapped bundle and said, "Oh, look at your beautiful ba...". She was stopped in mid sentence and the delivering nun said in a whisper, "No, they're not supposed to look." Drugs kept me silent.

I only got to see her for a few minutes, later the next day. There were loud and frantically angry words between my mother and me, but I won, because for once I wouldn't give up.  A nurse, lifting a curtain so that she was not revealed, held her up by one hand on the other side of a window. Her dark haired little head hung over to the side a bit. I never saw her eyes because they were closed but I did see her yawn. It's always haunted me that that nurse was so careless in the way she held a new born infant, my new born infant.  Many years later my mother told me that she wouldn't give in to my screaming, my bargaining, my plea's - despair, because she thought there was something wrong with her tiny neck and she just couldn't bare that. When a young woman is abused, is owned, she can't see her strength, her rights, because she doesn't know she has any.

My mother took me back to the house a few days later to get my things.  In those days new mothers were kept in the hospital for awhile to rest. But you can't rest when you don't know where she is. When you are someone you've never been before and you don't know how to fix any of this.

We wrapped my swollen breasts tight in a towel and safety pinned it in place. My mother handed me a little white pill so my milk would dry up. I couldn't utter a word.  She went to the car and left me there with the scenes that whirled through my mind. I packed my things in the blue cardboard suitcase that I'd been given when I graduated and walked by all those empty rooms.  It's not a cliche to say I heard their voices, and mine. I saw them laughing and crying. It was July and the sun was shining through the windows.   I stood there on those stairs for a moment as if I was trying to take it all with me, the house, the girls, every memory and all the days that had been safe, all the days that had been frightening and lonely, all the days that she had been with me.   I walked out the door, a big glass door with an old oak frame and bent to drop the key in the brass mail slot at the bottom.  I slipped it through and as I stood, I saw my full reflection in the glass. I starred at myself for a long, few seconds knowing that I was leaving so much behind in so many ways and that I was leaving myself behind,  that I had been changed, but I didn't know who I was.

The next five days were spent in tears and screams and those endless futile bargains, too many to recount.  What was a horrible, horrible dream had now turned into a nightmare and I couldn't fight my way out of it.  I said I wouldn't sign the papers unless my mother and Milly promised me that I would get to hold her before I did. But they didn't bring her. They said it was best for the baby.

You look for them everywhere, in the face of every baby, every little girl and every young woman. All mothers who have lost their children in this way do. You can't stop and you don't want to. You need to find them, you will always need to find them.

I did find her after many years of dead ends thinking that it would go on forever. I was able to  because of the most amazing quirk. I used to go to Goodwill almost every day after the nervous breakdown, that sounds so cliche, nervous breakdown, we should find another word.   I'd just wander and wander and sometimes find a little thing that made me feel good for some silly reason. There was a pretty little blond girl that went there almost as often as I did.  After months of passing by each other with shadows of smiles, she said hello, that was the only way it was going to happen.  She said I was the saddest person she had ever seen, and she knew from sad. After a few months, during a casual conversation, the light got blindingly bright when she said she knew someone who knew someone who might know.  And they did.  GW...GW !  You see?  Can anyone believe this?  My life has been surreal.

 I found her four years almost to the day after she had died in an accident, two cars sliding into each other on a rainy November night in 1996.  I had told my therapist, quite a while before, that I hadn't been able to feel her for a long time, like she wasn't in this world. She didn't get it, she wasn't a mother,  but I swear to you, mothers know, they just fucking know. She was 26 years old and left behind two children, a 3 year old little boy and a 1 and 1/2 year old baby girl, and me. I met them only twice when they were little,  a 5 and 1/2 year old skinny little girl in pink who said to me when I took her hands in mine, "I wish my mommy could be here today, she would be so happy", and a quiet, shy 7 year old boy in a baseball hat who had the same dimple in his chin that I have.  It's never happened again and I don't expect it to unless they should decided. It's complicated, living is complicated. And we have very little control.

 My darling, dark haired daughter had lived 4 blocks away from my grandmother, and they had probably attended the same church.  She lived about 2 miles away from me. I've seen pictures of her and she looks like her sister, Elizabeth, and also like my sister but only when she looks serious, and at certain angles, like me.  She was given the name Elizabeth. My middle name is Elizabeth and my  daughter, her sister, is named Elizabeth.  I named her Gabriella on the birth certificate, my daughter and I call her Gaby. I wonder what could ever have happened to that small piece of paper.  Even though she was adopted by people who really wanted her and were able to give her a good education and everything a young girl could want, she led a hard life. She was an addict and an exotic dancer and had given up custody of her children.  Sometimes I want to blame myself. Tell myself that she longed for me so much that she couldn't find peace. Couldn't understand what had happened and where I was, any more than I could understand what had happened and where she was.  But I try to tell myself, or maybe assuage my guilt, that she was bipolar, like her sister and her mother.  That it was only chemistry. That we, all of us, who live with this suffer, and that I couldn't have taken it away for her. I couldn't have saved her. I blamed my mother a lot for many long, hard years. We would never be who we were supposed to be with each other, but that had all begun long before this.  It's nobodies fault, but we figure that out so far down the road. My mother and I untangled the knot just before she died and we both felt it was the biggest accomplishment of our lives together.  But I'll always think that it's my fault. That no matter what made her life unhappy, it is my fault. Even though I know it wasn't.

 She turned 46 this year.  She was born on 7/17/70. I know it's corny, but whenever I see those numbers together, 717, I think of her and send a little kiss and she smiles back.  We find ways to comfort our selves and embrace the invisible.  And as mothers, we see the invisible.

I wish there was a way to thank all those girls, to thank Mrs. Horner and Milly, who have both passed on now. We helped each other through a time that no one else could have.  I love them. And I miss them.  And I thank them with all my heart.

And I am very, very grateful that I have two beautiful daughters and that we all three love each other deeply.  They are my greatest joy.

**  At that time, birth control was not widely available or even known to most young women, and open adoption was an idea that was just becoming a discussion. Planned Parenthood was virtually unknown here, and abortion was still something only whispered about. Young women had virtually no choice and most of them didn't even know they had the right to choices.

It's getting better, but still those choices are difficult at best and made more complicated by a society that does not have it's priorities straight and doesn't see the whole picture. Abortion, adoption, open adoption, informed and available birth control and the right and even the ability to keep a child are still difficult and often there is no help after the decision has been made, especially for low income, abused and uninformed women. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to support a woman in whatever decision she chooses to make.  All women at this time within the United States have choices at this point. But will it remain that way?

The only way, the only action, that can make my story any easier or the stories that came before me or after me or are yet to be made, is to VOTE, to give women dignity. Vote to keep abortion legal and for all the other rights that we, as women are entitled to.   Please don't think, that one small vote, or sitting on the fence doesn't matter. Or that she'll win, you don't have to take action. And maybe even as important, is don't stop there. Give your support to the women who are in these life changing situations, and not only through your vote or your words, act on your support, give help when the choice has been made, what ever it may be, and in the best way you can,  because the vote is only the beginning and things don't end with the choice.