Tag Archives: research

On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.

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A Letter to my Grandmother Regarding Feminism on Her Birthday

Dear Grandma,

I start this letter on your birthday.

When you were younger, you lost a sister to a milk truck.  I know nothing of her.  I tried to look it up in the news archives and I couldn’t find it.  Her name is Bernice, and her short life becomes a thread now, a dwindling string from a threadbare shirt that you wore and washed and took off and put on and grew tired of and passed on.  I can’t find the article in any newspaper, though I watched her name disappear from the census records.  I know her name because it is your middle name.  I wrote a story loosely based on that pain.  You were smoking cigarettes on a porch with a husband who loved you like Grandpa did, with the kind of love that left him whimpering, in a way that he didn’t even realize he was doing, after you passed.  In the story, you and I are one.  You moved a lot Grandma, but I hate moving.  Your character cries hard for the death of her sister every day, and I am there, in you, crying over losing a house.  The silly things that matter to me.

Had I cared enough at all about these things while you were still breathing, I would have asked you about Bernice during that round of Apples to Apples–the first and only I would ever play with you–but, instead, we talked in code about Hilary Clinton, who, you lamented, shared your first daughter’s name.

I find in this way that I love people much more after they’re dead, and that’s just not fair of me to do.  Last night, Grandma, I spent two hours on the “Find A Grave” website, trying to corroborate a mother and child’s graves with a news article from January of 1861.  The mother was murdered by her husband when she was very pregnant.  The story disappeared after that, and in the following issues of The Brockport Republic, I can’t find a single article that discusses identity, tells who this poor woman and her forgotten child is.  I tried to look them up by death date, but then I wondered:  About the baby, can it have a death date if it was never born?  Can I call it a “forgotten” child if it was never known?

I know you went to college for biology.  You starred in plays.  You had a director’s chair with your name–Jody–on it that has been lost in piles of bankers lamps, and old paintings and crackled glass.  You died on New Year’s Eve.  My father jokes that he cried harder when he lost Buddy, his first golden retriever, but that was a one-time cry, Grandma.  He cries for you every time he breathes whether he knows it or not.

I found out I was pregnant with my first son, John (named after your second son), two months after you died.  I debated telling anyone I was pregnant at first because it was my sister’s birthday, and she already shares her birthday with her son, so I didn’t want to steal it away from her.  But, Grandma, what I wish I could have talked to you about, was this hard thing called motherhood, that pregnancy comes with this guilt that any thing you do for yourself is somehow not good for your children.  I am getting my MFA and spend a lot of time writing.  I spend a lot of time in stories set in tumultuous times when women hid their bodies away from public while they were pregnant.  Back in the day, you didn’t have Ted Talks to tell you how to interpret the responsibility of bearing life.  You did have a bible, but Grandma, how do you know the right answers to a text that has as many interpretations as words?  Is that why you majored in biology, Grandma?  I hate science.

So, I guess what I want to say is this.  This space of being a woman.  For having odds of 1 in 2 to be a woman, why do I still feel like being a woman is something strange?  Something that needs to be managed?  Handled with birth control and anti-depressants and coffee and credit cards?  No matter how far you came Grandma, and you saw so much of it, women still have work to do–mostly amongst themselves.  My mother is the only woman I don’t have an inherent competition with, the only woman I have unbridled admiration of, the only woman who I know, without one doubt in my mind, feels the same way about me.  Mothers are special things.

Women don’t love each other the way they should.  There are fights between sisters and friends and mother-in-laws and what happens is that we’re left in this lonely place.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I wish I would have asked you these things sooner.  I know you fought long and hard with your sister.  We hear from her less now.  We are afraid to visit her because we all wonder if she wants to be left alone, or if her house is dirty, or if she’s become a werewolf.  I should be asking her things that I will regret not asking her later.  I am writing to you, instead.

I want a daughter, Grandma.  I feel so guilty typing that, so I backspace it, or I add this in front: “I love my sons, but…” I took that part out because that should go without saying.  Who would ever think a mother would not love her sons with every part of her?  We all worry about this, though.  We all struggle to show how much we love.

I look at your pictures and see my eye color there,  and something else too, but I can’t be sure because I never knew to ask.

When I had my sons baptized, Aunt Hilary and Aunt Jill gave me an old bible of yours.  The Mother’s Prayer had fallen out and was so worn that I could hold it to my face like cotton.  I did.  You had taped it in the middle.  You used it often, and I wonder if it was the act of looking at it that gave you peace or actually reading what it said?  I am a pro at analyzing texts, but I need your help.  I love that where the prayer says: “teach them to love God alone,” you have covered the word ‘alone’ with a thick line of lead.  This, Grandma, tells me more than the prayer itself.

Every night, I cover Sammy, who was born the day after Grandpa died, with an angel quilt that Aunt Hilary made for the boys out of your shirts.

Grandma, now it’s two days after your birthday, and I am many years too late asking these questions.

Love,

Sarah