The Rabbit Died

Two months into my senior year of high school “the rabbit died.” I had never heard that expression before, but when the doctor returned to the examination room, and used the phrase, I realized I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell my family, particularly my grandmother, who was my legal guardian. My second thought was of school. I was looking forward to my senior year – there was the homecoming dance, the Sadie Hawkins dance and the prom.

Like many schools in the ‘70s, Scott High tracked students. Counselors offered some kids a vocational path, while others were given classes to help them get into a college or university. My grades, and the fact that I had passed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, put me on the college track. Suddenly, I was faced with how to finish my high school education; college seemed off the table entirely.

I didn’t want to drop out, although it was common for girls to do so at the time. The sexual revolution was just beginning, but it didn’t yet apply to teenagers. School districts were slow to change their policies regarding expectant students.

As recently as the 1960s, pregnancy was grounds for expulsion in most public and private schools. When I became pregnant, there was no automatic dismissal from my school, but a pregnant teen attending classes was still someone who drew whispers. Many times, girls would attend school only during the early months of their pregnancy. Some would return to school after their babies were born to make up the lost credits; others never went back.

I met with my guidance counselor to see if I had options other than dropping out or going through the hallways with “fast girl” tacked to my back. After dropping me from the marching band, the counselor informed me that I could stay. I thought about the girls who braved the stares and murmurs of students and teachers and continued classes throughout their pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of them. My counselor looked at me sympathetically. After a pause, she told me about a program that had been in existence for a short while at the YWCA. It was run in part by the Toledo Public Schools and the Florence Crittenton Home. The counselor said I could finish my classes through their program and return to my home school once I delivered my baby. The institution had a principal, a dozen teachers, a nurse and a counselor, and offered classes toward a high school diploma. Also, there was vocational training in business, food services, homemaking and childcare. Every girl was expected to participate in group sessions where topics spanned everything from personal hygiene to child development.

So one bitter January morning I stepped off the bus in front of the Y to start my alternative education. I was a 17-year-old newlywed of three weeks and I was four months pregnant. I was told to report directly to my English class, which met on the second floor. I knew this Y very well. As an elementary school student, I had taken swim classes there on Saturday mornings, and spent many hours after class playing board games and caroms. Now, as I moved through the building, the familiar scent of chlorine hung in the hallways, but the atmosphere of playtime was gone. The classrooms consisted of rows of wide tables and chairs or comfortable upholstered couches and armchairs. There were no student desks that could confine growing bellies. When I walked into the English class, I saw faces that looked like mine – forlorn and bewildered. The class of about 20 girls seemed to have an equal number of African American and white students. I recognized one of the girls from my home school.

At lunch, I met some of the girls. Like most school cafeterias, the white students tended to eat together and the black students mostly sat with other African-Americans. I struck up a conversation with the girl from my home school. Pat and I had not been friends before. She dressed in tight skirts and she plastered make-up on her face and had a reputation for not backing down from fights. I was pretty much her opposite and yet, there we both sat in our cheap, cotton maternity tops.

The girls I ate lunch with were from schools throughout the city and a few were from neighboring suburbs. They told me that most of the white girls were from out of town; some even lived outside of Ohio.

“They come here to hide their pregnancy,” one girl explained, nodding in their direction. “Then they go on back home like they didn’t have no baby.”

That was almost unheard of in the black community. When a teenager got pregnant, she generally kept the baby. Of course, “big mama” or an aunt or older sister might actually raise the child, but the baby remained in the family. It wasn’t that a teenage pregnancy was a welcomed event in a black household; it was more a matter of not having the financial means to send a girl away. I looked at my Caucasian counterparts and wondered, “How can you carry a baby for nine months and then give it up?”

Every girl enrolled had to give at least one period a day to the nursery. Sometimes girls who had given birth decided not to return to their home school right away, and instead, finished their studies at the Y where their babies would be taken care of at no charge. Also, there was the occasional girl who had a child in the nursery and another on the way. There were babies everywhere in the nursery – from tiny newborns to toddlers, along with playpens, changing tables and bouncers. The floor was a traffic jam of infants crawling or toddling. Throughout the room were girls sitting in rocking chairs comforting fussy ones, while others played with the infants on the floor. There were adults in the room who also tended to the babies, but mostly they provided oversight. Some of the girls were as young as 12 or 13. The air was a serenade of cooing and laughter between the infants and students. Every girl was providing some type of attention to a baby – feeding, changing, burping or rocking. On the other side of a glass wall, sleeping babies lay in cribs.

I looked forward to taking care of the babies, even the ones who could be challenging. I brushed kisses across their soft heads and pretended to chomp on their toes when I changed diapers. I didn’t know whether I was having a boy or a girl. In the nursery, there was no black or white. Each girl cared for any infant who needed attention. It was under those circumstances that I got to know some of the out-of-town girls and learned their stories.

I was sitting and rocking a baby boy, enjoying the whiff of baby powder each time I patted his back, when the girl in the next rocker spoke to me.

“He’s a sweet one, I had him yesterday,” she said. Mary had ruddy cheeks and short, blonde hair. Her perfectly round middle was about the size of a soccer ball.

“Un huh, he is,” I answered. “He really likes to be held.”

We talked. Her family had a farm in Indiana. Her parents sent her here because they didn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant.

“They said I can’t come back home unless I give up my baby, so I’m not going to keep it,” she said.

I asked her if she wanted to give her baby up for adoption and she said that it was the best thing to do because she needed to finish school. I could hear the anger in her voice and I saw the sadness on her face. Mary was only 14 years old, so I guess she really didn’t have a choice. I watched her as she placed a sleeping infant in a crib. She was caring for babies, but she wouldn’t get to keep her own.

Over time, I learned that the girls who stayed at the home were expected to sign adoption papers soon after their babies were born. Parents paid for room and board and medical care for the girl with the understanding that their daughters would return home childless. Most girls said their pregnancy was a secret. Their families said they were taking care of a sick relative, or studying at a private, out-of-state academy or at a reform school.

One of the girls who lived at the home said her parents told everyone she was away at an exclusive girls’ school, so it would have raised questions for her to return in the middle of a semester. She had given birth to a girl, but she never got to see the baby. Her voice wavered like she was about to cry, but she didn’t. Instead, we joked about how she might have to learn Latin to prove she was at some fancy girls’ school.

I was in the nursery one day when there were just a few babies. It was blustery outside and many of the local girls had not come to school. We sat boasting about the clothes we were going to buy once we “dropped this baby weight.” Bell-bottoms, maxi-dresses and mini-skirts were in style and it felt good to fantasize about dressing fashionably again.

“I’m gon’ look better than all of y’all!” Pat said. She got up and walked an imaginary runway to show off her outfit. “I’ma get me a halter top that ties right here,” making an invisible knot between her breasts, “and some bell bottoms that fit right here. And, I’ma show off my flat belly.”

Pat left the nursery to go to the ladies room. Between the frequent urges to urinate and the morning sickness, someone was always rushing out of a room. This time, we heard the groans of Pat vomiting. They were deep, gravelly bellows that rushed into the nursery and jolted us back from the revelry of our wardrobe fantasies. When she did not return, we assumed she had gone to the nurse’s office. The next day, a teacher told us that Pat had miscarried the evening before. All of us, at one point or another, wished we weren’t pregnant, but the loss of someone’s baby was always sad.

The teachers in the Florence Crittenton Program understood us. It was not unusual for a class discussion to evolve into a pregnancy or a parenting matter. We were all just frightened kids dealing with an adult predicament. Many of the stories shared among the girls were far more painful than mine. I endured the stigma of being a pregnant teenager and I accepted that my carelessness caused me to miss a normal senior year of high school.

The Dress

When I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be the announcer at my school’s spring assembly, which meant I would go on stage and announce each class as they came up to perform. It was an honor for a student to be chosen by their teacher to represent the school in this way, and of course, the announcer was to dress in her best clothing.

I didn’t ask my grandmother, who was raising me, for a new outfit, because I figured we couldn’t afford it, but I told her that the teacher said I needed to look my best. I waited for her to say how she planned to make me look ‘my best,’ instead, the corners of her mouth turned downward, and after a few seconds, she said simply, “Okay.”

Over the next few days, I saw her working at the sewing machine that sat on our dining table. The spool of thread at the top of the machine bobbled rapidly, as her left hand guided a piece of tan material under the machine’s large needle, and her right hand rotated a wheel on the other end. The whirring of the machine’s foot pedal could be heard throughout the house. She was making a dress for me to wear at the assembly, but inwardly, I wanted a new one – not one that was homemade.

My grandmother lived two lives. There was her home life with us, where she cooked dinners of fried potatoes with onions in enormous cast iron skillets and baked biscuits from scratch, on which we’d pile her homemade peach preserves. There was also her work life away from home, where she wore a white uniform and worked in up-to-date kitchens, preparing dinners like roast duck with steamed asparagus.

Some evenings, after working a full day, she would return to her job to serve at dinner parties. She laughed about the time her curiosity about caviar got the best of her. She wanted to taste this delicacy, so when she had a moment alone in the kitchen, she piled a large amount on a cracker and put the whole thing in her mouth. She quickly realized she didn’t like the oily taste at all and turned to the sink and spit it out. “If they knew I had spit that expensive stuff in the sink, I don’t know what they would have done,” she said.

As a “domestic” for two families, my grandmother not only prepared dinners for these families, but she also cleaned their homes, did their laundry and watched their children. At home, she didn’t do much of the housekeeping, nor did she prepare dinners that were anything like those she cooked at work. Being a domestic was the only job my grandmother had while raising my sister, my two brothers and me. My father didn’t always live with us, but he helped out by giving her money toward the rent and taking care of our school needs. The everyday feeding, clothing, and raising, in general, was done by my grandmother. She was the drill sergeant who made sure the girls dusted, washed the dishes and ran the vacuum cleaner, while the boys had trash duty, cut the grass and hedges and shoveled snow from our sidewalks and steps.

During the summers, she would enlist all of us to help with larger projects around the house. She would put on a pair of jeans, which she normally didn’t wear, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and work along side us, as we washed walls or painted rooms. Strands of her thin, silky hair would inevitably break free and become plastered to her perspiring forehead. I guess the fact that we lived with her didn’t allow my grandmother the luxury of smothering us with pampering.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” she would say, and she didn’t expect any of us to be lazy or unproductive either.

But the laundry was a task that my grandmother did not assign to any of her grandchildren. In our basement was a tall wringer washer that clanked loudly and literally inched itself around the room as it spurted soapy water on the floor. When it finished a load of clothes, my grandmother, who at 5’2” was just a little taller than the washer’s round tub, would crank the handle at the top of the machine and it would slowly squeeze the water from the clothes, piece by piece. She would fill a wicker basket with the wet clothes and hang them on a clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes, she would hang laundry out in the cold Ohio winters, but if the air was too frigid, she hung laundry from clotheslines strung from pipes in our basement.

When she had only a few pieces of clothing to wash, she would place a washboard in a large metal tub and scrub the clothes by hand. Although, she did the family laundry weekly, it was pretty much an all-day job for her on Saturdays. After hours of wringing load after load of clothes, she would recline on the couch in front of the television and talk about how much easier it was to do laundry on her job, because there were modern washers and dryers in those homes. Whenever she needed the convenience of an automatic washer and dryer, such as when it was time to wash our bed quilts or throw rugs and such, we piled loads of our laundry in the back of the car and went to a laundromat – still pretty much an all-day job.

Hard work was something my grandmother had done since she was a little girl. She was one of 21 children born to a father who was a former slave and a mother who was Chickasaw Indian and Black. Her formal education ended in the 4th grade, because she was needed in the fields to help feed their growing family. Her father owned land in Tennessee, where he raised pigs, chickens, and horses, in addition to growing vegetables and fruit trees. So, my grandmother learned at an early age how to plant and harvest crops, as well as how to kill and prepare chickens, rabbits and hogs. Anything that had to be baked – pies, cakes, bread, biscuits – she always made from scratch. She said that by the time she was ten years old, she was as good as her mother in the kitchen. She didn’t, however, teach my sister or me how to cook or bake.

“Don’t mess up my kitchen,” she would say to us, as she shooed us away with a dishtowel.

Even during holiday seasons, when there were big meals to prepare, she assigned us only marginal kitchen duty, such as buttering pans – never actually cooking a dish. She didn’t give us a reason, but I wonder now if she just didn’t want my sister and me to “have to” cook, as she did.

She was only 11 years old when she married. She would say that her parents let her get married because that meant there would be one less mouth to feed. She married a 17-year-old farmer, and went from working in her father’s fields to helping her husband live off the land. After their first son was born, they moved to Cairo, Illinois, because she said, “the South was too segregated” and “there was nothing” in their small town of Selmer, Tennessee. My father, and two more boys were born in Illinois, but they lost one son to whooping cough at the age of two. Their marriage unraveled, and she took the boys and returned to Tennessee in the late 1920s. Her widowed mother had remarried, and my grandmother and her children moved in with her new stepfather and new siblings.

By 1931, she was living in Toledo, Ohio in what she called a “common-law marriage.” She and Thomas had met in Tennessee and relocated to Toledo, where he had family. He was long gone before I was born in the 1950s, but my grandmother always referred to him as a good man, who was good to her children. This was a difficult period for our country, and even in an industrial city like Toledo, the Great Depression forced a lot of people out of work.

President Roosevelt had started a New Deal program known as the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and my grandmother was able to get a position as a seamstress. She made clothing that was distributed by the government to needy families. When World War II broke out, they also made clothing for the troops. She didn’t know how to operate a sewing machine prior to working for the WPA, and she had never hand sewn anything fancier than basic pants, shirts and dresses. So, even though she earned less than $500 a year, the WPA was the first place she was given the opportunity to learn a trade.

In the mid-1950s, my parents were divorcing, and my mother would lose her four children. My grandmother became our legal guardian. At almost 50 years of age, she agreed to raise a one-year-old, a four-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old.

“They were going to send you kids to the Miami Children’s Home if I hadn’t taken you,” she said.

While I have no memories of my mother abusing us, I do remember how my grandmother sacrificed so that my siblings and I had what we needed. Her electric sewing machine sat at the helm of our table ready to mend a ripped pair of pants or hem a skirt. It was a portable, black machine with ‘Singer’ in gold lettering across its sides, and although it sat inside a suitcase-like carrier, it was rarely moved from the dining table.

Except for the new clothes my father purchased at the beginning of every school year, our clothes came from thrift stores or were from the homes where my grandmother worked. For me, this clothing became “third-hand,” because the dresses, blouses and coats were given to my sister first; after she had worn them for a year or two, I would get them. While I didn’t exactly look like a little rag-a-muffin growing up, I didn’t think my clothes were as pretty as those I saw on little girls in the catalogs that lay on our coffee table.

So, when my grandmother called me in to try on the dress she made for my school assembly, I fidgeted as she maneuvered it over my head. Once the dress was on, I stood stiffly, barely looking down at it.

“It’s gonna be alright,” she said. “I have a few more ideas that’ll make it pretty.”

The next day, unlike the hand-me-downs that were loose-fitting and threadbare from wear, the dress fit like it was made just for me. The bodice of the dress fit snugly and the hemline, which stopped a couple of inches above my knees, flowed with pleats that stood out with the help of a tulle underskirt. My grandmother had made a belt of brown velvet that tied in a big bow at the back, and she had sewn two matching velvet ribbons for my hair.

On the day of the assembly, she parted my hair down the middle into two ponytails and tied them with the ribbons, then finished off my outfit with anklet socks and my patent-leather Easter shoes. As I twirled in front of the mirror, I saw a little girl dressed just as pretty as anyone posing in the Sears catalog. My grandmother leaned back in her chair and smiled.

That day, as I ascended the steps to the stage, I overheard the principal say to a teacher near her, “Isn’t she pretty?” I stood with pride at the microphone, staring out at the audience of students and teachers.

My grandmother, though, didn’t attend the assembly. She had to work.