I had a tradition of inviting a little old lady to lunch once a month. My girlfriends looked forward to being included as this was an opportunity to learn from some of these elderly stateswomen. We were all successful business women in the 70’s and proud of our hard fought for woman’s rights. We did not alter our discussions about sex, politics or currant events for our elderly guest. We smoked, drank, swore and discussed our sex lives, business and dished the dirt. We treated our guest as one of the GIRLS, much to their delight. I liked to invite some of the ladies from a Resident Home called Saint Paul’s Towers over looking Lake Merritt. Most of these women had been widowed, sold their home and signed over their estate to Saint Paul’s Tower, in exchange for lifetime care. They had a nice studio apartment and received one meal a day in the Dining Room. Most of these women were from upper middle class backgrounds. They now lived on very limited incomes. Many of them took their jewelry and family treasures to my Mother’s shop on Grand Ave. to sell on consignment. These women had traveled and dined in fine restaurants and attended the theater. None of which they could afford to do now. They were in reduced circumstances as the Victorian Novels would state. This must have been very difficult for them to have known this life style and no longer be part of it.
I would call and invite them to do lunch with we girls. I often would make a reservation at the Mira Beau which was and elegant French Restaurant in the Kaiser Center. I had an account there and would inform John Hamilton, the Maître D that I was having one of my “Little Ole Ladies Lunches” and to add any extras to my bill. I often saw out of the corner of my eye my elderly guest swoop the bread, linen napkins, butter, sugar and extra dinner mints in their purses. I made a point of having the waiter discreetly box any left-overs up and give them to our Lady of the Day. I am sure they often made several meals from these gleanings.
Mrs. Bingham was one of my favorites. She was a retired school teacher and her husband had been a professor at Cal Berkeley. She had been widowed about ten years when I met her. She was a very charming, well educated woman. She would arrive in the lobby dressed in her finest, complete with hat and gloves. She had elegant taste in clothes and had bought very classic styles that seemed to always stay in fashion. A cashmere Chanel suit she often wore was a lesson of timeless good taste.
We were having a some what heated discussion about the latest attempt to eliminate the legalized abortion rights of women. All of us could recall the days before birth control pills. And the burden of birth control being the woman’s responsibility. Somehow men did not seem to think they had much to contribute to unwanted pregnancies. Comments like; “She went and got knocked up, again”. Were common remarks from men. The shame of too many pregnancies were solely the woman’s. At the same time a woman was not a good wife if she refused her husband’s sexual demands. She had her “Wifely Duties” and he had his “Marital Rights”. The fact that there had been condoms available for males for many years before the pill was available was seldom addressed. The old excuse by men; “I don’t like wearing an overcoat, when having sex”, seemed to be accepted as logical. The men were basically released from their responsibility of birth control in lieu of their sexual pleasure. “It is a woman’s job to pleasure her man”, was another old instruction to women.
We women at the table were in agreement that it was important to keep our hard earned right to choose. Some of us at the table would not have chosen abortion for our selves because of our personal moral positions. We all agreed that the law must stay in tact so women can make the choice for themselves. No one should have the right to make that judgment over another person.
Mrs. Bingham was seated next to me at the table. She said in this very soft voice; “I have had two abortions”. I stopped in mid-sentence and said; “Excuse me, Mrs. Bingham, what did you say”? She cleared her throat and repeated in a stronger voice. “ I have had two abortions”.
Silence fell on the table. I touched her hand gently and asked; “Would you like to tell us about it”? She looked into my eyes and said; “ I have never told anyone about this”. Her eyes filled with pain and she recalled the long ago experience.
“I was living in upstate New York, she began in a soft voice. My husband was in his final year of Graduate School. We had two children under the age of three. Our savings were depleted. My husband had interrupted his schooling and taken a job with each of my pregnancies. He had warned me that if I got pregnant again he would leave me and the children. The children were finally out of diapers and were at an age where he would take care of them for short periods of time. Unlike today, most men did not change diapers. That was the Mother’s job. “You had them, you take care of them”. he would say. He was kind to them and would play with them when they behaved. But, if they cried or acted naughty then they were turned over to me and I was instructed to; “Do something with YOUR CHILD, MOTHER”. as though I was remiss in training them in proper behavior. Children were to be seen and not heard, was the accepted mode of the times. I spent hours training these tiny children to be quiet and ever so polite around their Father. In hope that he would grow fond of these, “Little Interlopers”, as he like to refer to them.
I was able to secure a job teaching school that fall. It paid $25.00 a month and a three room house. My husband was finally able to go back to school to secure his degree. A kindly neighbor woman took care of the children for $1.00 a week. Everything was falling into place and life was back on track and my husbands’ goals were finally looking attainable.
Three weeks before Christmas I could no longer avoid the gnawing fact that I was once again pregnant. It must have happened during the terrible snow storm that fall. We had no indoor toilet and the out house was several yards from the house. We had run out of fire wood and I could not heat the water that I pumped into the kettle. So I poured the icy water into a glass pop bottle and added some vinegar. I opened the back door after putting on my boots and my husband’s oil cloth slicker, only to be met with a blinding curtain of snow. I could not even see the out house and the path was covered with two feet of snow. I closed the door, removed my boots and silently made my way to the bed. Trying not to wake my husband I carefully removed the chamber pot from beneath the bed and brought it to the kitchen. I was so cold my fingers could scarcely hold the icy bottle. It slipped from my hand and most of the liquid went onto the floor and pot and very little into me. My teeth were chattering as I wiped up the floor and replaced the pot under the bed. I slipped under the quilts, longing to warm myself with the heat of my husband’s body, but fearful of waking him. I clung to the edge of the bed trying to ignore the pain in my groin that was cutting through me like a piece of jagged ice.
Yes, it must have happened that night. I wrote a letter to a cousin that lived in New York City and begged her for help in finding someone to end this pregnancy. She found a midwife that was willing to do it. I took the money I had saved for a winter coat and the children’s Christmas presents and told my husband My Aunt was dying and asking for me. I took the train, my cousin met me and took me the midwife’s walk up flat. She had five children and was supporting her family with her mid wife and abortion skills. She cleared the kitchen table and asked my cousin to take the children to the park. She offered me some brandy and a wooden spoon to bite down on for the pain. I swallowed the brandy only to retch it up. They say you don’t remember the pain of child birth. I will always remember the pain of abortion. I remember every searing detail. It was excruciating! It makes me tremble to this day to think of it.
Afterwards, my cousin took me to her home and put me to bed. The next day I caught the train to return home.
The second time I sold my wedding ring and told my husband I had lost it. There is not a year goes by on those two dates that I don’t think of my loss. I was never able to grieve openly. But I can assure you I suffered silently. I was never able to have any more children. Years later when we could afford them, I was not able to conceive. My husband never found out about the abortions. He would have blamed me for getting with child and would have left me and the other two living children. I had to do what I could to preserve the family that I already had. It was the woman’s responsibility to keep the family intact.”
Asked whether she would make the same decision if she had it to do over again. She replied; “Yes, but how I wish I could have had someone to share the burden with and ease my guilt and shame and horrible feelings of grief and loss. You, young women must make sure that law is protected for all future women. No woman should have to feel like a criminal and go through an ordeal such as that alone”.
Thanking her for sharing, we all took hands around the table and said a silent prayer or thought or pledge.
It was all so personal.
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