Slapped

slapped

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

–Robert Hass

This is how I imagine it:

It’s January in northern Colorado. A snowstorm is beginning to blow in across the Front Range, across the fallow fields surrounding the university. Just outside her cinderblock dormitory building on the edge of campus, my birth mother Carol, a first-year college student, lugs her laundry basket to the next dorm to do some washing.

Eliza, her ex-boyfriend’s mother, gray-haired yet strong, appears unexpectedly, walking in from the parking lot. When she reaches Carol, she blocks Carol’s path, and snaps “Say you’re not pregnant!”

Carol freezes, unable to say or do anything. Both women stand shivering in the cold, quivering with rage or fear respectively, staring at each other for a long moment. Eliza growls again, “Say you’re not pregnant!”

Carol draws the basket tight against her belly, still paralyzed with shock and fear. Eliza reaches out and slaps Carol across her cheek, and Carol lets go of her basket. Laundry slumps to the pavement, limp birds downed in a storm. Flurries of snow swirl in the air, settle on the fallen clothing. Carol’s belly protrudes tellingly where the basket used to be.

These are the facts Carol told me 35 years later when I sat in my bedroom on the phone in California speaking to her for the first time ever. I had asked her who my birth father was. Her voice grew noticeably strained. She told me that my birth father Francis got two girls pregnant within months of each other, and he married the other pregnant girl, who was from a prominent local family. My birth father’s mother did not want anyone to know that her son had impregnated two young women at the same time, so she demanded that Carol admit she wasn’t pregnant, and beat Carol to make her say it. I sensed her pain in the little sighs she emitted between facts. I wanted to reach through the phone line and hold her face in my hands, to look into her eyes, to see her. But I’d never laid eyes on her. I wanted to know her, to feel what she had felt, to understand what in the hell had really happened.

Finally, Carol’s dorm-mates begin to poke their heads out of the dorm building’s second-story windows to see if she needs help, and my mother quietly says to Eliza, “I’m not pregnant.”

I felt a betrayal, rage toward Eliza for denying me, for hurting Carol.

Eliza replies in a low, urgent voice, “That’s right. You stay away from my son! He’s married now!” She turns briskly and hurries back to her car. Carol stands amid the gathering flurries, hand on her belly now.

Eliza drives twenty miles to her home on a cattle ranch in the foothills. When she arrives she walks into the empty house, opens a drawer in the coffee table and pulls out a photo album. She begins to tear photographs of Carol into tiny scraps of paper.

Carol told me that a few weeks later, when my birth mother’s pregnancy started to show, she dropped out of college without telling her parents. It was 1966, she was eighteen and pregnant.

Shortly after the New Year, Carol’s parents received a letter from the college she attended, notifying them that their daughter had withdrawn from classes.

Carol’s father walks in the front door of his small clapboard house carrying a letter he has just opened. He waves it toward his wife.

“Did you know about this?” he asks. He is yelling. His face is red.

“What in heaven’s name is going on?” says Carol’s mother, taking the letter from her husband’s outstretched hand and reading it. She gasps and lowers herself onto the textured vinyl upholstery of the nearest kitchen chair.

“I thought it was strange that she said she wanted to enroll in the winter intersession term,” says her father. He has an idea that whatever is going on has something to do with the boy Carol has dated on and off since her senior year in high school.

Alarmed, they try to call Carol, but the dorm’s hallway phone just rings like an echoing song. No one answers. Carol’s parents decide they must go find her, and they rush to their silver Chevy Nova, her mother clasping the college’s letter. They drive the forty miles from Longmont north to Greeley to find out why their daughter has quit school.

Within an hour of opening the letter, Carol’s parents are knocking at her dormitory door. They mean to interrogate her with a barrage of questions about what is going on, why she has quit school, why she hasn’t told them, what in the world she thinks she is doing, but the instant she opens the door, they see the gravid bump straining at her baggy blue dress, and they have the answer.

Carol’s eyes tear up as soon as she sees them.

After he and his wife step inside Carol’s small bedroom and close the door behind them, Carol’s dad asks in a gravelly voice, “Who’s the father?”

“Francis,” whispers my birth mother, looking at the floor and holding back sobs.

“Oh honey. You’ve ruined your life! You’ve ruined our lives!” her mother says. She turns to her husband. “What are we going to do?” she asks, folding her arms across her body, as if a draft has blown into the room.

“Does Francis know?” Carol’s father demands. His left hand is clasping the letter now crumpled beyond recognition, like a spent peony.

Carol nods. She knows her parents know that Francis has married another pregnant girl. They know she herself attended their wedding. This unspoken fact hangs thickly in the air. There will be no shotgun wedding for Carol. The other girl’s father has seen to that, Carol’s father thinks.

Carol begins to cry openly and sits down on her unmade twin bed. Her father continues to stand, saying nothing, his face reddening once again.

“What did you think you were going to do, Carol? Have a baby in this dorm room? What were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us?” asks her mother, sinking down on the bed next to Carol.

Carol remains silent, tears snaking down her face.

Her father opens the closet door, rifles through her things for a suitcase, and places it on the bed next to her. “Pack your things. We’re leaving,”

I have made up all this because Carol couldn’t bear to tell me the details, and I couldn’t bear to not know them. Carol did tell me her father was a serious man, so I imagine him this way.

This is the point at which I want Carol to say, “I want this baby, Dad. And Mom, what I was thinking was that I was going to have a baby and keep it.”

I was a 35-year-old woman with a solid understanding of the sociological and emotional consequences of unwed motherhood in 1960s America. But Carol didn’t have the benefit of that kind of perspective at the time. She probably hadn’t been able to think through her situation to all of its potential outcomes—couldn’t determine cause and effect, long-term versus short-term. She had cowered to a bullying Eliza and caved to her parents’ wishes. As far as polite society was concerned, Carol had ruined her life. Where would she live without bringing shame upon her family? What kind of work would she find? How would she pay bills? What would her life be like as an unmarried, teenage mother in rural Colorado?

Perhaps she considered an illegal abortion, the only kind there was at the time, or maybe she felt an overwhelming urge to be a mother. Maybe she prayed constantly under her breath that she would miraculously become un-pregnant, that I would just disappear. I imagine that these thoughts occupied her mind, and eventually the worrying and mulling and thinking about it shut down any rational problem-solving possibility until she was just wading through the days, one by one, in denial of her growing belly.

She was a child, but she was my mother. I sort of understood her limits, but mostly I just understood my loss.

” I said we’re leaving, Carol. Pack your things,” her father says.

“Yes sir,” she replies. She lifts a plush toy puppy from the bed, places it into the gapingly empty suitcase, and shambles toward the chest of drawers to empty them of her college girl clothing.

Carol and her parents pack her belongings quickly. At one point when her parents aren’t looking, Carol slides a photograph between the pages of her diary of herself and Francis dressed up for her high school prom: Carol wears long pink evening gloves and a burgundy velvet gown, her hair is arranged in a spun-sugar bouffant topped with a little white bow, and her eyes sparkle mischievously as she gazes at his goofy, smiling face. She doesn’t want them to destroy this picture, snapped not even a year before.

The three of them drive in silence back to their little white house in Longmont, arriving in time to eat a late supper at home. After washing the dishes, Carol retreats to her bedroom. It feels cozy, familiar. She begins to relax a little. Maybe everything will be all right: she is home with her parents, away from school, where her friends were wondering why she wasn’t attending classes. She has her little bedroom, its stuffed animals covering the bed, and her growing belly. She begins to imagine herself living there throughout her pregnancy. Maybe her mother will help her with the baby. Maybe she hasn’t ruined their lives after all. She hasn’t told them about the incident with Francis’s mother. She won’t.

The next morning at the breakfast table Carol’s father announces that she will not be staying with them at home, nor will she keep her baby. He has already called the Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers in Denver, arranging for her to stay there until the baby is born.

The Florence Crittenden Homes, founded in the late 1800s, were designed to help so-called “fallen women”—prostitutes and unwed mothers. In 1967, they were still operating full-force, and Carol’s father was about to further ensure their existence.

“You’ve utterly messed up your life, Carol. We expected better from you.” He says.

“I’m so sorry, Dad.” She stares at the plate of scrambled eggs her mother has set in front of her. She is ravenous. The baby makes her feel hungry all the time now, but she cannot pick up her fork. Her father’s disgust has immobilized her.

“The day after tomorrow, we’re going to drive you down to Denver, and you’ll live in the unwed mothers’ home there until the baby is born. You’ll put it up for adoption, and then you’ll go back to school. You’ll take summer classes. You need to put this behind you so you can live a normal life. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Carol says softly.

“It’ll be like it never happened,” says her mother, standing near Carol’s seated form and stroking Carol’s long brown hair tentatively. She glances up at her husband. “Later you’ll be able to marry a good man and have children with him when it’s the right time,” she adds.

“But it–” Carol stops herself. What she wants to say is “now seems like the right time.”

What I want is for her to have said, “Now is the right time.” To stand up for herself and for me. To acknowledge me. That’s why I imagine it this way.

Carol gazes at her belly protruding under the loose shift she found in her closet. She knows better than to tell her father that now is the right time to have a baby. He is a fierce man with a temper and no patience for what he calls “nonsense.” Carol’s feelings about this matter qualify as nonsense, she is sure of that.

Years later, the investigator I hired to find Carol told me that it was Carol’s father, not Carol herself, who had signed the papers allowing me to be placed for adoption. Carol never had a choice. So why did I still feel like she had?

On the phone that night, I wanted to ask, “Why didn’t you stand up for us? Did you regret it?” There were so many things I wanted to ask her, but our connection felt as tenuous as a frayed thread linking me to her across all the miles between California and Indiana, across all those years she hadn’t looked for me, that I had spent looking for her. I was terrified she would disappear if I said something real, if I started the conversation I really wanted to have with her. I felt slapped too.


Andrea Ross writes poetry and prose about adoption and wilderness. This essay is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about the decade she spent working as a wilderness guide and searching for her biological parents. Andrea was placed for adoption as an infant and recently searched for and reunited with her birth family. Her work has been published in The Mountain Gazette, The Café Review, The Boatman’s Quarterly Review, Manzanita, Blue Line, and other publications. She is a trained wilderness guide and a former National Park Service Ranger.

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