“Honey, promise me you’ll never do what I done.”
I was ten years old. I knew what Cassie, my baby-sitter, had done. She had gotten pregnant, and would soon be an “unwed mother,” as the grown-ups put it.
It was awkward whenever she cried. Her sweaty hands held my cheeks, her earnest blue eyes were aimed at mine, but I stared at her round stomach, which was at eye level. The drops of remorse wet her maternity blouse, making spots where it stuck to the skin. I didn’t know what to do. I spoke toward her belly, to the not-yet-born baby I already pitied as doomed.
“I promise.” I meant it. I would never do that to a child of mine. I would never let my life end up like Cassie’s. I knew that my mother planned all six of us brothers and sisters, because she told me the plan when I was six, after the third birth. A pair, two years apart, then four years between, another pair two years apart, then four years, then a last pair. Which was exactly how it was turning out. If my mother knew how to decide when, so would I. I would decide when I would have my babies, and how many, like my mom. I promised myself.
Cassie hugged me against her hard belly and sobbed, “I’ll never forgive myself for what I done. When you’re a teenager like me, don’t you never forget this promise.”
Cassie’s family had thrown her out when they found out she was pregnant. She had been treated badly by the lady who ran the home for unwed mothers because it was the lady’s son who had, in my father’s words, “gotten her knocked up in the first place.” So she lived with us until just before her boy was born.
Cassie was epileptic, and I heard my mother and father worrying after the baby came because Cassie’s occasional seizures made her drop him on his head more than once. The boy was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy, too. I don’t know what became of them.
Susanna was a painter–a good painter, and poor, as many artists are. My parents had bought two paintings from her, and when she was evicted by her crazy landlord she came to live with our family for a while, a waif who wanted to belong. She got a new place soon, but she sometimes came to clean the house or do odd jobs when she ran out of money. More often she came over to visit.
I came home one day when I was 15 to find Susanna crying over a small framed photo of a very little boy in bib overalls, holding a small rake, standing in a freshly plowed field. His smile and nose and eyes and hair were hers. I had not known she had a child.
“He’s my little boy. I gave him up for adoption. It might have been the right thing to do, but I didn’t know it would always be this hard.”
The words cracked like hot stones dropped in ice. Susanna’s depressions, her fragile manner, her paintings themselves, grew from this grieving root. Her child was out there, maybe happy, maybe sad, maybe needing her, maybe ignorant of her, or indifferent toward her, or even angry at her, blaming her for giving him away. Maybe someday he would grow old enough to put himself in her shoes, and feel for her.
“He’s nine now. It was two years before I could bring myself to open the letter and look at the photo.” She wrapped the framed photo in a piece of old velvet and tucked it in her purse.
“Where is he?”
“Do you know where?”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t go there. He’s theirs now. They’re a family.”
I couldn’t speak. There was no place for her in his life now. She would be a disruption, odd woman out. When I grew old enough to need it, I told myself, I’d always use contraception. If it didn’t work, I’d get an abortion. I vowed to myself that I would never give a child of mine away.
Following the sound of a baby’s cry, my friend Anna and I found a baby who seemed about six months old wailing, sitting in the muddy, bare yard rocking back and forth. She was dirty, clutching a filthy blanket. Where was her mother? Clearly our friend Dan wasn’t home.
I set down my backpack and picked the baby up. Her diaper was soiled. Deafening music bellowed out the door of Dan’s house, but no one was in the kitchen. Covering the baby’s ears, I found a bottle of formula in the fridge. What was her name? Outside Anna, who was traveling with her daughter, Amber, had opened Amber’s diaper bag. We discovered that this baby was a girl with a bad diaper rash. Ointment on, her diaper clean, the baby drank the bottle desperately, and then, more slowly, another half bottle of water. She had become dehydrated in the Hawaiian sun. Where was her mother, or father? Anna and I bathed her in Dan’s outdoor shower, and I went looking for some clean clothes for her.
Instead I found her twin, crying hysterically beside two speakers turned all the way up. I shut off the stereo. I brought the second baby outside, and Anna and I repeated the whole routine. Finally, back in the house, searching for baby clothes, I found Stella, their mother, throwing up into a pan, pale and sweaty; she said that she flew to Maui to withdraw from smack, but she just couldn’t, she was so sick, and did I know of any smack dealer? I said no. I offered to help if she’d stick with it. I told her her babies were fed and clean and sleeping now. Anna and I persuaded her to have some crackers and ginger ale, a shower, and then some rest.
The next morning, Stella was a little less sick. Both her daughters had inherited her plainness. She told us her story. Stella was hooking to support her heroin habit when she got pregnant by one of her johns. She wasn’t sure which. She wanted an abortion but couldn’t afford it. The twins were born strung out and went into withdrawal immediately. “I think I’m gonna have to give ’em away. I can’t handle this. At least one of ’em. I don’t know. Maybe both.” Anna and I offered to watch over her babies for the next three days while she recovered from the worst of withdrawal. Stella took us up on the offer gladly for Holly, the bigger of the two. Hilary, the skinnier, clingy baby, would stay with Stella. We would meet at Wynapanapa campground, Thursday at six o’clock.
Anna and I waited by the roadside until friendly people offered us rides. Amber, almost three, was possessive of Anna’s attention, so I cared for Holly. We had found out the twins were really nine months old, though they seemed much younger. I cuddled, rocked, sang to, fed, bathed, played with, and slept with Holly, who learned to walk and play pattycake. Thursday came and went. Seven days went by, and still no mother showed up at the campground. We worried. Should we report her to DCFS? Should I offer to adopt Holly–me, a 22-year-old college kid? Finally Stella showed up, high on downers, with a scuzzy boyfriend in tow who was equally buzzed. Holly cried and reached out her arms to me all evening as we sat and ate around the campfire. Stella and her guy got very drunk and, after a brief, awkward goodbye, drove off too fast, weaving down the road until they disappeared.
Four months later, a thousand miles away, I heard from Anna that the twins had been in intensive care for hepatitis and withdrawal from a Valium dependence. Apparently Stella drugged them to stop their crying.
I wished then that I had called DCFS, even though I knew that probably no one would have wanted twin girls, rather plain-looking, of mixed race. For them it would probably have been institutions and a series of foster homes. I don’t know whether those girls ever survived their upbringing. Holly and Hilary may be dead, or just neglected and abused. The chances are slim that they’re happily adopted, or that Stella ever came clean. There are some people who know that they aren’t prepared to be mothers. Stella knew she wasn’t. Holly’s and Hilary’s lives were torture. They didn’t seem worth living. If you ask me, and you could use my tax money, it would have been more merciful to all to pay for Stella’s abortion.
Mrs. Bessie Baruch (that’s just what I’m calling her here) was an affectionate grandmother to her first unexpected granddaughter, even though her eldest son no longer had a relationship with the young mother. When the second pregnant girlfriend showed up, Bessie received her compassionately and helped out financially.
My boyfriend was their second son. He and I were over at his parents’ house when the second young woman came over with her baby for a visit. Their eldest son had believed this girl when she told him that she was on the pill, and when she insisted on keeping the baby, he moved to the opposite coast. Mrs. Baruch’s anxiously wrinkled forehead preceded the new mother, a graceless, subdued girl whose name I forget, into the living room. She thrust the sniffly baby at Dr. Baruch, who received the infant with wide, appalled eyes, turning her onto her stomach on his knee so that her face looked away from his. He handed the baby back to the mother as soon as he could. The mother chewed her gum with a nervous vengeance, chattering about how good and how quiet the baby was once the automatic swing was cranked up in front of the TV. That way she could earn money by telephone soliciting, about six hours a day. When the baby pulled her greasy hair, the woman screeched and slapped the baby’s hands. Mrs. Baruch winced visibly. Then the Baruchs offered two wrapped presents, saying, “Why don’t you wait and open these at home?”
The poor young mother hinted that she’d like to be included in the upcoming family holiday dinner. How were the Baruchs to tell her that the relatives’ generosity had limits? By the time the mother and baby traipsed woefully out the door, wrapped presents in hand, and the front door closed, Dr. Baruch was pulling out his handkerchief to hide his face. The seed of his seed would be raised by a person whom he regarded as unintelligent and harsh. Mrs. Baruch leaned against the door with a dismayed expression and let out a little wail.
I had wanted them to include the woman and her baby. I also knew that, in the Baruchs’ position, I might well have felt the same way they did. That family didn’t need another unwelcome grandchild.
Contraception doesn’t work perfectly, even if used perfectly. When I was beginning my senior year of college, weeks after the second son and I had broken up, I found out I was pregnant. I did not want to be connected to this man in any way. It would have been the Baruchs’ third illegitimate grandchild.
I thought about keeping the baby, dropping out of school, forgetting about my degree and my career, going back home to live with my mother, maybe getting on public aid. If I did, I would have to be realistic and let go of my vision of a family with a husband, a father. It sounded all wrong. It felt wrong. I didn’t want that potential baby, and I didn’t want to give it away and worry about it.
I kept my promises to myself. Six weeks pregnant, before the fetus’s first brain wave, I had an abortion. For a long time afterward it made me sad whenever I thought about it, but I never regretted it. I grieved that a life that was a part of me would never be lived. I also had a strong conviction that every child should be a wanted, welcome child, and that raising children was too important a task to botch up. Someday I would have two children. There would be less suffering if I could stick to my plan.
About this time, the man who later became my husband asked me out on our first date. I couldn’t get over how kind he was. Soon we were a steadfast couple. I finished school, entered my career and had some success in it, and got married. We had two children, two years apart.
Bearing and caring for babies is more work than we ever dreamed; heaven help parents who don’t choose to do it. We are raising our children the best we can, and all in all enjoying it. If I had gone through with my miserable pregnancy, my two beloved children would never have been conceived. Their lives would have been lost. Think. No Tomlin. No Eleanor. I couldn’t bear it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.