Sunday, June 1, 2014

A major family embarrassment

“Maybe you'll just have a miscarriage,” said my mother when I didn't agree  to go to Sweden for an abortion.
“This is almost worse than if you'd died,” my brother  told me.

"I was afraid you might try to kill yourself," said my sister-in-law.

The family gathered at my brother's house.  From England I had written my parents with my “tragic” news, something I later regretted, and now they were trying to devise a plan that would keep my situation a secret from the world, which included most emphatically my relatives, my friends, and the townspeople of Greencastle.  Worse than an unplanned pregnancy was exposure, and my parents were determined to go to any lengths to keep me hidden and quiet while I waited for my baby to be born.  When I failed to get David to marry me, I wilted and without consciously deciding to, I let my family take over.  I'd had enough gumption to finagle a trip to London, make my way through the dead of night to a place that literally seemed like the end of the world, and promised everything I could think of to get David to marry me.  My gumption had run out, and now all I could do was humiliate myself with my endless tears.

The biggest question was, Where would I live?  Ithaca seemed like a good bet; it was only an hour or so from Hamilton.  Cornell was there, and it was large enough for me to blend into the woodwork.  Dad contacted a Methodist minister, who recommended a family that might be willing to take me in.  He was a high school music teacher, and she was a stay-at-home mom with two young children.  I thought it sounded perfect, and in many ways it was.  I rented a large bedroom that had been carved out of their basement, and I had my own small bathroom.   The couple were graduates of Oberlin College, music majors and fans of Wagner.  I thought we'd have a lot in common.

The Mrs. recommended her doctor, and he referred me to the headmaster of a small, private school across the gorge from Cornell.  Mr. Kendall interviewed me, having already been apprised of my condition.  He said, “I'm going to be the best friend you ever had,” and hired me to teach English.  Cascadilla School was actually a large Victorian house that had been converted, the bedrooms upstairs becoming classrooms with dusty chalkboards and creaking hardwood floors.  My largest class had fifteen students, which meant I got to know my students quite well.  One  was a man in his fifties who had been in a terrible automobile accident that cost him his sight.  He was working to complete his high school education before going on to vocational training.  He brought in photographs of the car he'd been in when he'd been smashed to pieces, a tangled mass of metal and broken glass.  “At least I was able to walk out of the hospital, which is more than a lot of my fellow patients were able to do,” he said.  He was grateful to be alive.  

Another student was a girl who'd been kicked out of the public high school for getting pregnant.  I've thought about that girl over the years.  Did she go on to college?  To marriage and a family?  Does she still remember that year with the same vertiginous sense of loss that I do? The school was, in fact, a sort of refuge for kids who hadn't been able to make it in high school for one reason or another.  They were an assorted lot but generally intelligent and good-natured.  I also taught a class of Asian boys who were polishing up their English in preparation for going on to Cornell.  My days were full, my students liked me and believed I had a husband fighting in Vietnam, a plausible lie.

Living in Ithaca means living with snow, lots of snow.  Dad  had bought me a red VW bug that I drove to school each morning overy icy roads, and I became an intrepid motorist.  There is something dislocating or distancing about snow.  It seemed to separate me from the earth and made me feel as if I moved through an artificial or a temporary world.  I was  living a parenthetical life, as alone as St. Exupery's Little Prince, completely disconnected from my past and unable to see beyond January, when my baby was due.  All I knew was, I couldn't stay  in Ithaca.  I would leave everything behind and lose the most important part of my own history, a loss I would hide  for forty-four years.

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