Whispering Jane, 1959: My Grandmother’s Story and Mine

Wedged between weekend sales and message board replies, I discovered a forwarded email from my grandmother.  It could have been a cat video, another viral chain mail, but instead, it was a link to a documentary on unwed mothers in the 1950s. By that gesture, she had timidly opened a dialogue: she was ready to talk about the birth of my aunt, and she had chosen me to discuss it with.

The details were confided in intervals, broken up over birthday calls and parties over playing cards.  I’m not sure how to use what she gave me; I’ll try just the same.

jane-1My grandmother gave birth in 1959.  She measures time with the language of a child: thirteen days before her 18th birthday.  The new language that comes with time spent revisiting memories never came, because the memories she kept were locked away for decades.

When she realized she was pregnant, she was already several months along, unmarried, unattached — a high school student who hung out at a bowling alley between school and shifts at her parents’ convenience store.

She fawned over one of her mother’s old pregnancy books. She’d brought it up from the basement, and dog-eared the chapter on home birth.  She hid it in her underwear drawer with a string and a pair of scissors, the tools that the book had prescribed to cut the umbilical cord.

She shared a dresser with her sister; her sister did not ask.  She planned to quietly give birth in the garage.  She would cut the cord and leave the baby in a pew at her family’s church.  She would call the priest, deliver the anonymous tip.  She would go on with her life. She would be free.

Eyes wide, resting with me on the couch while our family loudly negotiated a game of poker in the next room, she said, “If abortion had been an option, I don’t know what I would have done.  How could I know?”

It was 1959.  Had the year been 1939, her experience may have been different.  Twenty years before her birth, it was not uncommon for family doctors to perform “therapeutic abortions.”  A long list of ailments qualified a woman for this procedure; folk knowledge suggests that even then, one only had to elicit sympathy from the physician.  As an unmarried high school student, she would’ve had a strong case.

jane-collective-just-seeds Even though abortion has been illegal since the 1880s, the rhetoric of women having a moral obligation to carry a pregnancy to term was a post-World War II invention.  Doctors who had performed abortions for decades became offended by the suggestion.  Women had to be connected through a web of acquaintances to a doctor still willing to risk performing the criminalized procedure.  This is the climate in which my 17-year-old grandmother became pregnant for the first time.

“Kids were so much younger then,” she told me. “I knew nothing.”

Ten years later she may have called Jane, the famous Chicago-based abortion service.  She would have made the first call, heart pounding.  She would have half-listened to the tinny ring, preoccupied with the worry that her parents would overhear.  She would have been connected to “Little Jane,” whose chirpy voice would reassure her she was in the hands of women.  She would set up an appointment to visit their front on the North Side.  She would have gone alone, in an ill-fitting schoolgirl skirt and oversized sweater to disguise her swelling figure.  She would wait among an odd assemblage of furniture draped in brightly colored fabric, defiantly un-clinical.  She would be blindfolded and shuttled to another apartment.  She would lie on a bed and take a strange woman’s hand as another performed the abortion below.  She would sheepishly volunteer the $27 saved from cashiering at her family’s convenience store.

Jane disbanded in 1973 after abortion was made legal in the landmark trial, Roe v. Wade.  After that, she could have located an abortion provider without much difficulty.  Many places followed the Jane model, offering services on a sliding scale.

But it was 1959, and she knew nothing.  So, at seventeen, she dropped out of high school without explanation.  Neither her parents nor her siblings noticed as she put on weight; she disguised it well, or no one looked.  The father, whose full name she never learned, was an “older” man with whom she had sex just the once.  The last time they spoke was when she told him she was pregnant.  For nine months she pored over the single pregnancy book and gathered the tools in her underwear drawer up until the night she went into labor.  The experience physically overwhelmed her.  She described the scene: she lay in bed for hours, enduring a new kind of pain, gripping her body in waves.  Her mother doted on her, puzzled by her uncontainable anxiety.

Finally, she gasped, voice frantic, “Mom, I’m going to have a baby.”

My great-grandmother saw her child in pain.  “We’ll figure it out,” she measured.  “Calm down, honey.”

My grandmother cried, “No, I’m going to have a baby right now.”

In the hospital paperwork, my grandmother is listed as the spouse of her own father.  Her mother was not allowed in the delivery room, so she paced the hospital in a shell-shocked circuit through the fluorescent tiled hallway, the dim cafeteria, the cloying gift shop.  Hours later, she apologetically presented my grandmother with a pastel bouquet, aware of the gesture’s inappropriateness.  My aunt was adopted.  I have never heard her voice; even summoning her name takes effort.

“My mom told me afterwards, she said, ‘Honey, if I had known, I would have gotten you an abortion. But I don’t know what I would have done.  Me, who loves kids.”  She gestured to my cousins as they navigated the party, tumbling through a sea of legs.  “You just can’t know what it was like for me.”  The possibility overwhelmed her, shut the door she so tenuously pried open.

I fear that I reacted the same way as my great-grandmother: I hurled a rash of niceties at her like a fistful of dandelions.  I said, “I can’t imagine how alone you must have felt.”

But, I can’t help but to imagine: I am still silenced by the shame of my own abortion several years ago.  Perhaps she sensed how badly I needed to find kinship with the girl in 1959.  I am left to  grapple with our parallel stories by placing them in a timeline of U.S. women’s history.

By Jordan Sarti, Summer Staff Writer

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