It’s 2 degrees in Minneapolis tonight, the windchill ratcheting us down to minus ten. There are mountains of snow on every street corner, and driving a across an intersection is a cross between a thrill sport and a game of peek-a-boo. It’s a thrill sport too, to take a sip from your travel mug of steaming hot coffee because you will spill it as your car lurches through ruts of snow that have crusted into random jagged weapons of whiplash.
Mostly this is theoretical for me. I go outside to shovel (even when there’s just nuisance snow because I like to shovel) and to take out the trash. I very seldom find myself in a car.
This indoor life is lovelier than you might think. It’s cozy in this little house. There’s love, music, movies, popcorn, ping-pong, houseplants. I zoom with friends, and take some online art classes. We eat fabulous meals here. Homemade baked things, thick soups, and roasted meats and vegetables.
I spend a lot of time making collages. Most nights, in fact, I’m in my studio, snipping, gluing, listening to podcasts or just enjoying the silence and the cocoon of my cool blue walls.
I am a girl in Mississippi in my heart. In my churning stomach I am a girl in Mississippi. I am a girl in Mississippi even though, really, I’m an old woman in Minnesota. An old woman old enough to remember when the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term did not exist.
I was 16 when I got pregnant during my first sexual encounter. A couple of months into my senior year at a Catholic high school in a small Catholic town, I knew that I could not breathe a word of my plight to anyone. For months I could not even admit it to myself. Everyday I awoke with morning sickness and struggled through breakfast with my parents and my little brothers. I put on my school uniform as if it were a shroud and zombied my way through my classes. I needed help and couldn’t get it.
Dead girl walking. That was me. A girl with big questions. Should I drive my car in front of the train? People did that sometimes in my town. Should I carbon monoxide myself in the garage? Hang myself? Slice my wrists? I had to do something to spare my family the ruin of my predicament. I tried to cut my wrists. Sliced a little into one with a razor blade I took from my father’s shelf in the medicine cabinet. I couldn’t finish the job.
This was my plan
Run away then, I decided. Because my weight had stayed about the same due to the morning sickness, I could wait until near the baby’s due date. No one was suspicious. I could wait, and not be gone for more than a few weeks. And then I’d come home with a story. I was good at stories.
There was a Greyhound bus to Chicago. On a day in mid-June of 1970, I would be on that bus. That was my plan. I’d been to Chicago with my high school chorus to sing the Messiah in a Christmas concert with a bunch of other Catholic school students. I would go to the convent that was part of the school and church where we sang. The nuns would take me in, and I would beg for their mercy. And… This part will sound ridiculous, but I’ll tell it to you anyway. I was going to pretend that I had amnesia. So I wouldn’t have to tell the nuns my name. Really, this was my plan.
But this is more ridiculous
It’s ridiculous to pretend that desire does not exist. Ridiculous to think that telling teen-agers they will go to hell if they have sex before marriage will deter them. It is beyond ridiculous, repugnant actually, to tell a teenager she is dirty, guilty of mortal sin, ruined for life for any reason. It is especially repugnant if you are a member of a religious order purporting to spread god’s love.
It’s abusive and wrong not to educate teenagers about sex. And children too, in an age-appropriate way. Every decent piece of research tells us that preaching about abstinence does not work. There are other stupid things that don’t work either, yet those are the things we do.
Roe v. Wade
Those of us who care about women’s rights and reproductive rights have, for years, heard the oncoming rumblings of the train wreck that will most likely overturn Roe v. Wade. I can see that future clearly because I can remember my past.
The story of my secret teen-age pregnancy will repeat itself over an over again. In Mississippi and probably another 20 states. Maybe eventually the whole country. Birth control might be on the chopping block too. And so the stories will grow more numerous. More gruesome. Because there will be no exceptions for rape or incest. And here’s a detail. It’s not mostly teen-age girls who are terminating their pregnancies these days. “According to the Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers, and 75 percent are living below the poverty line or are categorized as low-income.” Margaret Renkl gives us a nice big picture of our current terrible reality in her opinion piece in the New York Times. Mothers are already second class citizens.
What is a milestone birthday if you have a relinquished child you’re reunited with? I think it’s the year where the scales tip in favor of the birthdays spent together as opposed to those spent apart. I think it’s every birthday you celebrate post-reunion.
This month my son celebrates his 43rd birthday. The scales have now most definitely tipped in the direction of knowing him for more years than not knowing him. We’ve already celebrated since he and his family are here for a visit.
20 birthdays uncelebrated
My son and I met just a few days before his 21st birthday. Two decades of birthdays went uncelebrated. They were cause for mourning, not celebration. Where is he? Is he healthy? Is he happy? Is he alive?
A double celebration
We made it a double celebration since my younger daughter just had her birthday 10 days ago and my birthday dinner for her was derailed my a short hospital stay for my mom.
M does not remember a time before her brother was part of her life since she was only two when they met. When I told her and her sister that they had a big brother, they both looked at me as if I’d just presented them with a pony. The age gap seemed huge between them then. Now that they’re both adults, it seems so much less.
Reproductive rights seem to be growing smaller. Month by month. State by state. The Birth Control Panel recently hit women’s reproductive rights in its most vulnerable target. Pending legislation and the personhood movement will more than likely continue to snip away at what young women have come to think of as their unassailable rights over their own bodies.
When I was a pregnant teenager in a small Catholic town in 1970, men were in charge of women. Then, little by little, the constraints of this kind of old-school thinking gave way. But when I read my morning newspaper I see that we now need to fight the same battles again.
Sex was a taboo subject in my small town. I don’t think I was familiar with the term reproductive rights. But millions of American women living in more open-minded places were already using the birth control pill by the time I started high school in 1966.
In the preceding year of 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut had made information about birth control, and birth control itself, legal for married women. However, for Catholic girls like me, the subject of birth control was just as forbidden as the subject of sex. Pope Paul’s the VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed all types of birth control other than the rhythm method. Our fathers, our doctors, legislators, and the Pope dictated what we could do with our bodies.
In 1973 when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, it seemed carved in stone. But we are traveling back to the past. And we’re going to have to do some heavy lifting.
I was raised to believe I had a guardian angel. In my mind’s eye I can still see those religious portrayals of angels saving people from destruction. The large winged creature holding children back from the edge of a cliff, or guiding them as they cross a river on a rickety bridge. I took comfort in those images as child.
But now I know that accidents happen anyway.
I appreciate the poet Carl Dennis’s thoughts about accidents, luck, and our personal angels.
However busy you are, you should still reserve One evening a year for thinking about your double, The man who took the curve on Conway Road Too fast, given the icy patches that night, But no faster than you did; the man whose car When it slid through the shoulder Happened to strike a girl walking alone From a neighbor’s party to her parents’ farm, While your car struck nothing more notable Than a snowbank. One evening for recalling how soon you transformed Your accident into a comic tale Told first at a body shop, for comparing That hour of pleasure with his hour of pain At the house of the stricken parents, and his many Long afternoons at the Lutheran graveyard. If nobody blames you for assuming your luck Has something to do with your character, Don’t blame him for assuming that his misfortune Is somehow deserved, that justice would be undone If his extra grief was balanced later By a portion of extra joy. Lucky you, whose personal faith has widened To include an angel assigned to protect you From the usual outcome of heedless moments. But this evening consider the angel he lives with, The stern enforcer who drives the sinners Out of the Garden with a flaming sword And locks the gate.
Your personal angel
Our personal angels might not be the same. What kind is yours?
I wasn’t there when my son got his first tooth, went off to kindergarten, finished grade school or graduated from high school. I missed the first 21 years of his life. All of it. But here’s the thing about reunion--important things continue to happen and we’ve been there for each other.
And each year that goes by, the list of family milestones list will grow longer.
Adoptees and medical history. It’s a problem. My son once told me that being adopted was like being in the Witness Protection Program. But without access to family medical history.
With all the debate about healthcare swirling around us, I find myself thinking about healthcare and adoption. I most definitely want reasonably priced healthcare for all Americans. BUT adoptees need more than that. They need what most of us already have. In other words, our medical histories.
I know what my grandparents died of…and my father. That my mother has high blood pressure and that quite a few people in my family have circulatory issues (Maybe from smoking.) I know that despite the fact that most of us are as pale as the underbelly of an eyeless sea-creature, no one has contracted skin cancer. And that while we can eat pretty much anything, I know we’ve got one member with severe wheat allergies and issues with dairy. Another is allergic to dessert pollens and olive trees. Curvature of the spine is a big issue. Maybe hip degeneration. Imagine not knowing those things about yourself. And when adoptive parents hold that baby in their arms, don’t THEY want to know? My maternal grandmother was allergic to penicillin and Novocain. One of my three children has that penicillin allergy and it can be life threatening.
Unseal adoption records
How can adoptees and their parents rest easily without knowing? For many, many adoptees, the information is available. If they could find the identity of their biological parents. Unsealing adoption records would change that. Adoptees. And medical history. It’s a big deal.
A few posts ago, I wrote about reunion vis a vis the California Adoption Bill (Assembly Bill 372.) Yay, I thought, more birthparents and adoptees will be reunited. I think I got an email from some nefarious person or organization touting what a good idea this was and that only encouraged my naive stupidity. There was a clause in the bill (now in some legislative limbo) that required birthparent consent. Birth parent consent is a huge impediment to open records. The bill was a trick. A ploy to get in the way of open records.
I’m in the middle of a divorce, writing the thesis for my MFA, trying to rise out of the ashes once again and my brain is somewhat broken.
It was this quote from the story that made me feel connected to a self-confessed convicted killer.
Atkins gave birth to a son while living at Spahn Ranch, an old movie set, with other members of the Manson family. While she was on death row, she wrote, he was legally taken from her because no one in her family was willing to raise him.
“His name and identity have been changed and sealed, so I have no idea where he is or how he is doing,” she wrote. “I have since been told his name was changed to Paul, and whether or not that is true I like it. … My continuing separation from my son, even after all these years, remains an incredibly poignant and enduring loss.”
Today is my son’s birthday–or so he’s been told. It wasn’t uncommon in 1970 for adoption agencies to tamper with details like birth dates. Sometimes, when the amended birth certificates were generated, changes were made in order to hamper searching.
But I hesitate to make these accusations because it could be that in my effort to put my son’s birth behind me and begin anew, I may have confused his due date with his date of birth.
Giving birth to my son was a secret event known only to my parents and my boyfriend and when I emerged from hiding, I was supposed to forget and move on.
I’ve heard that this confusion over a child’s birthdate is not unusual among birthmothers.