Abortion Contest

In 2003, George W. Bush was running for re-election. (I don’t want to talk about whether or not this was a re-election campaign or an election campaign, after the Florida funny business. I’m just glad he’s not the president now.) The campaign was ugly. The issues were suddenly intensely divisive and personal — particularly where Roe v. Wade was concerned. You couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing ferocious, fervent diatribes surrounding the issue of legal abortion. I was accustomed to avoiding the conversation, and, hopefully, allowing each person to reconcile their own reproductive decisions between themselves and God or whomever they like to reconcile themselves to.

But it was all over the radio and television, in conversation overheard in bank teller lines and grocery stores, and, it turns out, on the playground. My son was only 9 years old. I’m not sure how the political pogwank wove itself into playground diatribe — perhaps between games of four-square and soggy rectangle pizza slices, the little ones polarized and debated the benefits and disadvantages of prison reform and estate tax in hissed, lispy whispers. Anyway. I think it was sometime around October? The campaign rhetoric was bitter, loud, and everywhere. I fielded ten kabillion questions from my son about everything from homosexuality to terrorism, providing spanky PBS answers, neatly avoiding genitals, hate, and murder. Then, one day, as I drove us to the grocery store, my son piped up, “Mom, what’s an abortion?”

There are moments, as a mother, when you feel a cold heaviness descend around you, when time briefly stops and birds are frozen mid-air, and you feel the heavy hand of God on your shoulder. “Hey,” says God. “Don’t fuck this up.”

“Well,” I said to my son, “an abortion is when a woman decides to end a pregnancy.” Not bad, right? Even-handed.

My son had obviously been told another definition (see “playground diatribe,” above). “Is it when a mom kills her baby?”

I knew I was on very fragile soil. I didn’t want to sound off on my own political views, but I also didn’t want to leave him with the impression he had. I wanted to leave his mind open, so he could make it himself when he had the maturity and information with which to do so. When he turns 36.

“Some people think it’s murder,” I told him. “Some people think it’s more important for the woman to be able to choose when she becomes a mom. When a woman ends a pregnancy, it’s because she isn’t ready or able to be a mom.”

“Why wouldn’t someone want to be a mom?” (This is a hard question to answer from your own child, because all the answers boil down to, “because you and your kind are megalomaniacal assholes an astonishing percentage of the time, and the rest of the time, the love we feel is so catastrophic, it’s hard to even survive. It’s like living with a giant bacterium, or seeing the face of God, by turns.”) I measured my response carefully. “Well, sometimes a woman doesn’t get to choose if she gets pregnant or not. And, sometimes a woman knows her body can’t make a healthy baby. And sometimes a young woman gets pregnant and knows she’s too young to be a mom.”

My son scrunched his face. “But you were young, Mom.”

Now, I was 21 when he was born, and that was young, for me. What I had meant was young young. But I didn’t want to say, “I mean like, 14, honey” because my son would’ve freaked out. I also didn’t know yet what he’d be like at 14, and didn’t want to inadvertently give him any ideas. So, I said, “Yes, I was young.” He said, “So, why didn’t you have an abortion of me?”

I knew I needed to be particularly careful how I responded. So, I said, “Well, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought hard about all the possibilities, and I just knew I wanted to be your mom.” My son smiled. “Oh.” Then we talked about what he was like when he was a baby, and the time he almost killed the daycare lady. (I’ll tell you that one later.)

So, good conversation, right? Way to field a series of very sticky subjects with finesse and love, right? Those Mother of the Year people are waiting for me on line three, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong.

Flash forward, to around May. I was driving my son to school. We were chatting about random items of preparedness (the location and status of his lunch, mittens, and homework) and dinner plans (chicken spaghetti, no cheese). At the light that precedes his school by some five blocks, my son smiled at me and said, “Mom! I forgot to tell you! I wrote a story about you.”

“Really?” I said, smiling into the rear-view mirror.


I was touched. My heart was warmed. I smiled my way through the recently greened light.”That’s so nice, honey! What’s it about?”

“It’s called ‘The Light of Love.’ Everybody had to write one. It’s supposed to be about the person who did the nicest thing for you ever. I wrote mine about you.”

“What did I do that was so great? Is it about how you never have any clean underpants?” He laughed.

If you have an ominous soundtrack on hand, this is when to cue it up.

“I wrote my essay about you because you did the nicest thing for me. I wrote about how you almost had an abortion of me, but you didn’t.”

I slammed on the brakes, whipping over the car to the side of the road. “You what????!!!!” I hissed. “You WHAT???!!! YOU WHAT????” My son had gone invisible, his skin had changed to the color of the backseat, and he had stopped breathing to avoid detection. “You wrote an essay telling everyone that I almost aborted you? Why would you do that? WHERE IN THE HELL DID YOU EVER GET THAT IDEA?”

“From you! You said you found out you were pregnant with me, you thought about all the options, but then you had me.”

And this is why, children of the world, your mother won’t answer the question, “Why would anyone not want to be a mom?” I buried my face in my hands, too simultaneously furious and mortified (mortifurious — a sort of Mom form of Zen) to do anything. “Did you turn the essay in?” I asked.

“Yes.” My son replied, his face stricken. After verifying that my son did not actually believe I almost aborted him, I found myself faced with a very unpleasant task. I would have to sit down with his teacher, a lovely woman I knew very little about save her excellence in the classroom, and discuss several very intimate and delicate matters. I walked my son into the classroom and waved her over to me. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stepping into the hall. “What’s up?”

There was no gentle way to do it. I ramble-ranted. I babble ramble-ranted. “I don’t know you, and I promise I would never put you in this position if there was any other alternative and before I go any further, please understand that I am not asking for your position on this issue, or asking you to agree with mine but my son wrote some essay for you called, ‘The Light of Love?’” She looked thoroughly perplexed.

“Yes?” She said.

“About the nicest thing anybody ever did for the kids?” I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“Well, my son wrote his essay about how I did the nicest thing for him because I didn’t abort him.”

Her hands flew up to cover her mouth.

“I have to explain. I didn’t almost have an abortion. Although, if I had considered an abortion, that would have been fine with me because I think that’s my right to do. But in any event, I sure as hell wouldn’t have told him about it! He talked about it like I sat him down and was like, ‘You’re one lucky, kid. That was a close one.’” I dragged my finger across my throat. “I didn’t almost have an abortion, although I am pro-choice and think it was my choice to make but I wouldn’t tell him that, either. I wouldn’t talk to him about any of this!” I was rattling away like a crazy person.

She stood, stock-still, hands over her mouth.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you all this, and like I said, I don’t expect you to tell me how you feel about it. But I needed you to know I’m not some monster who tells her kid he almost didn’t make the cut,” I said. “And I’m sorry I said it that way,” I said.

She held up her hand. “It’s not that.” She said. “It’s fine, of course you didn’t tell him that. It’s just that those essays aren’t here.”

Do you still have that ominous track cued up? Just put it on continuous play.

“What do you mean, they’re not here?” I hissed.

“They’re not here. We sent them away. They’re for a writing contest.”

“A writing contest?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, moving her palm to her forehead. “Ugh. This is bad. They’re being judged by local residents of long-term care facilities.”

Perfection! But of course they are. I could see it now; frail, shaking, blue-veined hands manipulating old-timey letter openers, cooing and clucking as they read the adorable missives contained therein: “Agnes! Listen to this! ‘The nicest thing that anyone ever did for me was bring me to church, where I learned about Jesus.’ What a precious angel.”

“Marjory, did you read the one about the little boy who says his puppy did the nicest thing for him ever when he licked his face after his dad had been killed in the line of duty, saving an entire orphanage? Just beautiful.”

Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, poor Margaret held my son’s hideous homage in tiny, arthritic, clenched fists. “What kind of monster would tell their sweet boy he was almost an abortion? What has happened to the world I knew? You know what? I’m changing my living will to ‘Do Not Resuscitate.’” Not only did we not win, we might have killed people. I briefly contemplated going to the long-term care facility and explaining this whole thing to them, but just couldn’t imagine how I could do it and not seem bonkers or offensive, or both.

This is the real reason I won’t allow my mom to ever end up in one of those places. I don’t know if any of those residents are still there, and I can’t be certain they won’t recognize my name.

The Inheritance

My grandmother Irene was a pitiful, crazy person. Not all the time, unfortunately, or she’d have been packed into some coarse New England institution for experiments with electrons and lithium derivatives much earlier. As it was, because she alternated her violent and impulsive behavior with periods of serenity and excellent baking, she was allowed to quietly produce one, two, three, four and finally five wards of the state, one right after the other, before she was wrangled by the authorities and medicated to death.

Her youngest boy, Fred, who she kept along with three more kids, believed that shock therapy, medication, and age had actually healed Irene just enough that she could think rationally about what she’d done. So she overdosed herself on lithium.

We met her once, about a year before she died. She looked like a watercolor version of our mother, all smeared and indistinct in comparison. We had no idea she was our grandmother. Our mother introduced her as “Irene,” no more information.

She kept touching our hair with shaking, blue-veined hands.

My mother was her firstborn. Her father was a navy sailor, and at 17 too young to have any idea what was going on with his pregnant girlfriend of a few months, let alone understand what gripped her every six to eight weeks and forced her down to the bar, gone for days with other men. Naturally, he left her. My mother was born some six months later, only to wither in a wicker laundry basket until Irene, tormented by her inability to take care of my mother, called my great-grandmother Nora and announced that she had a live grandchild, a baby girl, who could be found at St. Elizabeth’s orphanage in Lewiston, Maine, if she was interested. Her name was Helen.

Nora was in a tight spot. Her husband Carl wanted nothing to do with another child, having successfully driven his 17-year-old son away at last into the military so he could more vigorously abuse his wife. He’d be damned if he was going to pay for some whore’s kid to come begging at his supper table, especially since he couldn’t even be sure the baby was his own flesh and blood. Shit, he wasn’t even 100 percent sure his own son was his. He saw the way Nora eyed the men at the bank and he’d wager she spent some time thinking about what was inside those inseams she measured at the tailor’s shop where she worked. That was why he had written her and his son out of his will, and never had a lick of life insurance. He’d be gawdammed if he was going to pay his wife to live high on the hog after he was dead, feeding her suitors with the fat back from all his hard work. Naw. When he was dead, so was she, as far as he was concerned. That’s what “until death do us part” meant to Carl. He was a terrible man.

Nora worked extra hours at the tailor shop to send my mother clothes at the orphanage, and took the bus up to Lewiston every weekend she could to see her.

My mother lived the first five years of her life in St. Elizabeth’s orphanage. She has never said even one word about it, save the name of the place itself. My sisters and I haven’t asked about it, and we probably never will.

When my mother first turned five, the laws of adoption changed. There were so many orphans that the government had started a program in which blood family could get a small stipend for adopting a child over the age of five. Nora explained to Carl that there was good money in it for them if they took her home, more than Nora made at the shop. Carl warmed to the idea, agreeing finally when he found out that Nora would also continue working, which meant that between her wages and the stipend from the state, he could retire a little early. Six months later, my mother was adopted legally by her grandmother.

Nora drove to the Lewiston orphanage in the Buick, something Carl usually forbid her to do. It was a golden late summer day, and the sky was as close and dense with color as the flesh of a fruit. The whole world was humming and alive, and you could hear the electrical buzzing of insects even with the car window up and the radio on. My mother was dressed in the little white pinafore seersucker dress Nora had sent the month before. She had a straw hat with a blue bow that she wore for special occasions, like Easter service or for the visits of prospective adoptive parents. She stood, erect and with her small wooden suitcase clutched in both hands, on the porch of St. Elizabeth’s as Nora drew the Buick up the drive.

There weren’t many papers to sign at all; Nora later would remark that it was much harder to buy that Buick. My mother sat next to the passenger side window, in the front with Nora on the bench seat, as they made the two-hour drive back to Massachusetts. My mother didn’t say much, but she never did, so they rode in a sort of warm, familiar quiet. As they drove, Nora told my mother all about the new school she’d attend in West Upton, about the parks and the playgrounds and the ice cream parlor. She told her about the tailor shop where she worked, and how one whole side of the room was just ladies’ dresses and wraps. She told her about Boston, and the zoo where you could see a live zebra and where there was a kind of candy that looked like old ladies’ hair.

They passed through the cities, passed the row houses and the smokestacks whose pulpy exhalations sooted the eaves and corners of windows, like eyeliner on silent movie stars. They passed the ocean inlets teeming with dead fish, stranded by the tides, rotting in such numbers that the city laid lye over their corpses so the townspeople didn’t have to evacuate, the smell was so bad. They passed acres of geometric farms, parallelograms of alternating shades of green, rust, and wheat, dotted with tiny red houses. On the side of the road at the stop sign of the four corners highway divide, a woman stood behind a massive apple stand, towering with enormous, shining apples. My mother involuntarily gasped. She had never seen that many apples in one place in her life.

Nora examined her granddaughter. “Would you like an apple, Helen?” She asked. My mother froze, incapable of processing the inquiry. A whole apple? A person could just stop and get a whole apple? Just like that? Her small head began to whirl, full of zebras and old women with candy hair and farms that grew row after row of tiny white dresses and apples, apples, apples … she started to shake a little, and cry. She was so ashamed she covered her face with her hat until she could stop herself.

Nora got out of the car and bought two apples from the women behind the cart, carefully selecting apples with no bruises, firm and tight to the touch. She climbed back into the Buick and set my mother’s apple on her lap. She bit into her own apple with a juicy crunch, and said, around a wet mouthful of fruit, “that one’s all yours, Helen.” She regarded her for a long while. “We’re gonna have so much fun, you and me.”

My mother held the apple in her hands, as carefully and gently as if she was holding a sleeping dove, all the way back to West Upton. It was dark when they got in. Carl was passed out in the recliner, and Nora shushed my mother right past him and into the den, beyond which was the bathroom, and the room her son used to have, which she had made up all in buttercup yellow and organza for my mother. She set her wooden case on the chair under the window, and told her she could stay up as long as she liked, getting situated and exploring her room. She clicked on a little wall lamp whose lampshade was a tiny, pirouetting ballerina, kissed her granddaughter on her head, and gently closed the door.

My mother moved her suitcase from the chair, and carefully removed its contents. She put her clothes into the dresser with the big sloping drawers, and her hat on the vanity’s elaborate iron swirls. Then she clicked off the light, and sat down next to the window until her eyes had acclimated themselves to the thickness of this new dark — the dark of a quiet neighborhood, of the lined and insulated walls of a home. She listened for the distant static of a fan, and the creak of wood, crickets, and trees. She held her apple up to her lips at last, and ate it. She even ate the stem and seeds, licking her palms as she went. She ate every bit. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted in her whole life.