Chapter One – The Green Room
I wanted so badly to call the father of my baby and tell him everything, secretly hoping that he would come and rescue me. But according to Mama it was best to go away and “take care of this without anyone else knowing.” So we left early the next morning to begin the long drive. The next thing I knew, the lush, green hills of Tennessee had given way to a brown, desolate, dried up land. Everything looked so strange. As we made our way into Abilene, Texas, we drove up a long gravel driveway to an old brick duplex. Mama unloaded my luggage from the trunk of the car, cast one last glance in my direction, and then drove off.
I looked at the empty yard around me, and then turned toward the dull exterior of the house. There were no flowers; just a few scraggly shrubs. Everything started to sink in. I was all alone. What was Mama thinking? I was only fifteen years old and she had turned me over to complete strangers! Not only that, but I was 633 miles away from home and everything I had ever known.
My heart started to beat faster and I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. It was hard to admit, but deep down I was really scared. I had messed up big time and ruined my chances for a happy future. All I could do was stare down at my feet. If only I could take back what I had done. But it was impossible. My eyes rested on my protruding belly. The baby was due in three months.
I had no maternity clothes, so the home provided a few essentials: A couple of smocked shirts that gathered at the top and flared out like tents over my belly, making me look twice as big as I really was, a smocked dress for church, a couple pairs of pedal pusher pants with belly holes, and two massive pairs of underwear that could have fit three or four pregnant women. That completed my wardrobe.
Within just a few minutes after I got to the home, I could tell that it was going to be a long three months. The elderly house mom lived in a big room at the back of the house and mostly kept to herself. She prepared our meals, took us to doctor’s appointments, and got us to the hospital when we were in labor. But I never even had a conversation with her. Three of the girls lived in one bedroom, while a larger bedroom housed six girls. I say girls, but two of them were actually married women who had gotten pregnant because of an affair. All of the others were in their late 20’s – much older than me. But who cares? We were all in the same situation – pregnant and giving up our babies for adoption. Not only that, but we had all been banished from our homes and families to help them save face.
My room was off in the corner by itself. That was my world for the next three months. I mostly sat and waited…and waited…and waited for the baby to come so that I could wake up from this nightmare and move on with my life. However, as I was soon to find out, the nightmare was just beginning.
Texas was like a furnace in July and August, but that didn’t stop me from escaping as often as I could to take a walk. There was no T.V. Long-distance phone calls had to be charged to the home and were too expensive. I don’t know who I would have called anyway. There were no cell phones in the sixties. It was complete isolation.
All of us girls had to go to church every week because the church supported the home where we were living. They required us to attend weekly services in order to continue their support. Sunday after Sunday we were herded into a big van and paraded into the sanctuary. The back two pews on one side of the huge building were designated for us, a colony of outcasts. As I peered down the row of pregnant girls beside me, my mind wandered. Did all of them feel the same as me? Hopeless. Rejected. Without a friend in the world.
The church might have supported us financially, but that was about it. For all the weeks we attended, not a soul ever spoke to us. There were no expressions of encouragement or hope. And any words from the pulpit were drowned in the deafening rejection that reverberated in our hearts. We had been abandoned, and no one – not even God – seemed to care. I would have given anything for a kind word or gesture of friendship. That’s all I ever wanted. Instead, people got that pitiful look in their eyes, and then ignored us. It was an all-too familiar feeling…
I knew from a young age that Mama never wanted me. I was just a burden in her life, and the less she had to see me or put up with me, the better. So when Lester, a boy at school, started showing me lots of attention, I ate it up. He was two years older than me. His blue eyes and tall frame topped with blonde hair made him a favorite among the girls. When I looked at him, he flashed his huge smile at me and my heart melted. I was convinced that he really loved me, and we became inseparable.
Lester took me home from school every day and we spent all of our weekends together. In no time at all we had been dating for a year. Sometimes I felt anxious about our relationship – if only I could hold onto him forever! For the first time in my life someone had noticed me. The thought of being without him made me feel sick.
Some of our friends got into partying and drinking, and eventually we joined in. They started pressuring us to have sex. According to them it was a natural thing to do when you love someone. In the depths of my heart I knew that it was wrong; I really did. It was almost like there was a voice inside me warning that I would live to regret it. But if I really loved him and he loved me, what were we waiting for? If I didn’t give in, what would my friends think? What would he think? I didn’t want to be left out, and above all I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. He was everything to me, so I finally did what he wanted – I gave in.
I had fallen in love with the feeling of having a best friend – someone who was always at my side giving me the attention I craved. He assured me that he loved me, and I believed him. I was only in 9th grade when we met, but we loved talking about our future. As soon as we graduated we were planning to get married. We even talked about how many children we would have. It was music to my ears! Someday I wanted to go to nursing school, but first I wanted to have a husband and family of my own. I could hardly wait.
But the more involved we got, the less fulfilled I felt. My heart was more desperate than ever. I knew that if I wanted to keep him, I had to keep giving him my body. Instead of making me feel loved, I felt dirty, insecure, and – most of all – used. My dreams were slipping away and finally came crashing down on a New Year’s Eve that changed my life forever.
We were at a huge party and were drinking way too much. Throwing caution to the wind, we got careless and let our guard down. Only a few days later Lester started pulling away from me. I was so confused! He spent less and less time with me, and by the time February arrived he was hardly around at all. I finally realized what was going on when he dumped me for another girl.
It was as if my heart had been torn from within me and ripped into a million little pieces. I was utterly devastated. What was wrong with me? I had given him everything and it still wasn’t enough. Why wasn’t I good enough? How could I be so stupid? I instinctively knew that we had done what only married couples are supposed to do. Now he had left me and we wouldn’t even be getting married. My virginity was gone. My life was gone. No one would ever want me now.
I continued to pull myself out of bed each morning and go through the motions; but my reason for living was gone. I felt tired and emotional all the time…and sick. At first I chalked it all up to the broken relationship, but then I got worried. Was it something more? I hardly ate any food and every little thing made me cry. At school I got so sick that several times I ran from class to the bathroom to throw up. Finally a thought crossed my mind in horror – “what if I’m pregnant?!” In those days, there was no easy way to confirm it. No over-the-counter tests or pregnancy crisis centers. You had to go to the doctor, pee in a cup, and then wait three days for the “rabbit to die.” There’s no way I was gonna do that!
Not only was I too poor to afford a doctor, I was also scared to death of what the doctor would say. And what would Mama say? The thought made me cringe. I knew that any doctor would march me right to her and tell her what I had done. Maybe there was some other way to get out of this mess. Maybe the problem would just go away on its own. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t real…and I secretly hoped that something would happen to make that belief a reality. I started to think about committing suicide, as it was just too much to deal with.
One night I was out joyriding with some friends. Another girl and I were in the back seat. I tried to act like I was having fun, but my insides were in turmoil. My mind raced until it felt like the whole world was closing in on me, and I had to do something! Without warning I flung the door open and jumped out. I heard my friends shrieking in the background as my body came crashing down on the road. They knew I was unhappy and depressed from the breakup, but they were beside themselves. What in the world was I doing? That was a good question. I don’t think I really knew. I was just grasping for anything that would take away the pain in my heart. And if I was pregnant, maybe this would get rid of the problem. It was desperate thinking. The result was a few scratches and bruises, but nothing more.
In my heart of hearts I knew the truth, but I couldn’t accept it. Summer was coming soon and I was sure I would have something figured out by then. It had to be kept a secret. I couldn’t tell anyone – especially not the baby’s father! He had broken up with me for another girl, and I wasn’t about to go begging him to come back to me now just because I was carrying his baby. I wanted his love, not his pity.
What would everyone else think of me once they found out? My reputation, what there was of it, was doomed! Or maybe no one would be surprised. After all, I was from a broken home with no daddy.
Several months went by and my clothes started feeling tighter. In gym class I stopped wearing the gym outfit and started wearing whatever loose-fitting clothes I could find. I didn’t care if I got in trouble. No one was going to make me put on that skimpy tight gym romper that made me look pudgy! However, not even the loose-fitting clothes could hide my baby forever, so I had to do something else. I snuck into a local department store, grabbed a girdle from the shelves, and hid it inside a bunch of other clothes. With my heart pounding, I stepped into a fitting room and slid the girdle on under my clothes. When the area was clear, I put the clothes back and tried to appear nonchalant. I perused a few shelves and then checked out with a pack of gum. A few minutes later I slipped out of the store, still scared to death that I would get caught for shoplifting. It was the only thing I’d ever stolen.
The further along I got, the more problems I had. I started fainting, throwing up all day, and starving myself so that I wouldn’t gain weight. One night I was staying with my friend Nancy and decided to open up and tell her that I might be pregnant. She thought I should tell my ex-boyfriend, but I told her that I had already decided that was out of the question.
Nancy and her Mama both had polio. I remember being jolted awake at night to the sound of her Mama screaming, begging for Nancy to come help her. Nancy rolled over and ignored her for several hours before she did anything about it. Her daddy was no longer a part of their lives, having left as soon as he heard the diagnosis; so now it was just Nancy and her Mama. Nancy and I were quite the pair – she with her cute bob hair cut and bangs, beautiful blonde hair, and blue eyes; while I was a silky dark auburn with brown eyes. Cute, but troubled; fatherless, but popular. We managed to attract all sorts of attention and people into our lives. Little did we know at the time how big a part we would have in each other’s lives in the years to come.
Nancy’s Mama was Catholic, so the next morning she made us get up and go to mass. As we got to the top of the stairs in the front of the building, I suddenly threw up all over the place. Nancy cast a glance in my direction, laughed, and then proceeded to walk into the church, leaving me behind in shock. I was so embarrassed. I can just imagine the horrified looks of everyone who walked past me. But I didn’t see them, because my eyes were fixed on the floor as I tried to figure out what to do. A few minutes later, I fainted.
Physically, things were getting worse every day, but I had no idea what to do. Fainting became a normal occurrence if I stood for any length of time. Nancy was no help, so we agreed to keep the secret to ourselves and ignore it the best we could. Not another soul knew that I was pregnant – not even Mama. At least that’s what I thought.
When summer arrived, I actually had something to look forward to. Mama sent me to my friend’s house in eastern Tennessee. I had been going there every summer for years, and I couldn’t wait to spend time with Martha Jewel. We were the best of friends and spent hours hanging out together at their boat house. I had learned to water ski on their ski boat, and even knew how to slalom. Going there was Mama’s idea of a family vacation. I never knew any different and liked it just the same anyway. Plus, this year I was going to get to spend two extra weeks at Martha Jewel’s house!
Almost as soon as I got there, though, Martha Jewel’s Mama figured out I was pregnant and called Mama to let her know. Apparently Mama had begun to suspect as much, and sent me to Martha Jewel’s hoping they would confirm her suspicions.
When I got back to our house, Mama met me at the door and ushered me into the living room. Two of her friends – Dot and Bumpas – were sitting on the couch.
“Sit down,” she said coldly. “We have to talk.”
I made my way to the couch and braced myself for her next words. She got right to the point.
“Don’t bother unpacking. We know you’re pregnant, and we’ve gotta do something about this. We’ve made arrangements to take you to Texas to a special home. Be ready to leave in the morning.”
My gaze met Mama’s. “Do you think I should tell the baby’s father?”
“No! Don’t tell anyone. We’re going to get this taken care of.”
And that was that.
A part of me felt relieved that the truth was out and I wouldn’t have to figure out what to do on my own. But her response wasn’t at all what I had hoped for. Couldn’t we at least talk about the situation and discuss our options? Was being shipped off to Texas really the only way? One look at Mama’s face told me not to say anything. In her mind, there were no other options. The choice had already been made.
True to her word, the next morning we loaded into Dot and Bumpas’ sedan and made the long drive to Abilene. Just before leaving me in Texas, Bumpas handed me a ten dollar bill and patted me on the head. Then they were gone.
Time crawled by as I spent day after day in my room at the home. Swollen and miserable, I sprawled out on the bed for long hours, wondering what would become of my baby and me. At the beginning of September Mama called, “You need to have that baby and get home so you have time to enroll in school for the fall.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
I had zero knowledge of childbirth.
“Buy some castor oil at the drugstore,” she advised. “Put it in orange juice and drink it. That will make your labor start.”
A bottle of castor oil was seventy-five cents. I bought two for good measure. It was all I could do to make myself drink the slimy liquid, but after two bottles and a few hours, I could tell it was working. Cramps took over my body, and I had diarrhea. Lots of it.
I approached the house mom, “What the heck is going on with me?” I asked. “There’s pink stuff coming out, my belly is getting all hard, and I feel like I have the cramps.”
“Honey, it sounds like you could be in labor,” came her soft response.
She scooted me out to the car, dutifully drove me to the hospital, and turned me over to the nurse. My eyes traced her figure from the toes of her white clunky shoes, past the white hose and starched white uniform, to the white nurse’s hat pinned severely on her head. Her harsh, narrow eyes were surrounded by rows of wrinkles, and they seemed to penetrate right through me as her gaze met mine. Without cracking a smile, she turned her heavy frame around and said, “Follow me.”
She led me to a room I will never forget. The green room. It was a horrid color that was a mix between pond scum green and putrid yellow. Even the bed frame matched the hideous hue of the cold, sterile walls that stared back at me. I shivered in terror. The nurse pointed toward the bed.
“Get in,” she ordered, and showed me how to turn the hand crank to raise it up and down. “I’ll be back to check on you,” she promised, leaving me alone. Just me and those ugly green walls.
My back was killing me! Every contraction caused my back to spasm and left me writhing in pain on the bed. I longed for a gentle hand to rub my knotted muscles. “Please rub my back!” I begged anyone who came into the room. I tried to reach back and do it myself, but then my body would wrench with another contraction and I would shriek in pain. Tears welled up in my eyes. I needed help now more than ever before, but no one came. I waited for a soft voice to assure me that everything would be alright, but the only sound I heard was the muffled sobs escaping from my own mouth as I rolled around on the bed, begging for someone, anyone, to help.
Every time I looked at the clock expecting it to be hours later, only a few minutes had passed. The minutes dragged into hours and the hours into two torturous days. The labor continued. I lived for each contraction to end. Every so often a short, quiet figure with brown hair appeared in the doorway. It was the house mom coming to check on me. Like an angel of mercy, she actually massaged my back and helped me relax a little. But each time she left, I was more terrified than before.
Then, just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the nurse arrived. I had labored for fifty-two excruciating hours, almost completely by myself and without any pain medication. The nurse informed me that they were taking me into the delivery room where the doctor would meet us. “At last someone is here who would help me get through this,” I thought.
By the time the doctor walked into the room, I was hysterical. Any hope of kindness was dashed when he yelled at me, “Maybe you’ll think twice before doing something like this again.” There was not an ounce of compassion in his voice.
He turned to the nurse and commanded her to strap me down. I panicked. What were they going to do to me? Why were they strapping me down? What were those horrible-looking silver tongs that the doctor was holding above me? My mind was spinning and I tried desperately to free myself from these cruel people. Then the metal tongs clanged together and the nurse covered my face with a mask. This was the end, I just knew it. I gasped for air and clawed at the mask. Why were they trying to kill me? What should I do?
If only I had known, if only they had told me, that they were just putting me to sleep so that I wouldn’t feel the pain. But I was clueless and no one bothered to explain anything to me. The nurse leaned over me and yelled in my face to be still. The doctor yelled at the nurse to make me be still. Back and forth they screamed until they had me strapped down. He forced my legs apart and my feet into the stirrups. The whole scene was complete chaos.
The mask must have worked, because the next thing I knew everything was over and the baby was gone. One thing that hadn’t gone was the pain. The doctor had cut me twice during the delivery. Right then, I didn’t care. All I wanted was to look at my baby, to hold him, to convince myself that everything I had just been through was worth it. But they had whisked him away, and I was left behind in a crumpled heap, sobbing.
“Where’s my baby? What did I have?”
A pang of guilt hit me as I recalled all the things I had done during the pregnancy – jumping out of the car, starving myself, wearing the girdle. I wanted to be sure that he was okay.
The doctor talked to me while he repaired the two huge cuts. I have no idea what he said. My body was in shock and I felt paralyzed. All I could think about was my baby. I wanted to see him!
“Can I please see my baby?” I cried. Surely the doctor wouldn’t refuse me after all I’d been through. “Just for a few minutes?”
He kept stitching. “If you see the baby, you’ll never be able to give him up. It will just make it harder for you to walk away.”
“Please?” I begged!
“Sorry,” the nurse said. “It will haunt you forever. You need to move on with your life and put this mistake behind you.”
No matter how many times I asked, the answer was the same cold “no.” They were about to find out just how stubborn I could be.
The next day I told them that I wouldn’t sign the adoption papers unless they let me see my baby. They tried all sorts of things to change my mind, but I refused to budge. Finally, they called Mama.
“Kathy, if you don’t cooperate, they won’t be able to follow through with the adoption. Stop this nonsense right now and quit being a bother.”
I have no idea if she was telling the truth or not, but my mind was set on seeing my baby, and no one could talk me out of it. At long last they relented, no doubt just to shut me up. I had two hours, they said. After carrying him for nine months and laboring for over two days, they gave me a measly two hours to squeeze in a lifetime of love.
As soon as my boy was in my hands, I examined every inch of him. I fed him a bottle, and changed his diaper. He looked so much like his dad. I caressed his straight blonde hair and looked deeply into his dark blue eyes. Then I pulled him close and whispered in his ear, “I want you to have a happy life with a mother and father. You’ll have all kinds of opportunities that I could never give you. I’m so sorry for giving you away,” a tear trickled down my cheek, “but your new parents want you very much. They promised me you’ll have a good home with lots of love.” I told him about his father. Then I kissed his little lips one last time and hummed a tune to him.
The nurse came back right after two hours, snatched him out of my hands, and carried him off to his new family. I would never see him again. I bit my lip and refused to cry another tear. My heart was breaking inside of me, but I had to prove that I was tough enough to handle this. So I did what everyone told me to do, “Put this behind you and move on with your life.” I never said a word about him to anyone. It was years before anyone knew my secret…and it wouldn’t be the last one.