Art: Sherry Carver

Fiction: News to Turn the World

Illegal abortion: That little known commonplace in the world of our immigrant mothers

The summer I was fifteen, 1917, it was our first summer in Cleveland, my mother and I were up to our elbows in hot water, canning. This day must’ve been late August or September, because we were putting up tomatoes. Bessie and Evelyn, the littlest ones, my sister Mollie had taken to the park to keep out of our way, but Rita and Naomi, they were probably ten and twelve then, they kept coming in with their clothes sopping, soaked like they were fish. I guess one of the neighbors had set out buckets and a hose so they could cool off. Between the canning and all the water the girls brought in, the kitchen was a mess.

It was a big kitchen, bigger than we’d had in New York. We’d had to leave New York because Pa’s work had gotten so sporadic. His brother Irving—my uncle—said in Cleveland a tailor could work year-round. Pa didn’t like it, leaving his union, but he had to feed the lot of us. So, we packed up and took the train. Evelyn wasn’t six months old when we made the trip. She hollered the whole ride.

I wiped a puddle of water from the floor, to keep us from slipping at least. “Maybe this kitchen will never be clean again,” I said to Ma.

“Ya” she said. And then she turned her round body to my tall one. “Estelle, ikh hob nayes vos ken iberkern di velt” she said. [I have news to turn the world upside down.] “Ikh hob nokh a mol farshvengert.” [Again I’ve conceived.]

I turned my face toward her. I had an urge like a rocket running through me to take the tomato I’d just peeled, make like I was a baseball pitcher and smash it on the wall in front of me. Ma’d just scrubbed that wall the week before.

Well, I didn’t do it. I don’t even know where that tomato went, but my hands, all red they were, went to my hips. I kept my face toward hers, I put my lips together and locked them. And I suppose you’d call the eye I gave her a mean one. I felt an invisible kind of shawl come around my whole body, a wrapper that put me in my own world, sealed off from the rest.

This moment has stuck on me my whole life. Because here’s where the world turned for me— from a hard place to an impossible one. By impossible I mean there was no way out for me. I adored my mother, just from chores she could make me feel good. “Oh Estelle,” she’d say, “why don’t you cut the salad? When you do it, it tastes the best.” Or “Why don’t you dust, sheyn meydl? Just give it a swish swash.”

But right then, because she was pregnant, I had to leave the kitchen. I had to get out of the house! Because I couldn’t stand to be near her.

I don’t have to tell you, do I, what it meant for me that Ma had another pregnancy, a new baby due in March, just before we’d all be getting out of school? Evelyn was two by then, the youngest, just out of night diapers. We also had Abie and Sol, my Uncle Isaac’s boys. Ma had taken them in just when we got to Cleveland—their mother had died from tuberculosis. The boys were eight and ten, pretty sweet, sure. But with them we made ten people altogether, and we had only three bedrooms for the lot of us. Well, a new baby meant whatever dreams I had of going on picnics with my friend Pearl Adler I could forget. Also there was a bookkeeping class I wanted to take special. I wanted that so I could get a good job after high school. I wanted to help my parents, and I wanted a little money of my own. My dreams weren’t so wild. Oh, I had a crazy one of becoming a doctor or a scientist who’d invent a foolproof method of birth control. Or maybe I could go off with Margaret Sanger and teach women the methods she knew about. Mainly, I guess, I wanted a taste of the world outside of housekeeping—though I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what that might be. Bookkeeping, of course, was a lot more practical; and then as now, I was practical.

Well. Two weeks passed from that afternoon where Ma told me she was pregnant again. The whole time, I didn’t talk to her. It wasn’t a plan or anything, I was just steaming mad, and afraid if I opened my lips to her I’d hear things that’d make the situation worse. So, like always, I got the groceries on my way home from school; I made a dozen chopped liver sandwiches every day and packed them into lunch bags, or maybe a hard-boiled egg salad. I took each rug in the house to the backyard and whipped out the dust. If Ma was nearby, I’d feel that extra layer wrapped around me, fresh. If Pa was near, I lowered my eyes a little. I was mad at him, too, I suppose. I knew what it took to make a baby; I knew what it took not to make one. I didn’t see why they couldn’t stop doing it. I knew she and Pa had a love marriage. That wasn’t hard to see. But couldn’t they find other ways to love each other than make babies? These were my useless thoughts.

After I washed the dinner dishes—sometimes I got my sister Mollie to do them without me—I’d walk out the house and around the block, to cool off. Sometimes I’d stop by Pearl’s, for company. She knew the gist of what was going on and even though she probably would’ve preferred talking, she let us walk in silence. She was a good friend, Pearl.

I still took my moonlight baths, too. That’s what I called them. I’d go in the washroom after I was sure everyone else was asleep. Ma used to call it my private mikve, which of course you don’t take until marriage—to encourage your seeds to sprout, after your monthly. Ma used to joke I took so many I’d end up with more children than she’d had; or that once I did marry, I wouldn’t have to bother going to the mikve, I did enough as a young maid.

That was not my intention.

I turned the light off when I took my baths. I soaked in the quiet as much as the warm water. I soaked in the dark, too, I suppose. I could often see the moon above us from the windows—it was a tiny bathroom, but it had a big window— good for watching the night. They say at Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, the moon draws inside herself, into that dark moment, you can’t see it. It’s alone. That’s how it starts each cycle, bringing itself to a full circle then back to emptiness again.

I don’t remember when I started taking these baths. I know we were still in New York; but as soon as I started, I knew I needed them. Going to my own quiet place, so dark it’s like nothing, no effort, no name, only peace. I could feel quiet and stillness even with a world war getting started, and I could use that quiet to carry me through the next day.

Anyway, two weeks passed I didn’t say a word to Ma. Then one night after my bath, I’d just drained the water and pulled my gown on, someone tapped on the door. I knew it was her. I glanced at the moon, nearly full. I felt my lips tighten. When I opened the door. Ma squeezed in. We just stood there a moment, in the dark. Then she spoke. “I need help, Estelle, tomorrow. So, I ask you. But if you don’t want with what I ask you, then please, I want you should say it. Okay?”

I nodded. I had my arms crossed over my chest. I felt like a horrible person, and quite frankly, I didn’t care enough about that to make myself different. No: I didn’t have an ounce of desire to take my arms down. I didn’t want to see, either, that Ma looked like a ghost. Like a leech had sucked all her blood away.

Her eyes had caught onto the moon. So, we had another moment of quiet. I didn’t mind. After a while she turned her eyes back to me. “I wonder would you stay home from school tomorrow, watch Bessie and Evelyn, and also make shabbes. Mrs. Kaminsky told me, down on Woodland, she knows a man what can make me an abortion. Today I made my mind up, I’ll go. Pa, he knows I’m pregnant, but I’ll wait ’til my body is healed again to tell him this. Mrs. Kaminsky says she can finish her shabbes making by two o’clock, she’ll come meet me. So I’ll have someone to walk me home.”

Everything was already pretty closed in for me, being inside ray seal, and that washroom was tiny for one person, let alone two. I felt sick, whirly. I sat on the toilet, more like I melted onto it. I felt like I was the one pregnant. I couldn’t tell who’s who. I felt like I was the one who’d decided on an abortion. I started to cry. I worried I’d wake the others, but I couldn’t control myself. “Dos moyl ken nisht zogn vos iz oyfn harts, Ma,” I said finally, after my long cry. “The heart can’t tell the mouth what it feels. But I feel bad, no matter what happens with this baby.”

Ma put a hand to my head, which brought more tears. So then I sobbed in her belly, with that baby growing in it. “Es iz tsu shver tsu zayn a froy,” she said. “It’s too difficult to be a woman sometimes.”

Ma’s face and her eyes were so kind on me, especially with all the moonlight there. I noticed, too, how much sad she had in her. I stopped my crying. I said I’d stay home for her the next day.

Just before Pa got back from the factory, and my sisters and my two cousins were all playing outside or, thank God, taking a nap, Ma walked in. I had a big hot pan of kugel in my hands when she leaned on the door and opened it. When I saw her I didn’t dare take my eyes away, even if it meant burning my hands. She looked nearly dead. Maybe, I thought, if I keep my eyes to her, she won’t slip away. You know, die on me. She moved heavy like an elephant, maybe I should say the ghost of an elephant.

We got her into bed and decided we could tell the others she’d taken sick with flu. Whatever that so-called doctor did to her, he said the baby wouldn’t come out ’til the next day. If we said she had a bad flu, we figured she could have a few days in bed without the others disturbing her.

This time, it was me who said to her, “Es iz tsu shver tsu zayn a froy.”

“Ya,” she said. She gave me a little smile, moved one arm behind herself, then the other, so I could pull her dress off. She’d gotten so doughy, Ma had, big. When she was pregnant with Bessie, no one had known; and all of us kids were tall, like Pa, though not so lanky. “Estelle,” she said, as if to comfort me, “Ruchel’s here.”

Ruchel—that’s the girl Ma miscarried before me, the one she talks to more than anybody. “The whole day,” she went on, “Ruchel has talked. ‘Vos du vilst,’ she tells me. ‘Whatever you choose,’ she says, ‘I’ll keep talking.’ She said she knew, either way for me would not be easy. She says this soul I carry can manage, either way.

“Akh. My big scare was that if I put away this baby, Ruchel would stop her talking. And if she stops her talking, I will turn completely meshuge. But even when I was up on that man’s table, she talked. ‘A brokhe oyf dayn kop,’ she says to me, ‘a blessing on your head.’ And ‘this too shall pass;’ and ‘breathe gently, the world can hold this too.'”

After this Ma fell to sleep. I told the others we’d have Shabbes without her. So—I lit the candles that night. I felt like Ruchel was nearby, Ma’s angel in heaven. You know I wasn’t jealous of her. But sometimes I felt jealous of Ma, that she had someone like that to talk to. Maybe, I thought, this one she killed today, maybe I should talk to that one. Maybe it has words for me. I even wondered should I give it a name, this baby I had wanted to stay in the Other World.

I had these thoughts and then the next thing I had was to make sure Pa could have a little shabbes even with his worry about Ma, also to see Bessie got her chicken cut up small enough, and that Abie not take too much kugel or else he’d get sick. He didn’t take so good to potatoes.

I never named that baby. But even to this day I think of it, and I think of it as mine, too.

Katie Singer was writer-in-residence at South Boston High School during the 1980s. She now lives in northern New Mexico, where she is at work on Bubbe Loshn: A Novel in the Grandmother Tongue.

Thirteen Abortions: Not A Neighborhood Record

by Sarah Wallis

Before early feminists like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger educated women about birth control, illegal abortion was often the only available method for controlling the size of a family. Abortion helped to preserve the quality of life for existing children when another baby would be an impossible strain on parents’ severely limited resources. A few local doctors in various neighborhoods performed abortions for the tenement women, many of whom were Jewish immigrants who had little access to formal sex education or birth control. Abortion was a common— though somewhat stigmatized—fact of life.

Kate Simon, in Bronx Primitive (Harper Colophon, 1982), a non-fiction account of immigrant life, praises someone named “Dr. James, a skilled gynecologist as well as a skilled abortionist. The work of the blessed hands of this wonderful goy… He dedicated himself to poor immigrant women for whom there was no sex information, no birth-control clinics, nothing but knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths to prevent the birth of yet another child. He performed thousands of abortions, the fee a dollar or two or nothing, depending on the degree of poverty he met.”

Kate Simon’s mother herself had 13 abortions, “not a neighborhood record. We knew Dr. James had visited when we found our mothers in bed ‘resting,’ an odd word, an odd event.”

Statistics compiled by Rosalind Petchesky in Abortion and Women’s Choice (Longman, 1984) reveal that in the 1890s more than two million abortions were performed each year. Petchesky cites a1920 survey which showed that nearly half of the clients at a Chicago medical clinic— mainly poor Jews on welfare—had had abortions In the general population of that time period, the vast majority of all interruptions of pregnancy were “voluntary, illegal acts.”

Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in 1916 in a predominantly Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. She distributed informational handbills to families which were printed in English, Italian, and Yiddish in order to be accessible to immigrants.

Sydney Stahl Weinberg, in World of Our Mothers (University of North Carolina, 1988), relates that by the mid-1930s, about 20 years after Katie Singer’s story takes place, “although some women still resorted to abortion to keep from having children… even most poor Jewish women were by then aware of birth control and used it to keep their families within manageable size.”