In 1967, I gave birth to a little girl. I was 15 years old. I went away to a home for unwed mothers. They had those back in 1967. Nuns ran the place, and I loved it. It was a huge old building on North Lasalle Street in Chicago. The student nurses were on the upper floors, I believe the UMs (that’s what they called us) were on the 2nd floor. I remember running up a huge staircase to a large lobby on the second floor. It was 50 years ago, so I am surprised I remember anything. There was also an old Otis elevator, but even then I preferred the stairs.
In the hospital where I gave birth I believe I was severely mistreated. I was left alone to labor – let me stress alone – for days. From Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning. In the end, I was delirious from pain and lack of sleep. And maybe lack of human contact.
When I had the little baby, I remember they told me she had a head full of black hair that stood up straight on her little baby head. I named her Mary Catherine. Because I knew I would never want to use that name for one of the children I planned to have and keep in the future. Also because there was a beautiful young nun at the home named Sister Mary Catherine. She was so kind and so beautiful.
Part of the deal was that I was supposed to be allowed to hold her – just once. Just once. But the nurses didn’t have time to bring her to me. I had to leave that hospital without ever holding my daughter. I never got to touch her. And I knew I would never see her again. I left that hospital lobby absolutely devastated. Crying like I had never cried before and probably have never cried since.
I did “the right thing” back in 1967. You went away quietly, you had the baby, and gave it to “a good home,” and then lost the weight as quickly as humanly possible and came back home to resume your life. As if nothing happened. The day after Mary was born, my mother came to visit at the hospital and brought me a very stiff and tight girdle.
When I came home I weighed a lot more than I had when I left. I suddenly had breasts where I had been flat chested. I was a completely different person. And I missed the home and the nuns. I did not feel like keeping this massive upheaval in my life a secret!
At home I was just expected to carry on as if nothing happened. I discovered that my boyfriend cheated on me all the time I was gone. And the world had completely changed. Seriously.
1967, the Summer of Love. I sat on a hospital bed in an unwed mothers’ home and knit and listened to the radio all summer. I heard the Beatles radical Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and on and on and on. Things had changed between April and August. When I left high school, girls were wearing little plaid pleated skirts with big pins (yeah, I know, they are called kilts) and little cardigans. Knee socks. When I got home, girls were wearing bell bottoms and tunics. Seed beads around their necks, and indian scarves in their hair. Suede fringed jackets. Suede fringed boots.
I started smoking cigarettes and lost the weight extremely rapidly. I ditched the boyfriend. I started using marijuana and LSD within a couple of months, and was drinking heavily. I had a world class case of postpartum depression. I wasn’t treated for that until the next summer. And then barely at all. My parents sent me away to Boston. As if that would help? It was awful. They tried to find a boarding school for me. Luckily, they couldn’t get me into one because they were already full of girls like me.
Life happened. Obviously.
Every year on August 15, I would remember. I started counting the years until she was 18 so I could meet her. When she turned 18, I wrote to Catholic Charities to let them know where I was so they could find me if she wanted to meet me. They sent letters to my daughter. Her adoptive mother hid those letters because she felt terribly threatened by the idea of me popping up. I don’t blame her at all.
And then in 1987, I got a letter from Catholic Charities saying that she wanted to meet me! They cautioned against moving too fast to meet. They tried to warn based on years and years of experience – why would anyone listen to that? We exchanged photos. My daughter is beautiful. She looks like my mother. She looks like one of my aunts. Her adoptive parents also named her Mary! I found out I was a grandmother. I found her father for her and she met him before she met me.
We did meet in 1988. The big dramatic moment that gets covered on TV these days. Waiting at the airport to meet my 20 year old daughter I had never even touched before! We hugged. We stared at each other. She stayed at my house. My kids met her. She was very snotty. She said some very cruel things to me. She didn’t much approve of the fact that I still smoked back then. She thought the whole AA thing was just kinda shady. It went on and on. It was terribly hurtful. After she left, we stayed in touch for a few years, but then she vanished out of my life. She did stay in touch with her father though. She met his family and ended up having an affair with her newly found aunt’s husband. It was really sordid. She ended up drinking and smoking…
I could not find her for maybe 20 years. I assumed she had married (again) and had a different last name. I was right.
Maybe 10 years ago she sent me an e-mail. I was easy to find. I was so happy to hear from her. We were spending time on the phone and were making very preliminary plans to meet again. But then she started pushing me about my kids. She wanted to talk to them. I tried to explain that they were adults and were not mine to give her (my kids didn’t want to have anything to do with her). She told me she and her daughter were coming to visit me and they were going to stay with me. I was completely freaked out. She started sending me very offensive e-mails and when confronted, she told me that’s just how she is. Then she stopped answering my phone calls and e-mails. I told her I found her inconsistency very difficult to deal with, and she told me she was “consistently inconsistent.”
On April 30, 2010, she sent me a text asking me to do her a favor and “forget I’d ever existed.” That she would thank me for giving her life but she realized abortion wasn’t legal in 1967, so I really didn’t have a choice. It went on and on, and I opted not to respond. I am sure it came out of deep pain of hers. But it wasn’t very honest, it wasn’t very nice, and I just opted to opt out. Or you could say, I decided to respect her wishes for me leave her alone.
Within the last year she sent a Facebook friend requested to my sober daughter. My daughter accepted it. Since sober girl comments and likes almost everything I post on FB, my “other” daughter now can see it. She hit my daughter up on messenger recently and they had a long conversation. Mary admitted she is very jealous of the relationship daughter and I have. Sober daughter also told me this girl is very unstable and probably mentally ill. And on drugs. She understands that she may have to unfriend her so that she doesn’t have access to me and all my relatives.
This all feels horrible. I wish I could make it be a different way. I SO wish I could wish her a happy 50th birthday. I am afraid it would just cause more trouble. I don’t know what you do with a person like that.
This hurts my heart almost daily. It feels like a big gaping hole in my life.
I have from time to time convinced myself that I fulfilled my obligation to her when I gave birth and relinquished her to a “good family.” She did have a good family, and a good upbringing. I was fifteen freaking years old!
But now I am older and I am retired and I have found that the old hurts kind of refresh themselves if given enough time to ponder.
What an indulgence to write this all out. But probably cathartic. Thank you for indulging me if you have read it.