Remembering Mama - And All Women Making Hard Choices
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.
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.
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.