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My Grandmother’s Secret

This is not the farm of my childhood. I took this driving past a farm in Arthur Illinois. It is a typical Amish family farm.

This is not the farm of my childhood. I took this driving past a farm in Arthur Illinois. It is a typical Amish family farm.

The year is 1930-something, and the depths of Great Depression are plumbing the souls of people all over the country. My grandmother, who at 5’5″ still didn’t weigh 100 pounds, pregnant as she was, found her way out of the tiny town in Northeast Missouri, where her husband and three children stayed behind for a few days, fed mostly on faith and what food they could scarcely afford. The youngest, my father, was barely a toddler. The small country store they owned, offering provisions to the scant hundreds of people who lived there, had recently been burned to the ground by the only competitor. With it, their home, as it was all one and the same. They were devoutly Christian people, and truly the salt of the earth. About the only thing they had going for them at this point was that they didn’t have to fear being attacked for the color of their skin.

They also had the privilege of being able to scrape together the means for my grandmother to escape, with all the fear, love and shame she had as a Christian woman in the depression, to go to a nearby town and have an abortion.

There was, simply, no way for them to feed another mouth.

If I believed in God, and that I had any right to ask said god for a favor, I’d ask that the doctor who performed that abortion for my grandmother, and countless other women like her, be blessed.

My grandmother nearly took this secret to her grave. It was a deeply-held shame.

I obviously know nothing of the details. I know that it was the kind of back-alley thing you read about. That she was lucky to find it and lucky to live through it.

I know that every day she was alive, my grandmother prayed to God. As much with gratitude as anything else. My grandfather even more so. The only time he yelled, as my cousins and I played in the farmhouse that contains so many of our best memories as children, was when his shows came on. “Be Still,” he would boom, and we moved deftly away from our Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys hoping our silence was quick and thorough enough for him not to miss a single note of the opening of The 700 Club. They prayed before meals, as us kids would stick our tongues out at each other and tilt our heads, making faces. “Be Still,” he’d say, with much less urgency around the table.

The only time these wonderful people ever got bossy on us was when we needed to heed the word of God.

My grandmother having an abortion was a big deal. Not one that was ever discussed. Indeed, I don’t think she told anyone until she was nearing her death, when she told my cousin. I assume my grandfather knew. But the choice would have been hers.

This was a woman who, in my mind, was the strongest woman who ever lived. She never slept, as far as I knew. She was up and working when we woke up, she was still working when we went to bed. The giant voice that came out of her tiny body could be heard across all those acres of farm when it was time for us to come in to eat. By the time us grandkids were born, food was plentiful and mostly grown on their farm. With the mob of us cousins running around for years, we “helped” them for hours. We played at farming the way my own children play dress-ups and make believe. Only we got dirt on our fingers and grass stains on our feet.

Indeed, acres of grass had to be mowed, even if we were on summer vacation, so grandpa tied an old Radio Flyer to the back of the green John Deere, and pulled us around for hours, with our feet dangling off, until they looked like the lost appendages of sea monsters. He’d then deposit us at the back door, where Grandma would scrub our feet with a stiff brush, so we’d not undo the hours she’d spent cleaning the farm house in which her own children had been raised. (I think, in fact, she did it for the tickles and giggles, but it seemed strict at the time, even through hysterical fits of rolling laughter that then got grass stains on our hands, knees and clothes as well.)

And so the days would go. We’d eat fresh biscuits, “help” Grandpa for hours, come in with our cleaned feet, and play until the “Be Still” that signaled the onset of The 700 Club.

We were allowed to play while he watched Lawrence Welk. Often mimicking the dancers and singing into our Lincoln Logs, me dreaming of being grown up enough to wear a peach colored gown and feather my hair.

Life was, eventually, good to them. They never had a lot, but usually had more than they needed. I know precious few of the details, just that it all worked out. There were many acres of farmland that produced whatever commodity crops kept Midwestern farmers afloat as the nation pulled itself out of The Great Depression, and into the more mild anxiety that will forever plague those who lived through it. But what there always was, was their family and their faith. Two boys and a girl.

One of those boys, the youngest, was my father. He was, he learned shortly before her death, the last mouth they could afford to feed. Raised in that devoutly Christian home of faith, where one did what one needed to survive, he harbored his own secret. Knowing, from a young age, that he needed to get out of that small town. He knew he needed to be somewhere else, and something else.

My father was gay in a small Christian town in Missouri in the 1940’s. It would be many years before that truth would be reconciled, enough that he’d marry my mother, become my father and eventually come to terms with it when I was a teenager.

So many years between that and his mother’s abortion. But so many similarities.

He knew that, unlike his parents before him, he didn’t have the privilege of not worrying about being beaten or killed for who he was. So he just kept his mouth shut.

Much as his mother had for so many years.

As my father and I talk about this now, we are in the Chicago airport eating salads, waiting to board our flight home. We’ve been at a family reunion of sorts, in a small town in Illinois. It’s a good deal larger than the town they grew up in, but by my urban sensibilities it is impossibly small and a stereotype of a (backwards) American town. Even today, I think a gay man would fear violence when walking down the street there, and I walk closer to my father through town. Calling him “dad” as often as possible, as if my small voice will protect him from anyone.

Because I fear it. Still. Here anyway. And here, the word "dad" confers the safety of heterosexuality, as anything else is still an impossibility.

I fear the fundamentalism that doesn’t respect our differences. Indeed, I’ve been listening to conservative talk radio while we’ve been there. When we left Chicago, the radio had been tuned to NPR, but somewhere on the way to find our family amongst miles of ripe corn, it became conservative talk radio, so I left it. When in Rome.

Preachers have been warning me for days of how my sins will damn my children. How we have to protect our families from those who seek to corrupt us, to harm our children. How our emotions will lead us to behaviors that will damn us to hell, for all eternity. How we must stay pure, and guarded and ever vigilant.

Not once did I hear the words love and joy, except when discussing love of god and joy of worship.

It’s brain-warping stuff.

It is against such sermons that my grandmother stood strong and did what she knew she needed to do in order to protect the family she loved so much. She spent time and money she didn’t have, and bought herself a lifetime of shame in order to not have another child that she knew they couldn’t raise.

It was sometime in the 80’s, maybe 90’s (I honestly don’t even remember when she died, the early 90’s I think) when she finally told someone. And this was a time when my father and his boyfriend were attending family functions, but we still didn’t talk about it with his siblings. Or, heaven forbid, his parents. He was no longer hiding, and my generation all talked about it, but discussing it with the “elders” would have been a bridge to too far.

His coming out. Her hiding an abortion.

This is all a conversation we’ve had before. But today it brings tears to his eyes. Perhaps it’s all the emotion of the weekend just spent with his siblings in this small town. He is pained by the idea of her shame. That an act of such strength and courage could be seen as shameful. That an act that may have been the one and only time she felt truly in control of anything could be seen as shameful.

He is aching for her.

And I’m looking at him, this amazing man who was never able to reveal himself to his own parents, for fear of rejection and hurting them, who has never really kept in touch with people from his past for fear of, who’s family still refer to a longtime boyfriend as “that one friend of yours”…… This man who would do ANYTHING for his own family, and who constantly smiles as some of them let loose with statements of such close-minded bigotry…. A man who stood by me when, for reasons so different than hers, I need an abortion at 16. It was safe, legal and emotionally supported, thanks to him.

And he feels bad for his mother. All these years later.

He feels enough pain about it to fight back tears.

And this, THIS is the price of all those prayers. All that belief in a “god” that would seemingly rather people suffer in pain and shame than live in love and freedom.

For the record, I do not believe that is Christian, or godlike. I think it’s a twisted bastardization of ancient teachings, used to foment fear in people. That fear then used to demand obedience, lest all those fears be made true at the hands of the vengeful being who makes the rules. It’s like the worst sort of abusive relationship, in which one member is repeatedly broken down, and promised the beatings will stop if only they change, and don’t ever let anyone know they are hurting, or the hurting will be worse. As such, the fearful flock flounder and follow until each member becomes a cog, insignificant and integral at the same time. Part of the machine, lost, beholden, stuck and used. Part of a machine that needs them in the same way a car needs a piston, and with exactly the same degree of caring from machine to part.

And it turns into a machine that perverts good intentions, becoming tools of pain against those who have done nothing wrong. Not just those in the machine, but those the machine is driven to consume. Against women who make impossible decisions to accept abortion as a way to make life possible. Against men and women who seek only to love. Against people who believe in a different god, or no god at all, but live life in peace and accord with planet and community.

I am one of those people. I believe in no god. But I will do anything in my power to help the planet and every human on it in whatever small way my life allows. I rarely put myself first. But when I do, I do it because I deserve it, just for being human. And because I know that when my heart and soul are filled – with love and joy as I define it – it gives me the strength to go back out and heal the world around me.

I love my family. This weekend was important.

My father and his brother and sister are old now. These amazing children that my grandparents raised against all odds are now roughly the ages at which their own parents died. One aunt has called us all together because, as she put it, it may be the last time it’s even possible. It’s been 21 years since these three siblings were together.

We try not to talk about religion and politics (something which causes a stark divide between us,) and mostly succeed. But not entirely.

But it’s still wonderful, all of it. And truthfully, nothing can change it. We spent days talking about the farm, and our grandparents. The love that took such manifest forms as those fresh biscuits and tractor rides. We hear more stories of their childhood. The poverty that somehow sounds nostalgic from the giant front porch on which we’re sipping tea with the American flag fluttering in the last low breezes of summer. The hijinks that involve peppermint schnapps and crashing and impossible number of cars that they had been lucky to afford. Things that, if done now, would result in jail time and admonishment as being a “bad kid.” But then…. It was a rite of passage.

My generation has all done “well,” whatever that means. We’re all functional, mostly happy, pretty much healthy and look back at the farm days from a distance.

Most of us have walked far away from the church. And even farther from the puritanical and xenophobic fixations that spun out from religion as practiced in small town America.

Mostly I just think how old they all look. And seem. How slowly they move. It’s only then that I really realize how distant my memories of my grandparents are. How it’s been decades since I set foot on that farm, riding out tornadoes in the root-cellar and smelling tomatoes on the vine before we picked them, but learning how to set them in the sun so they ripen when I inevitably picked the too soon.

I usually return to a state of awe about grandmother. That woman was amazing. (Someday I will have to write about the time she shot the barn cat with a shotgun when it climbed a tree to eat the nest of Cardinals she’s been watching since they were just eggs. This was a woman who abhorred violence, but she REALLY loved birds. I often wonder what other forms that passion took for her.)

She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. And it was a strength that was earned. It was strength against all odds. The youngest of 11 girls in a farm family in the early 1900’s, starting a family of her own during The Great Depression. There was not a boo-boo she couldn’t fix with a kiss, it was never too late to make a snack, no time spent with us on her lap banging away at an out-of-tune piano was a waste. Life threw her all the obstacles, and she met them with a humble determination to not only survive, but leave the world better than she found it.

She would have turned away no one who needed her.

When we learned about his mother’s abortion, I hoped that was the opening necessary for my dad to finally talk about being gay. I am certain that she’d not have turned a cheek, nor a blind eye. She would not have, like so many do, just agreed to not talk about it and love him anyway. Should would have looked him in the eye and loved him for who he is, not despite of it. If she still believed that god cared about such things, she would have taken her son’s side with the same strong strides with which she chose the life of her family over the life of a fetus, or the word of an imaginary god, no matter how real he seemed to her.

They could be united in that way. Lovable for who they are, even if a rule or two was broken.

But he never did. He just couldn’t stand the idea of hurting her, at all, in any way. He would protect her, no matter what. From himself. In some deep way, he internalized that his very existence was a thing that would hurt his mother.

And that makes me cry. Just as he sheds tears about her carrying such deep shame about her abortion in the eyes of the god she loved, I choke up thinking that anyone who loved my father could possibly be ashamed of him.

This is the perversion of religion. It is NOT a Christian value.

As we leave, his sister tells me that she prays for us every day. I know she means it with love, I do. But what she’s really saying is that we’re not good enough, at least not with god, so she’s using her purity to save us, because she’s better. And we are so very deeply flawed and unworthy without her help.

I love her. And I thank her, because that’s the right thing to do. It comes from a good place. There is nothing she loves more than her family, and, with everything she’s got, she believes that we’re damned to hell. That she will spend eternity in heaven, alone. Without us. And it terrifies her. She’s not admonishing us, so much as she’s wishing away her worst fear, which consumes her.

I am so angry with the systems that have perverted her brain. She spends so much energy trying to save us and buy favors with this god to whom she’s dedicated her life.

It is such a waste. Such a waste of the precious few years that we have to find and create joy. And these people she listens to have her living in a constant state of fear and shame. (I can’t even imagine how much money they’ve gotten from her, to gild their own coffers.)

The people who convinced my grandmother she should live in shame.

Who convinced my father that he should live in fear. And then shame.

I am infinitely grateful to have been spared all that, except in family lore and the (far too infrequent) trips to larger family functions.

As he tears up in front of me now, it is jarring. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him cry. A few arguments that I’m somewhat embarrassed by now, the time he and I held our dog as she took her last breath in the vets office, and the time he watched me give birth to my daughter.

A daughter that I named after his mother. For reasons that have nothing to do with familial obligation and everything to do with a deep admiration for everything that she was. Everything that she did for everyone. Everything that she gave birth to from that tiny and impossibly strong body.

And I am profoundly sad that my grandma Celia never met my daughter Celia.

I am so proud of them both.

For them, I will make the world a better place. A place worthy of them.

And all of us.


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