A Family Note: overlapping memories

In 1944, during WWII, when I was conceived around the time of the D-Day invasion, both my parents worked in defense industries near or in Chicago.   Both were engineers, and I believe (not for sure in my father’s case) they were both liaison engineers for the Army Air Corps in aircraft factories.  They had been married since mid-or-late 1930s,  and my mother had had four previous pregnancies, all ending in late miscarriages/stillbirths–all male.   When she learned she was pregnant again, after the second missed period (pregnancy diagnosis then depended on the “rabbit test”) that would’ve been in August ’44, probably.  She came home elated–another chance, maybe this time she’d carry to term–to tell my father.

He had news for her.  Before she could tell him about the pregnancy, he told her he wanted an immediate divorce because he’d gotten another woman pregnant and wanted to marry *her*, so her child would be legitimate.   He was not happy to find out my mother was pregnant, and very unhappy to find out she wouldn’t divorce him because it would make the contents of my mother’s uterus a bastard–that’s how the law went.   Well, then, he said, she should get an abortion.  Abortions were illegal, though not as illegal as some states want them to be now.  They were also more dangerous than abortions have been since ’73.   He wanted her to risk an illegal abortion of a child conceived in marriage, that she wanted, and divorce him, so that he could marry this other woman and legitimize her child.

When she refused, and when she insisted on a conference with a priest who was horrified at his demands, he took my mother off to meet with his mother.  His mother thought anything he wanted was fine and dandy, and her reaction to my mother’s refusal to have an abortion OR grant my father a divorce, was to…try to push my mother downstairs  and cause her to have a miscarriage…or even perhaps die.  My mother described the struggle at the head of the stairs to me only when I was mostly grown up and didn’t want me to talk about it.  As often happens, she, the victim, felt shamed by it.  She didn’t want to hurt her mother-in-law, but she also didn’t want to be thrown down the stairs.   Not too long after that  she decided it was not safe for her or her pregnancy to stay with my father (no kidding!!) and drove from Chicago to South Texas where she was from–right down on the border–in wartime.   No interstate highways then..a long, long, LONG way, and crossing multiple state borders.

When I read about the states (including Texas) that want to stop pregnant women from leaving the state they’re in because they “might” go somewhere and have an abortion, I think about that.   I am alive today because she had the courage to leave…and the *ability* to travel across state lines despite being pregnant.  I think about my father, and my paternal grandmother, both being willing for me to die–through miscarriage or an illegal abortion–for my father’s convenience.  My father was Catholic.   That didn’t affect his behavior in this situation.

When I read about a woman found dead at the bottom of a staircase, I think of my mother, who fought to avoid ending up there…or with another failed pregnancy.

In today’s extreme right-wing-woman-hating climate, my mother probably would be arrested for that first late-term miscarriage/stillbirth.   If not for the first, for next.   Women having spontaneous pregnancy loss have *already* been arrested and jailed on grounds that they were trying to abort.   A woman who’d had a fall down a staircase was assumed to have wanted an abortion.   Laws that forbid medical care for failed pregnancies that menace a woman’s life (rotting remains of pregnancy causing massive infection, ectopic pregnancies that rupture, and several other emergencies)  or for pregnancies that simply directly cause maternal death directly, will kill women and also eliminate any chance of bearing a live child later.

Women were, and still are, typically blamed if a spontaneous or intentional abortion interrupts a pregnancy.  News flash:  often it’s the person who impregnates the mother who wants her to have an abortion.  Or his mother.   My life experience has let me know a number of women (no trans persons, just women) from ages 14 up who have had abortions, several of them paid for by mothers of the boy/man who made them pregnant.  Some by the man himself.  I have also known women who were injured or killed by those who impregnated them.  So-called “honor” killings of pregnant teens by the fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers to conceal their own crimes.  Murders by married men to hide their affairs (and sexual assaults of minors).   Murders by boyfriends, by rapists.   Pregnant women are at extra risk of being murdered during pregnancy.   Murder isn’t always by gun or poison–they may, like my mother, find themselves being pushed toward the stairs.  Some fall; some die.   Some successfully fight back.   Now those numbers will rise again.  More women will die.  From medical neglect, from the malice of those who do not want their pregnancy to succeed, and from the malice of those who believe in forced pregnancy.  Some pregnant women will be blamed when they are murder victims.

I’ve been asked how I’d feel about it if my mother had aborted me.  I wouldn’t exist, so I’d have no thoughts or feelings, and thus could not “mind” or feel “sad” or whatever.   I decided early on that abortion should be legal, that no uterus-carrier should be obliged to bear a child she did not want.   And that no pregnant woman who *wanted* that pregnancy to succeed should be forced to have an abortion.  No forced pregnancies, no forced abortions.   That no uterus-carrier was just a “vessel” existing primarily to provide “a domestic supply of infants for adoption,” as if the women were cows and mares, and the infants were calves and colts  to be sold for someone’s profit.  Considering the profits in baby-supply these days, infant-trafficking is certainly making some people rich.   The thought expressed in that draft decision by SCOTUS, that killing Roe v. Wade would “increase the domestic supply of infants for adoption” is commodifying babies: making them a commodity people can expect to be made available for them…for them to purchase and use.

How I feel about my father and my paternal grandmother wanting me to die or be born a bastard is…a bit complicated and has changed over time.  By the time I knew anything about that, I was alive, and thriving, with very little contact with my father and none with that grandmother.   I was initially appalled at the insults to my mother, rather than the danger to me.   I had my own reasons not to trust or like my father; I resented being forced to see him when he’d show up without warning, interrupting my life.   I think they were wrong, both he and his mother,  and things he did often hurt me, but it wasn’t life-threatening.   I was never able to feel for him what either he or I wanted me to feel, but I finally got over feeling guilty about that.   If you aren’t *being* a father, then you can’t have a father/child relationship the way an in-residence father can.  The hours just aren’t there.

9 thoughts on “A Family Note: overlapping memories

  1. Im very glad your mother was strong enough. We would all have missed so much if you hadnt been alive.
    And how wonderful that you can stick it to them that you have had international success despite that beginning.
    Were your mother and father aware of your writing?

    1. My mother knew I wrote, but she was losing her sight rapidly toward the end of her life, which was when I was beginning to get published. She was happy for me, though a couple of the shorter pieces I wrote shook her a little. Or maybe a lot; I’m not sure. As a divorcee with a daughter to bring up, in those years, she had to be and was very careful and proper, and once grown and having spent those years in the military, I was…less so. We were quite different: the world she was born into, when women could not vote or own property in their own names, was different from mine, as mine was different from now. She was very intelligent, had a good engineer-mind but couldn’t get a degree in it at the time, because of one prof who didn’t like the idea of women engineers. I have writer-mind with enough experience with her to seem to have some engineer-mind but not really. She was a good oral storyteller, but her writing was flat. We both enjoyed cooking, but cooked differently, partly dictated by economics. She could be great fun, but also very demanding. She made all my clothes when I was little, nearly all of them through elementary and junior high school, many of them in high school. She designed clothes for friends, as well as houses and other buildings. She was a competent painter in oils and in watercolor, her pencil and her ink drawings were superb, esp those of architecture and plants from life. A good amateur photographer with a 35mm camera or 8mm movie camera, a competent self-taught pianist, rode horses well (but not as horse-crazy as I was and am), had done competition swimming and diving, did crochet, knitting, needlepoint as well as sewing. Through everything she made–the sweaters, socks, clothes, furniture, storage cabinets, drawings, paintings, maps, house and renovation designs–you could see the same mind at work: beauty, practicality, competence, organization, finish. I was far more slapdash on most things because I dove into imagination–books and writing stuff myself–and did not care if a room was a mess, or whether there was a spider web in the corner, or if my socks were pulled up evenly or my sash bow still perfect. My best housekeeping efforts weren’t nearly good enough and my usual housekeeping drove her crazy once I was grown and she visited. For me, that’s what it took to get the time to write. For her, it was duties left undone. But she took me fishing, and camping on the beach, and on wildflower drives every spring, and bought me real tools and taught me to use them, and so on and so on. Not a perfect person, of course, but an interesting, capable, mentally alive person who kept doing things and learning new things to the end of her life. I never doubted her love for me.

      On the advice of a therapist, I broke contact with my father after a couple of things that happened after my mother died, for over ten years, but when it was less stressful we had the first really “easy” meeting when I was on book tour with a stop in the city where he then lived. I’m very glad to have been in a place where I could let him know I’d be there and he’d be welcome to stop by my little event. It went well. One of my half-sisters drove him to it and we three had dinner afterwards. None of the old trigger points got stepped on. He lived to be almost 102 and we spoke on the phone now and then.

  2. Wow. I only have two daughters and only one granddaughter. I quickly learned that they needed their privacy and support and I always wonder that I did something right because now that my daughters are grown up and my granddaughter has just turned 17 they still talk to me and care about me. I am appalled by your mother’s experience – and there must be a great many similar experiences we will never know about. Obviously we are not the enlightened country we pretend to be. And one political party wishes to bring back the bad old days. I am glad that you, and other writers, give us stories of strong women to inspire the next generation of girls. Stay safe and stay sane.

  3. Thank you for sharing, that part of your life with us. I am reminded of a story in which the devil allows someone to go back in time to stop the suicide of a woman who would then go on to become one of the great vocalists/entertainers. Those stairs that your mother resisted being pushed down are one such node in the time-stream, that have afforded the rest of us the ability to enjoy your art.
    As for the right to choose, if men got pregnant instead of women, legal abortion would have been available for over 100 years in this country and many others.

  4. Thank you for bravely sharing something of your own family backround in this public forum. When reading Esmay Suiza’s story in the Serrano series, I always felt there a deep well of imaginative empathy for a young woman with a complicated and traumatic upbringing. Every time I re-read them – about once a year – I pick up more emotional depth in them. Your heart for seeing both the goodness and the woundedness in people really shows. Thank you for giving us her story, and the paths she found towards happiness.

    1. All was well–very well, in that I have been writing a new book that is going like my books used to go. They grab me, they throw me into the maelstrom, drowning me in person, place, time, events as I struggle to keep up, and then (when the writing session is over) toss me gasping into the shore of reality briefly while I flop down and take a nap. To my great surprise and greater delight, the four year inability to write coherent fiction has dissolved and I’m BACK. Or rather Writer-Me is back. Writing. And it’s working. I couldn’t believe it at first, it had been so long, but once I hit 30-40,000 words and it hadn’t shriveled up (as the first attempt post-concussion did), or been like isolated scenes connected by boring infodumps (as the second attempt did) I began to believe it would actually keep coming. And it has, and it still is.

  5. Its amazing how we understand parents better as we age ourselves. You are so lucky to have had one functional parent. At sixty-six, I rediscover and reevaluate my mother often. How her own pain and damage created a mother that I neither trusted nor respected. Twenty years ago, I broke a leg while living alone. Someone asked me why I didn’t head back home for chicken soup and parental care taking. My response was why would I return to a parent when I was frightened and in pain.

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