My daughters blame me, as daughters often will. They are more right than wrong, but more wrong than they believe. Things were tough for them, when they were young, when I was a young mother. I was very much alone, even with my husband in the room. He was often twice drunk, once on the trauma of wartime memories, and once again on alcohol. He would clean himself up, go out to find work, and come home hours later staggering with the weight of memory and the heaviness of feet that had walked twenty-something miles and the lightness of inebriation making moments tolerable for him, and intolerable for me. (And the girls: always my first thought, but then by mid-morning, the tangents of circumstance had made them a parenthetical.)
Before they were born it was just me. And him. And then me and him together, under the Arch in Washington Square Park, where we met and then later where we first kissed. I felt completed by that kiss that had sprung from youthful conversation, the sharing of passions, heavy flirtation. And oh, how I had fallen for this smart, handsome boy from Brooklyn who could have been in the movies. I opened my eyes after that first kiss, dazzled with the force of it and from the sun shining brightly pink through my eyelids. As we strolled hand in hand, I turned my head back and read the inscription on the arch: “let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. the event is in the hand of god.— washington”. It was 1954, I was 25, single, and hunting for an omen. To me, that kiss was in the hand of god.
We married, and I had three beautiful babies two years apart, but moments when I was truly present with them were fleeting. I would inhale the scent of my children’s hair, or see a bird or flower through their eyes, and joy would fill me like a balloon; I would float there, my child’s hand holding mine like a string. And then the worry would rush to fill the space made by all that joy, and anger would bully away the sweetness, and there we would be: me, harried, disheveled and mildly undernourished, with three children under five in various expressions of discomfort or fear and anger of their own, straining from the stroller or twisting to release a hand from mine. And I would feel a stab of memory and quickly try to unthink the child I had never met, from before we married. The reason I almost didn’t marry him, the reason I almost didn’t make it.
We were very modern, my husband and I, before we were married. Very modern for 1954, anyway. We would meet, I convincing myself that it was really just for coffee and conversation this time, after my classes at Columbia and in between his odd jobs. We invariably ended up back at his apartment, not far from the arch. I would go home to my parents’ uptown apartment before dark (I never saw his terrors at night until after we were married), and I would count the moments until our next coffee date. Weeks twirled languorously around each other, and a beautiful hush fell over my soul. I was typically prone to worry, but I just gave in to this soft delight, and let myself float. It was a magical time.
Perspective and hindsight. It can turn an apparently linear experience into a choose-your-own adventure. If viewed through a lens of love, those early years contain many happy times, snapshots of joy frozen in time, and of course there is always the happy ending. Happy, if viewed from just the right angle. But truth is a prism that refracts and teases out realities that are painful to recount, that you can choose to edit out, but that are always there, stamped on the past. My daughters have chosen the dog-eared page of bitterness, and don magnifiers to locate all the darkness. I feel sometimes that maybe I deserve it, even though the case they build is only a small part of the truth.
I had wanted to tell him, to rush into his arms with the news, to make decisions and plans with him. My parents didn’t approve of (nor know the true depth of) our relationship, but took ownership of this crucial information and before I knew it, the procedure was done. I sat up on a wooden table in a stranger’s grease-streaked kitchen, slight ache in my womb, thinking distractedly that that hadn’t been so bad. The next day, though, brought fevers and regret, panic and so much blood, a visit to the hospital that lasted a month in several wards, and a refusal by my parents to let him anywhere near me. He finally did get in to visit me, but by that point I didn’t want to see him, or talk about any of it to anyone. Later we came back together, my parents still shunning and forbidding, and he soothed me the best he could, and stood with me in understanding through this trauma, both of us battle weary from our own unique wars.
Nowadays if a woman has an abortion, it is done safely and she has access to therapists and support networks to help her with difficult emotions, should they arise. In 1954? My parents paid a small fortune of $400 to a stranger to perform a procedure that killed many (I was one of the lucky ones) and left many more barren (I went for over a year after we married, thinking we would never have a child together- again, I was one of the lucky ones). I was deeply depressed afterwards, and experienced severe anxiety that echoes into today. But it was the “pack up your troubles” era, so I tried, even though the velises were shoddily packed and would burst open every few years, and I would sort of disintegrate and collapse for a couple of weeks at a time.
I never told my daughters about the time before. They tell me they remember a weak, distracted mother who frequently wasn’t emotionally available to them, a father who would periodically come home almost unrecognizable in his drunkenness. How could they remember what he and I had been through, our wars that happened before they were born? I remember just trying to love my way through a haze so that I could join them, to unthink my past in order to be present for them. I tried with every fiber of my being to be there, and to love unconditionally.
I never told them of the time before, but one day soon I will give them a gift, the gift of the truth. I am writing this for them, so they will know, and forgive, and move into the light.