With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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One December morning in 1967, in the early hours before a dull winter sunrise, I labored alone on the fourth floor of Immanuel Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. I had expected labor to be work, more or less like it sounded: teeth-gritting effort, sweating, and grunting. Instead furious stallions stampeded across my eighteen-year-old belly, and no amount of shameless screaming in the direction of the fluorescent-lit hallway could quiet them. In the respites between contractions I looked out a window at the shadowy shapes of downtown-Omaha office buildings. Then, when my torture resumed, I turned my head back toward the slit of white light from the corridor and screamed for drugs.
“You’re doing great,” said a male intern who entered the room briskly, as friendly as my high-school chemistry teacher, then thrust his arm up to the wrist inside me. If such thrusting meant drugs would be administered sooner, then have at it. More doctors and interns came, each time a different arm plunging deep and taking its mysterious measurements. What were the numbers they mumbled? I didn’t know. My body was theirs, as if I’d been arrested, my freedom forfeited. I hadn’t had lessons in breathing or the kinds of pillow-supported floor exercises women learn today. I hadn’t had young-mom friends who had gone before me and brought back war stories and useful tips. My baby was to be put up for adoption, which relegated me to a different category: pregnant but not a mother-to-be; laboring but not toward any reward. For this reason, I suppose, explanations had been withheld. Somewhere just down the hall, I imagined, the legally pregnant mothers labored communally in dorms, comparing contractions and banding together to demand drugs, epidurals, Wild Turkey. I was kept separate, as if in quarantine.
I had been assigned a social worker named Camille, a girl only a few years older than I was and distinguished from me primarily by the spiral notebook and ballpoint pen she carried. Because I was pregnant and unmarried, my parents assumed I suffered from some mental or emotional disorder, and so I required not just Camille, earnestly jotting all manner of clinical observations about me, but a private psychiatrist. The one chosen for me, Dr. Russell, was an acquaintance of my mother’s cousin Belle, and he’d recommended that I not waste energy thinking about the delivery. My OB-GYN — also chosen for me by Belle — was Dr. McGoogan, a breezy, white-haired man who could have been my grandfather and treated me as if he were my pediatrician rather than my obstetrician. But he was a private doctor and therefore preferable to whatever doctor the social-service agency might have provided. (In my family private always meant “better.”) Having him was supposed to be a comfort, particularly at the delivery. Like Dr. Russell, Dr. McGoogan had assured me that labor was nothing to worry about. “No big deal,” he said. “You’ll do fine.” The fact that neither of these men ever had experienced or would experience labor and delivery did not occur to me; instead I focused on Camille’s lack of such experience. What did she know?
Camille’s approach was ponderous and awkward. Several times, in her green and graceless way, she had broached the subject of delivery. “Some folks have a hard time,” she’d said, and I’d cringed at her use of the word folks. “When you get married . . . ,” she’d said, elongating the a in married as if to emphasize the sweetness and desirability of that condition. “We don’t want you to have troubles later on,” she’d said, and I’d snapped, “Who is we?” Underlying our conversations was the assumption that after delivery I would be returned to virgin status, placed back on the marriage market, and someday have real children when, as Camille repeated despite my audible sighs of impatience, “the time is right.” I knew this, yet I hated the sunny, sappy, nonclinical way Camille articulated it. It was beneath me to listen to her sorry, farm-girl patter. Camille’s unwanted visits had urged upon me a truth I did not want to accept: that I, who had volunteered in an inner-city day camp, brought old clothes to the church white-elephant shop, and collected money at school for the poor, now was the one who needed help.
Months earlier, when I’d told my parents I was pregnant, my mother had first raged at me, then collapsed into a murky pool of self-pity and helplessness, and Belle, the family fixer, had stepped in to rescue her. In charge of damage control, Belle had arranged the necessary services to erase from my family any lingering taint of my sexual waywardness and its unfortunate byproduct, a child. Her detached efficiency, her complete faith in the correctness of the plan for the safe and hygienic removal of my baby, airlifted me from the horrors of my father’s blame and my mother’s desire to see me punished. Belle, in her elegant way, left details to the imagination. Her characteristic quip was “That’s all taken care of.” No need to linger over unseemly particulars or speculate about future fallout. Sometimes during my exile in Omaha Belle’s oldest daughter, a young newlywed, offered me support and a friendly ear, and I looked up to her as the kind of woman I might someday become: confident, respectable.
Belle had arranged for me to leave my home in a Chicago suburb and live for six months in Nebraska with the Zalkins, for whom I performed the jobs of nanny and maid in exchange for room and board and twelve dollars a week. They called us pregnant maids “work-wage girls.” I learned years later that the program was developed during a period when maternity homes were overcrowded, and it was discontinued in the early seventies, after such arrangements were determined to be fraught with exploitation.
The Zalkins lived modestly on the husband’s salary as a foreman in his father’s wiping-cloth factory, and my principal qualification to be their domestic servant was affordability. Mrs. Zalkin touted me to her friends as her “new live-in.” The morning before I was taken to the hospital for delivery, I mopped the Zalkins’ basement floor, put away toys, ironed a basketful of kids’ laundry, and carried the clothes up to the bedrooms on the second story of their split-level house. My back was tight and hurting, but my big stomach had become such a part of me that I was almost agile despite the discomfort. I was happy doing housework; it made me feel cleansed and calm. With the help of Dr. Russell, the psychiatrist, I had reframed my pregnancy as an immutable biological process, proceeding by laws that were beyond my control. I was a soldier marching to orders. Delivery was to be my liberation, my release with a clean slate. I ticked off the days and weeks on a calendar, proud of my maturity. I could wait. I could march. I could cope.
I lay in bed that night, as I did every night, facing the ceiling, my feet on a pillow, unable to sleep because of the pain gripping my back. My due date had come and gone two weeks earlier, and I had begun to feel as if I would never be free to go home.
Sometime in the night I got up, went into the bathroom, and sat on the edge of the tub while my stomach cramped. The sink was shining, the soap scumless in its pink holder, the towels squared and fat over the towel bars, everything just the way I had left it at 9 P.M. Each evening after the kids were in bed, I tidied up the bathroom, a service that made Mrs. Zalkin feel like she lived in a fancy hotel, she said. She’d decorated the room down to the last detail. The walls, the toilet-seat cover, the towels and washcloths, and even the rubber ducky belonging to the four-year-old were pink — but I wasn’t allowed to call it “pink.” It was “Brazilian blush,” Mrs. Zalkin said: couldn’t I see the peach in it? I’d had a peach bathrobe at home with a princess Empire waist and green flowers stitched around the neckline. I’d worn it proudly the morning after the first time I’d had sex with my boyfriend, feeling elegant and womanly. (It wouldn’t even have fit me now.) So I knew the difference between peach and pink. But I did as Mrs. Zalkin asked and called it “blush” — Brazilian blush.
I thought the cramps I was having might be contractions, but I wasn’t scared. My only worry was the awkwardness of knocking on Mr. and Mrs. Zalkin’s bedroom door to wake them. I’d been instructed to do this when I needed Mr. Zalkin to drive me to the hospital, but what if this was a false alarm? Then I would have gotten them up in the middle of the night for nothing, intruded into their marital space, seen them with their hair mussed and their pajamas either twisted or, worse, lying on the floor by the bed. So I waited to see what would happen.
I was still sitting at the edge of the tub an hour later when Mrs. Zalkin tapped on the door, asked if I was OK, and, after hearing my answer, decided it was time.
The streets of downtown Omaha were deserted. All the traffic lights flashed red, and Mr. Zalkin cruised through the intersections without stopping, probably eager to unload me. We rode in silence: what does a forty-year-old man say to a pregnant teenager in labor? The contractions were far apart. My water had not broken. I was still not convinced that this was labor, but Mrs. Zalkin, veteran of three deliveries, had assured me I should go and had called Dr. McGoogan, who’d agreed.
At the hospital Mr. Zalkin escorted me to the entrance, wished me luck, and loped back to his still-idling car the way he had on summer afternoons on his way to a Shriners meeting, his tall red fez balanced on his head. For a moment I thought he might turn back, but he didn’t. His duty executed according to a plan approved by Camille and Belle, he returned to his sleeping family, and I stepped into the elevator on my way up to the maternity unit.
In a small room with several curtained areas, like the fitting rooms at Marshall Field’s, a nurse took my clothes and put them in a bag. Then she shaved off all my pubic hair — an indignity I had been told to expect — gave me a hospital gown, and made notes on a form attached to a clipboard. When she asked for my jewelry, I pretended I’d been smart enough to leave my wedding ring at home.
“Do you want your baby circumcised,” she asked, “if it’s a boy?”
I didn’t know. What was “circumcised”? Why hadn’t Camille, Dr. McGoogan, or some other person with authority made this decision and communicated it to the night staff?
Mortified, I nodded and signed her form.
In the room where I labored, a crucifix had been mounted next to the window that looked out on downtown Omaha. I was not a Catholic. The Jesus of my Episcopalian upbringing was a gentle, fairylike creature, walking in his flowing robes through fields of flowers, his European face serene and ageless. Jesus was the light of the world. He loved all the little children. Episcopalians found it tasteless the way Catholics focused on his gruesome death, hands nailed to a cross, head wrenched sideways beneath a crown of thorns, blood dripping down his emaciated rib cage. Staring at my tortured, hospital-wall Jesus, I bit down on my hand. My back felt as if it were breaking in two, my insides crackling and melting. A nail through the palm would have been better, I thought. I was doing my penance, but Jesus, hoisted on his bronzed cross in eternal agony, could not comfort me. Even God, that amorphous, heavenly being whose draconian plan to redeem the world had put his firstborn through such holy hell, had evaporated like the steam escaping the brick buildings of Omaha. The prayers I had learned as a child — “Now I lay me down to sleep”; “Our Father who art in heaven” — were worthless. I didn’t doubt there was a God (who was I to say otherwise?), but I had slipped outside his jurisdiction.
Finally I was given an epidural and, still moaning, wheeled into the delivery room. There, for the first time that night, I saw Dr. McGoogan. His masked face hovered over me, eyes narrowed in either concentration or disapproval. If he said anything at all, I was too exhausted and in too much pain to hear it. Someone lowered a dark contraption over my face, and I watched as the ring of strangers elongated around me and then disappeared.
When I awoke, I was in a sun-drenched recovery room with Belle beside me, her hair sculpted and sprayed as if she’d stopped at the beauty parlor on her way to the hospital. “It’s over,” she said, her dry fingers tapping my hand. The family emissary, she’d been sent here to this dangerous front, where it was unsafe for others (my mother, for instance) to venture. There must have been phone calls to Chicago that morning, brief exchanges in whispered voices punctuated by sighs and Oh Lords and Thank Gods.
I remembered the words boy and healthy. Someone had said them to me in that recovery room. Had it been Belle or a nurse? Boy created the outline of a human being, like a shadow behind a blowing curtain, first visible, then fading out of sight. Boy. Healthy. Their courtesy caught me by surprise. I hadn’t thought I had a right to know. I didn’t know the baby’s weight or length or the exact time of birth. All those details were recorded on medical charts destined for oblivion. We were to go on to better lives, the baby boy and I, ones that could be photographed and documented. The secret information that we had once been united, then separated in a surgical theater — something neither of us would remember, his brain too undeveloped to record it and my own memory erased by anesthesia — was deeply classified.
I had one clear thought in my drug-clogged mind: Never again. The day before I had been whole and healthy, my belly as big as a chieftain’s, my skin clear, my hair shiny, my nails strong, my mood calm and upbeat. Now I coughed up cups of phlegm — a side effect of the gas, I was told. My torso and abdomen were painted orange like a crime scene with something like Mercurochrome. My body was paralyzed with soreness. (I found out years later that I had briefly been in intensive care due to complications of the anesthesia. Some undiagnosed postnasal drip had been wildly activated by the gas, threatening to choke me with congestion.)
I was free to return to my old life, but I was not, as had been promised, the same girl at all. I was a wreck, body ripped open, lungs spewing phlegm. The violence I’d been through gave the lie to the tidy, decorous little postdelivery world my parents and their emissaries had prepared me to inhabit. Dr. McGoogan popped in and said theatrically to Belle, whose three daughters he had also delivered, “She did great. A real trooper.”
Liar, I thought, but I smiled at him anyway.
After my recovery, I was put in a double room, where another unwed girl was soon brought on a gurney and slid onto the bed next to mine. We didn’t talk, but I knew why she was there: she had no visitors and cried all the time.
Camille came by the next day. She still had her notebook. “Don’t you want to see him?” she asked.
“No,” I said. I’d watched a stream of bathrobe-clad new mothers shuffle slowly by my door in their slippers on their way to the nursery window. (Babies were doled out parsimoniously in those days, as if mothers could not quite be trusted with them.) But I didn’t want to go to the nursery window. I was afraid for people to see me and afraid of what I might see.
“Are you sure?” Camille asked.
She stared at me curiously, a look both humiliating and enraging. I figured she was required by therapeutic protocol to afford me a chance to look at my baby, to hold him if I cared to, but Dr. Russell and Belle had coached me to see my problem as nothing but pregnancy; its solution, a delivery followed by an adoption. “Of course you won’t want to see the baby,” Dr. Russell had said. “Absolutely do not see the baby,” Belle had counseled.
It was important to me that the baby go straight home from the hospital with his new mother, not a moment spent in limbo without family contact or connection. I had told this to Camille, and she had noted it in her spiral notebook, assuring me it would happen just that way. I pictured my baby’s mother sitting in a chair on the other side of the maternity unit’s swinging doors, waiting alone, her eyes cast down toward the linoleum. She was sad for me and full of questions and concerns about the baby we somehow shared. I would have liked to meet her, to hand the baby to her myself, but that would have required touching him, and I had to avoid that in order to walk out of there free and clear. Then, baby released to his rightful and better mother, I could go back to my own life. I had been accepted at the University of Colorado. My sad little drama behind me, I could laugh and have boyfriends and glide over the snow-white Rockies on slick new skis. I would shed my old, damaged personality along with my baby and impress everyone with my newfound worldliness, my toughness, my shiny recovered virginity. Seeing the baby, holding the baby would make all that impossible.
I was kept in the hospital because I had to wait forty-eight hours before I could sign the papers to give my baby boy away. This was the law in Nebraska, one put on the books to ensure that girls would not be coerced or make hasty decisions. Finally one of the nurses joined Camille, who brought the papers to my bedside. No lawyer had reviewed with me the simple one-page form entitled “Relinquishment of Child.”
“Where do I sign?” I asked.
Camille hesitated. “Read it first.”
Obediently I skimmed the document, then penned my name in neat cursive on the line at the bottom. The nurse and Camille signed as witnesses. Camille slipped the document into her briefcase without providing me a copy — I didn’t know I could ask for one — and shot me one last pitying glance. I turned away. I had done my part; now the real mother could do hers. I didn’t need these people anymore. Sometime later and somewhere else the document was notarized by a person named Glen L. Heagle, who certified that I had personally appeared before him on December 11, 1967, signed the relinquishment, and acknowledged it to be my “voluntary act and deed.”
As I grew into adulthood, I’d often think of the baby, especially around his birthday, but I told myself these were just whimsical fantasies drummed up to distract me from my real life. Having never seen him or even heard him cry, how did I know he still existed? He could have disappeared from the face of the earth in a thousand accidental ways.
Decades later I found out that Belle’s oldest daughter had given birth to a baby out of wedlock several years before me. She’d been sent out of state to a maternity home. Her family had told everyone she was at a convent to explore the possibility of becoming a nun — a comical but not uncommon cover in those days for Catholic girls in trouble. Not even my mother had known about it. Everything had been kept secret, because the belief was that if an out-of-wedlock pregnancy were acknowledged, the girl (and perhaps her family, too) would be ruined, and no man would marry her.
I did get married, as Belle and Camille had said I would, but I failed to get pregnant again, even when I had a husband, even when the time was right and I wanted to become a mother. I divorced and, at age forty-four, was adjusting to the fact that I would never have another child, one I could keep, when I got a phone call from a social worker.
“Your son is searching for you,” she said.
The words sounded at once miraculous and predictable.
Two weeks later my son, now a married man named Craig, called my home, and we talked until dawn. His last name was Petersen — “with an e, not an o,” he explained. “It’s Danish.” My baby had become a Dane. Still, he was mine; there was no doubt about that. When we met in person a week later, I saw he had my dead father’s blue eyes. Seeing Craig’s face and touching his hands, I felt as if a channel to the divine had opened up. I was giddy, infatuated, too excited to eat or sleep. (Did all new mothers feel this way?) Now when people asked if I had children, I said yes. With one phone call my life had changed: I had become a mother. My twenty-five-year labor had come to an end.
After Craig and I had traveled to see each other a few times and I’d met his wife, Teri, my mother and I were invited to visit his parents (his “other” parents? his “adoptive” parents? I was still confused about what to call everybody) and see the house in Nebraska where he’d grown up. I had waited a few months to tell my mother about Craig, reluctant to share him with her. When I finally revealed my secret, she was confused: why had I waited so long? “I just did,” I said, asserting my newfound authority as a mother.
The Petersens lived in the country in a sprawling ranch house surrounded by acres of neatly cut grass. Craig’s mother shared photographs with us, a generous yet painful show-and-tell that erased years of fantasies I’d cultivated to fill the void. “He was always difficult,” she confided. “I thought finding you might help him.” The word difficult was affirming to me; it meant he’d been misplaced somehow, that perhaps he should have stayed with me.
At dinner, a midday meal my mother and I would have called “lunch,” the food was plentiful and served family style: bowl after bowl of steaming mashed potatoes, string beans, corn on the cob, peas and carrots, raw vegetables, rolls, butter, baked chicken. Everything smelled heavenly, but I wasn’t hungry. Distracted by the ghostly traces of my son’s childhood, I couldn’t think of much to say. I stared at the photos on the walls and tables, the piano where he must have practiced, the well-worn lounger where perhaps he had sat watching football, the lace tablecloth unlike anything I owned, and I thought: This is where he ate every night. This is where they opened Christmas presents. This is where he told his parents he was getting married.
From time to time I caught Craig’s eye and smiled. My mother, with her impeccable manners, took small amounts of each dish and oozed gracious compliments. It was nothing like the meals I’d had growing up, especially not the one served at my parents’ house the night I returned from my six-month exile in Omaha. My father had cooked a sirloin steak, as he did on birthdays and special occasions, a glass of Dewar’s perched at the side of the charcoal grill. My sisters welcomed me home from “camp,” which is where two of the three had been told I was. (One sister knew the truth but kept her mouth dutifully shut.) I was a different person, and I had imagined they would be different too, but they weren’t. No one in my family would ever mention the baby I’d given up, the baby I still thought about every day. What had happened in Omaha, as far as they were concerned, was nothing. The celebration ended when my father passed out at the table and my mother, drunk too by then, sighed and went to bed.
I was touched by Lee Strickland’s story of her unwed pregnancy [“Girl, Ruined,” November 2010]. I had a child in 1968, and the author’s experience and mine are strikingly similar. I, too, wondered for years whether my son was alive or dead. My first meeting with him left me with the same feeling of having been touched by the divine. I’d carried so much sorrow within me since his birth. Now, finally, I was able to grieve.
The fact that no one thought to acknowledge my loss astounds me. I am amazed that anyone can tell a pregnant woman who is about to give up a child that all will be well, and I am thankful that our culture has changed to allow more open adoptions. A woman who gives up an infant needs to know, like all mothers need to know, that her child is OK.