Remembering Mama - And All Women Making Hard Choices

Anita Granados
Fifty five years ago today, a young widow left her three little children with her sister and traveled to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland to have a baby that only a few people in her large family knew about.  That baby was me.

My mother, Anita was born into a wonderful clan made up mostly of Spaniards - very Catholic and very engaged in St. Bernard's Church and the Riverdale community.  In 1959, having a baby out of wedlock was a serious scandal that shamed the family.  Having a baby out of wedlock when the father was married to another woman and had children of his own, was barely speakable.

I guess there is no adjective for having met said married father in your choir - he was a tenor, you were an alto.  Suffice it to say, my grandparents were beside themselves with worry about the potential shame this pregnancy would bring to my mother and their family. 

They hounded her about this shame while she was pregnant.  It was a sign of the times, and I've learned to reflect on these situations and the people in them taking "the times" into account. This makes me admire my mother for being a woman of her time who did the unthinkable out of love.

My grandparents insisted she give me up for adoption and tell no one of the pregnancy.  She had no other support - so she had no other options. How alone she must have felt.  She'd given up a baby before --- my brother, John.  She had a teen pregnancy and my grandparents sent her away to St. Vincent DePaul's in Baltimore.  She gave birth to him there and named him "John."  John's adoptive parents kept that name, and he grew up to be a great guy, a wonderful husband and father, and a successful businessman.  We met him later when he reached out to find Mama.

My mother married the love of her life when she was eighteen and had three children by the time she was twenty-two.  There was no happier couple than they, I'm told.  Tragically, her husband was killed in the line duty as a DC Fireman just six years after they were married.  He was 29 and she 26. She never got over that blow. She managed to settle herself in a community near her parents, and gradually got out again and started to make friends.  She went back to the church choir, and she and my father had a wild affair. She loved him.  In the few conversations I ever had with my mother about my father she said only three things.  He was very handsome. He was so much fun.  He had the most beautiful singing voice she'd ever heard.

When I got to know my father, I found these things to be so true.  Handsome he was.  And he was virtual party.  The first time I heard him sing was at the Holiday Inn restaurant in Waterloo when he spontaneously (in public) broke out into "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the kind of Cre- aaaaaa- tion" as if he were Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. Though I was mortified at the time - as most adolescents would be, I remember thinking, "Wow! What a voice."

I never asked my mother if she expected my father to leave his wife and family and marry her once she discovered she was pregnant.  I suspect that she wouldn't have answered that question. What she told me and what he told me were the same well-crafted story.  They both decided that the best thing for me was to give me up for adoption. Although, my father added the "I had no idea she would go back and get you" footnote to his version.

No one will ever know the back-story to that love affair and how they dealt with a baby coming into the picture.  It doesn't really matter anyway because it's the oldest story in the world lived by many married men and the women who loved them.  I do know that my father loved his wife, deeply. He not only told me, but I could hear it in his voice when he talked about his life.  My parents' entanglement was one of those love affairs that occurs, and then ends when the unthinkable happens and everyone comes to their senses... and the woman - who is now the mother - is left to deal with consequences. 

My mother told me how she had to have labor induced so that she could schedule the birth.  She couldn't risk going into labor because there was no one to support her, to take her to the hospital, to tend the children.  She couldn't even see the family doctor because he was everyone's family doctor. She had to travel outside the community for medical care in order to keep her horrible secret from dripping shame into her family's insular world.  So she confided in her sister Chi-chi and asked her to come stay with kids.  Chi-chi was her sole support - and her soul support.  When Chi-chi arrived by bus from Texas, my mother said good-bye and drove herself to Bethesda to have labor induced the next day.

I was born on April 26, 1959.  My mother got to hold me and feed me for two days before the Daughters of Charity came to take me away.  She told me how she cried from the time I was born until she left the hospital saying, "I can't believe I had that many tears."  She did it all alone, because that's what women did in those days.  They were the brunt of everyone's judgement -- and people wielded judgements freely.  

I was shuttled off by the Sisters to St. Ann's Infant and Maternity home, and Mama went back to her home in Riverdale without a baby. During the months when the Sisters were trying to find adoptive parents, my mother went to St. Ann's every Sunday to visit me. She told me that the nuns wouldn't let her hold me, but that she could look at me through the glass.  It was during these visits that she noticed they'd assigned my care to one of the young unwed mothers waiting to deliver there.  That unwed mother started calling me "Mindy" and the rest of St. Ann's staff followed suit.   Baby names at St. Ann's were temporary because adoptive parents would choose a permanent name for each child.

Mama gave me the name Maryanne when I was born.  She told me that she'd named me after the two most blessed mothers who ever lived - Jesus' mother and his grandmother. She said, "I prayed to them before you were born and told them that I would name you after them if they would always take care of you."  Maryanne was my birth name, but for my time at St. Ann's I was Mindy.

When I was about four months old, St. Ann's found adoptive parents.  My mother was devastated.  My Aunt Chi-chi convinced my mother to follow her heart and not sign the papers yielding her rights.  Chi-chi assured my mother that they'd come up with some kind of plan to bring me home.  They did.  They crafted a story about how I was the baby of an American GI and German woman that Chi-chi and her husband knew when stationed in Germany.  The mother died in childbirth and the father couldn't take care of a little baby.  Chi-chi told my Mama about me.  Mama said she'd adopt me.  So Chi-chi and her husband brought me to America and I legally became Mama's adopted "German" child.  (I'm laughing as I type this.)

Crazy as it sounds, that's the story they told the family, and it stuck.  Mama retrieved me from St. Ann's when I was about six months old (according to her).  She had this picture taken of me at Woodward and Lothrop's shortly after she brought me home.  She told me it reminded her of how happy she was to finally have me back.  It hung on the living room wall in our house in Riverdale until she finally sold it when I was in my forties (the house - not the picture). Now it hangs in my bedroom as a reminder of Mama and me and the strength of a mother's love.

Eventually, my grandparents lightened up and forgot all about the scandal.  I'm pretty sure my mother's four brothers believed the adoption story at least for a time. I had to set one of them straight just a few years ago who still believed it.

Since I was used to the name Mindy, Mama let that stick.  It's not my legal name, but it's what I've always been called since that unwed mother at St. Ann's gave me the name. When I asked the normal "how did I come into the world" questions that other kids ask their mothers, Mama told me "I picked you out of a bunch of babies.  There was a big room, full of babies and I walked around and around until I saw the prettiest one - and that was you.  And you were the one I took home."

Perhaps I'd have had a better life with adoptive parents.  I might have had more opportunities, finished college, made more money, had a few letters after my name, been less a hog for attention and not so much an over-achiever. But I wouldn't trade one minute of life in this crazy clan for any other family.  And I wouldn't have chosen another mother.  She found a way to to keep me with her, to rise above the shame and scandal and to make it all seem like a magical beginning to me... from picking me out of a slew of babies to the "coming home" picture, to how I got my name.

Every year around this time I think about our beginning together  - Mama and me. I think about what it must have been like for her to go through nine months of pregnancy alone with no man to stand beside her, with her parents ashamed, no friends to confide in.  I imagine her driving to a hospital in another county -- passing all of the cherry blossoms and Redbuds as the landscape budded new life. But she had to be ashamed of herself and the new life she was bringing into the world.  The  mother-child bond shamed us both.  The only absolution for the sin of adultery was to sever the tie.

What I can't seem to imagine is the agony of birthing a child, drawing her to yourself, holding her and feeding her all under a pall of shame. No visitors, no happy family rallying around this miraculous birth - no one to help you count the fingers and toes and say who she looks like, no joy, no celebration --- and then doing the unthinkable.  Handing that helpless little part of yourself over to strangers knowing you'll never see her again.

Here's to Mama who did the hard thing and kept her baby in a time when unwed mothers who gave into maternal instincts were judged harshly and deemed selfish. Mama gave me the wonderful gift of my true family. And here's to all women who have singularly shouldered the responsibility, shame and consequences of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.  And kudos to the Daughters of Charity and the St. Ann's staff who have been picking up the broken pieces of shattered lives and reshaping them into new beginnings and happy endings since they opened Washington DC's first foundling home in 1860. 

And praise for those who the give the comfort and support of soul friendship to these women who are so harshly judged, especially my Aunt Chi-chi who was there for my mother to lean on, who convinced her to follow her heart, and who helped her find a way to do what she was meant to do.

And a good word for my Daddy, who did the best he could in his time, was always kind to me, loved me and made me laugh.   My mother never spoke an ill word about him.

I can't imagine having different parents.  I was a musician most of my life and rested on the talent of my ancestors.  I come from a long line of musicians, music teachers, and pastoral ministers, and spent over 20 years in music ministry.  Though I moved away from Riverdale when I was fifteen, my very first job as a choir director brought me back to St. Bernard's where my parents met.  I returned to direct the same choir they were in. It was 30 years later, and there were two singers left in the choir who were there when my parents were members.  They had no idea.

I didn't tell them. 

19 comments:

  1. Debbie Kivela11:08 AM

    wow..wonderful story of life...your Mom and Dad sharing their story with you shows what strong and caring people they were.

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    1. Mary Goldbeck4:56 PM

      Mindie, I am so proud of you and your Mom. So sad that people were/are so judgmental. Your story is so touching and I admire you for telling it. The Lord knows your parents' hearts and that's what counts. God bless you with His deepest love.

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    2. Thanks so much for those sweet words Debbie.

      And Mrs. Goldbeck, I'm so grateful for your comments too. I've always admired you and thought of you as one of the great St. Bernard's moms. God bless you, too.

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    3. Mindi...I was stunned reading this...you could have been talking about my mother's life!! I discovered her hidden truths last summer..my sibs beleived her denials..I persisted and discovered her truths. My mother went to her grave last month denying it all. We should chat. I love your insight. My realities are different. I feel bad for my 1/2 sibs and their offsprings but am reaching out to them.

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    4. Would love to talk with you Sheila - anytime. Our circumstances are way more common than most people think.

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  2. Mindie. My mother's heart is aching and at the same time overjoyed while reading this story of triumph. Best wishes for a wonderful Mothers Day to you both... may your day of joy and remembering be truly blessed.

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  3. This is such a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing hope and love.

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  4. It's difficult to imagine that life in this time and space. Things have certainly changed and for that we have to be thankful. GREAT history, thanks for sharing!

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  5. That's an amazing story! Thank you for sharing it.

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  6. Such a touching story dear and testament to a woman who would foster so much going forward.. Continued fellowship of love and family be yours.

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    1. You always say the sweetest things, Debb. Thanks for your support and affirmations.

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  7. A beautiful, touching story. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. What a fabulous story Mindie. That it's yours and yet you are mindful of how many other women lived it. Sad to think a sweet baby would ever be shameful but you are very respectful of different times.I love your writing and I never knew about the musical Mindie.
    A toast to you and your Mama.

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    1. Thanks, Shalagh. Thanks for the kind words and the toast to Mama. She was quite a woman. I love your writing too.

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  9. Mindie,
    I cried when I read this wonderfully rich story. How much we have grown in our humanity..More love then Judgement. Although It is still this way in many countries and strong women have to find a way to prevail. Yours is such a love story, and knowing you personally, you are love in motion. And the first time I heard your beautiful voice, I heard love in motion.
    I am so glad you shared your story. I'm in my 70's & remember the time of shame for young girls..school mates...who had to leave town for a short while. How sad. Your Mom is so beautiful and was so passionate. Now you have all of that beauty & richness in your history, and all of those great genes. This blog will give women who were shamed back in the day, a gift. It's your gift to them..Honor , respect and triumph over adversity.
    You are such a loving, giving person, talented person.
    Thank you for sharing your beginning... You were such a loved child, by everyone. Now you are a loved women...by everyone that knows you.
    Sandy

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    1. Sandy I'm overwhelmed by your comments and all the others. Thanks for your support, encouragement and for being one of the best friends of my lifetimes. Love you.

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    2. Kathaleen Klotz4:14 PM

      Mindie

      Brenda encouraged me to read your comments. I am so touched and so very proud of you and your Mama. You are blessed by grace and the ability to be humble, talented, honest and loving. You are an inspiration to many. So many never tell their story, their family secrets. Thank you for such a heartfelt honest sharing of a powerful love story.

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    3. Thanks, Mrs. Klotz (and you'll always be Mrs. Klotz to me). What a cool Mom you were. Being a writer one has to strive to be true or no one cares to read your stuff. So I'm glad it hit people that way.

      I did wait until most of the parties mentioned had passed on so as to not embarrass them. But it's time and it's the story of so many women, friends, parents, grandparents... so many people in my story are in the same story played out in every community in America.

      It's important to speak the truth when you can. And hope that maybe a few will listen. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and thanks for your kinds words. Hugs and love, peace and light.

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  10. Mindie, your mama must have been a very strong and loving woman. So glad she found a way to retrieve you and give you the gift of your true family. *hugs*

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