In these angry, bewildering, terrifying post-Roe days, a bit of related wisdom came to me: I now understand why I didn’t find my elder siblings earlier in our lives, when I was much angrier. There is no telling what I might have told my sister, when I found her, and wouldn’t it have been terrible to poop all over the very thing I had which she never did: a relationship with our mother? So, it is good, mete, and right that I am a plump middle-class, middle-aged woman with some life experience under her belt, now I have a sister in a real, rather than abstract, sense.
In these heartbreaking post-Roe days, in all the rhetoric I hear about saving babies and protecting women, there is one group no one seems interested in: those of us who were babies born to women with no choice in having them. The children born to women who might have prevented or ended pregnancies, had they the choice. For my mother in the 1950s, having sex meant getting pregnant, and she did. Repeatedly.
Look at her: just shy of her twentieth birthday and doesn’t that bridal cap, veil, and dress bring strongly to mind Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride? She has left an abusive home of origin, I’m not sure she has graduated high school, and she was working 32 hours a week in a movie theater by the time she was sixteen. She will bear four children to two husbands in eight years. The first three she will abandon along with the marriage or, they will be stolen from her after she flees her abusive first husband, depending on who is telling the story. The truth is, we will never really know as everyone who did know, lied, and now they’re all dead, the secrets of this pretty bride taken to literally dozens of graves, including her own, far too early.
When my oldest living friend, who knew my mother, saw the bridal photo he was taken aback, “I don’t know that I ever remember seeing Donna… happy,”.
While my sister, Kat, and I explore our new relationship, I try to fill in the gaps of her knowledge, but I find myself strangely protective, of her, yes, but also weirdly protective of the mother I have never before thought to protect. Because here’s the deal: a woman with no choice in whether she gets pregnant or not, and how many times, is not a happy woman. Had my sister and I connected even as recently as twenty years ago I don’t know that I was in a place to tell her anything other than the long list of woes related to being raised by an emotionally damaged woman with terrible secrets and little autonomy when she needed it most. Over the years, through counseling and determination, rejoicing in being a mother myself, I feel such regret for the lost promise of her. When I talk to my sister about the mother she never knew, I find I’m protective of both of them for the simple reason I don’t have many happy memories of our mother to pass on.
So, I tell my sister that Mom was left-handed, could sew beautifully, and had lovely, if problematic teeth. I fill in gaps of where curly hair came from, who was tall, what health issues run in the family.
Once I discovered their existence, I entertained the fantasy that the older kids had escaped! They had a fabulous daddy who had scooped them up and run from the depressive woman with the vicious, violent temper and they were all off living their best lives while I was imprisoned with her, abandoned to my fate by my distinctly non-fantasy-bio-dad. None of that was true; theirs was just another version of Dysfunctional Childhood with a violent father, and an indifferent stepmother who ended up leaving them, too. But there was a set of loving grandparents for them; I had friends of the family and a spectacular stepfather who adopted me and raised me as his own. Small miracles which no doubt saved our lives.
When I compare my sister’s stories with my own, I’m not sure who got the worse deal: neither of us ever knew any version of that pretty bride with all her hopes and dreams ahead of her. But when I think of something other than a beating or a scolding received, I try to sketch out for my sister the colors of our mother’s personality which might have survived abusive parents, abusive men, continual pregnancies, regret, and depression.
Barreling down the road home from a friend’s house unabashedly singing along, badly, with Lucinda Williams on the radio, car wheels on a gravel road… and maybe it’s the sound of my own flatness but suddenly, instead of bright Texas sunshine I recall a rainy nighttime California street. I am in the front passenger seat (seatbelt? what seatbelt?) and my mother is singing along, badly, with Petula Clark, things will be great when you’re DOWNTOWN! By the second chorus I’ve caught it and we’re both singing, and for that moment, my mother and I were happy in the same place at the same time.
At the next stop signal I text Kat and tell her, Our mother couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but she did like to sing, at the top of her voice, Downtown with Petula Clark whenever it came on the radio…