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Betty was 18 and infatuated with a young lad in town, and the young lad returned her affection gladly.* She was pretty and intelligent, and just the right mix of demure and friendly. The lad’s parents, however, did not approve the connection, hoping to encourage their boy to put off marriage until a better and more socially acceptable match could be arranged. You see, this lad was soon to leave their parochial farming town for the University, where he was to study medicine. There was no sense letting him marry this daughter of farmers.
The lad knew, of course, that his romance with Betty would be fleeting at best, yet he plied her with sweet words until, just a few nights before he would take his train, she gave up her virtue for a few passionate hours. Then he was gone. Within a few weeks, Betty’s parents grew concerned over what seemed to be her persistent illness. The malady could not be explained by a mere broken heart, and a doctor confirmed the parents’ suspicions. Betty’s family did not want a scandal, and a distant aunt and uncle agreed to help. Thus Betty journeyed across the state so that she might “recover” (as her parents asserted) from a malady brought on by the change of seasons.
In due time, in her uncle’s farmhouse, Betty delivered Ida. Betty nursed her infant daughter for a time, but though her scandal had not fallen on her parents, it had followed her to this other lonely farming town. An unwed mother in reclusion with relatives was no likely prospect for a bride, so Betty left Ida to be raised by her aunt and uncle and moved far off to start her life anew.
Betty did occasionally return to visit her daughter, but she eventually married and had other children. Though Ida was a sweet girl, she would have been a burden in her mother’s home and a reminder to Betty’s husband of his wife’s prior indiscretion. In short, Betty did not want Ida.
Ida wanted a family. Her aunt and uncle had raised her well. Ida was a credit to the farm and beloved by her cousins as if she were a sister. Yet her heart had been broken by her mother’s absence, and she vowed that should she ever marry, she would love all of her children fiercely. In time, Ida married the son of a nearby family, and she fulfilled her vow to each of her seven sons and daughters, to her grandchildren, and to those great-grandchildren she lived to see. She never forgot a birthday, even when she had to remember some thirty grandchildren’s. At her funeral, she was surrounded by family, including my grandfather.
Except, you see, it turns out that he was not really my grandfather at all, at least not by blood. Peter did not marry wisely, and he returned from WWII a changed man. His wife probably never forgave him for that. Full of her own inner demons of jealousy, anger, and lust, my grandmother cheated on him frequently, carrying on affairs ill disguised even from her children. In time, one of those affairs bore fruit.
I’ll never know if my grandfather knew the child was not his. Likely he did. My grandmother certainly knew, and as the child grew she was a frequent reminder of her mother’s faithlessness. She looked nothing like her father, much less her siblings, a fact much noticed by the other children in school. And so my grandmother punished her child, sometimes with a hairbrush, sometimes with a belt, and often with unwarranted scoldings and cursing. My grandfather, however, loved her dearly, and so did her sisters. They protected each other as they could. They bonded as only those who survive maelstroms together can bond, and so my mother, unwanted by her own mother, was yet loved.
It is safe to say that I owe my life twice over to unwanted pregnancies.
In the late 1800s, abortion was exceedingly rare; it was murder under the law, and murder under the Christian faith. A family might exile a wayward daughter, even disinherit her entirely and cast her out, but the child would still come to term and have a shot at life. Betty’s parents rid themselves of a family shame, but their granddaughter, unwanted by them, was allowed to live. Her life has, in turn, touched hundred of other lives, for her progeny have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, soldiers, ministers, farmers, engineers, cops, and more besides. Could we gather the extended family together today, we could fill an entire venue. Ida was not wanted when she was born. Yet she was born, and lived, and gave birth to the man who would be the real father to my mother.
In the 1950s, abortion was still almost as rare as it had been a half-century before. Marriage always works as camouflage for the products of affairs, yet had the option been available, knowing who my grandmother was, I am not certain that she would not have sought out a quiet abortion, hoping to hide her affair — and knowing that my mother would be a living reminder for years afterwards might have sealed it. In fact, when in her drink some years later, she ranted as much. Grandma certainly did not want her daughter.
In the back and forth of debating abortion, we often forget the child and what future that child is denied. When a scared teen mother, pregnant and hoping to hide it from her parents, considers abortion — an act that will “make it all go away” — does she consider the possibilities of the life she carries within? Likely not, as that is too far in the future to see yet. But even if she knows she cannot parent this child, the child should at least have a chance at life somewhere.
Children are messy and life altering because they are life itself. A mother may not want a child, or at least not right away. But that child is alive, and is wanted, if only by itself, and by the others yet unknown who will love him or her.
Every family tree has missing branches and dead ends where our knowledge stops or is deliberately blacked out for reasons of pride or shame. Those who knew the turns of the missing branches held back their knowledge from their descendants. So it is with my own family tree. On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, remember that likely it is with yours too.
*Names have been changed.Published in