The Birds And The Bees
Like most young women growing up in the 40’s and 50’s in Anchorage, I was completely unprepared for adulthood. That milestone arrived on my doorstep far too suddenly. It felt like I was launched from a catapult and flung toward maturity at mach speed.
In our family, Dad paid the bills, kept track of the checkbook, balanced the bank statement and computed the family taxes. After all, he was an economist; it was his educated trade, and appropriate that he should assume these tasks in the family. Mom came home from teaching at Wendler Jr. High to busy herself with cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and mothering a pair of bright and frequently demanding twins.
My twin brother and I were taught to feed ourselves, and tend to our hygiene. I learned to cook and clean; Jack to hunt, but the vital realities of living on one’s own such as using a checkbook or making a budget were not passed along to us, or at least to me.
This inability to share the real world with one’s children, to prepare them for the vicissitudes of life, was not limited to finances. With the exception of insisting on higher education, it held to many other facets of our existence in those mid-century years. The most notable, of course, was sex education, which for all intents and purposes, was non-existent, at least in my family.
At some point during our early high school years, I remember a brief “elective” human sexuality discussion in our Health class. Parental permission was required. It didn’t inform me of anything particularly interesting. I knew the differences in anatomy between boys and girls. I had a brother; I babysat for families with little boy babies and had to change diapers; I knew the difference between male and female kittens.
Discussing sex was avoided at all costs. One simply didn’t raise the question, even when curious about all the Playboy centerfolds that Dad used as wallpaper for his basement workshop. Dad may have had a father-son chat with my brother; I never asked.
I think the rationale in those years stemmed from several things: the Victorian grandparents who raised our very conservative group of elders; the serious times they had survived: The Great Depression and World War II; and a general embarrassment over conversing on a subject that our parents knew relatively little about. Except for the general act of procreating, they didn’t have the plethora of educational devices around them that we have had in our lives: books, movies, talk shows, porn, and therapy.
For me, the result of that ignorance was that I was thrust, kicking and flailing, into the world of grownups before I was ready.
No one told me that the sex drive itself was a force not to be taken lightly or trifled with. During the last half of my senior year I became aware of “feelings”, physical as well as emotional, which I’d never experienced before. At some point I remember asking Mother to tell me just how a baby was conceived, but her response was short and flustered and obviously uncomfortable as she diverted her eyes and hurried through her answer as fast as she could. I was afraid to follow-up by confiding my symptoms to her. I did have a married girlfriend, but a conversation with her, too, was out of the question; I didn’t want to look like an utter fool. “Just don’t do it” was our parental ultimatum. And so, I tried to curb my ever-consuming urges. When in doubt, play it safe, and stuff it.
After graduation from AHS, I resumed an earlier friendship with a boy a year younger than I. His parents worked at a mine in the Alaskan bush and he had been on his own for a few years, living with an older man in Anchorage, going to school, and stocking at a grocery store part time. He was cute, fun, teased me unmercifully, HOT and he knew it. And he wouldn’t take “NO” for an answer, although I tried my mightiest to resist, much to his angst. Finally, on one long summer evening at Bird Creek, my hormones got the best of me and I gave in. Adulthood arrived that evening.
Doug and I were together perhaps five times before I went away to college at the University of Oregon. The U of O was huge and completely intimidating. I was a geeky, shy girl, and utterly ill equipped for chic college life. Nevertheless, a new world opened to me and I exchanged my original major of interior design for a career in dance. This was my true love; dance would be my golden future. And was, that is, until the morning sickness started, the very same week I was beginning dance rehearsals for a college play.
One sunny Indian-Summer Sunday I joined a group of college students on a Catholic youth retreat to a lodge on the McKenzie River. We were to be served brunch in the late morning and I didn’t eat anything before I left the dorm. But the road wound around a number of curves on that stretch of the McKenzie, and breakfast was delayed for an hour or more after we arrived. Thinking my queasy tummy was due to car sickness, I went outside to see if fresh air would help, and suddenly emptied my stomach in the bushes by the main building, hoping that no one saw me.
That month I put on five pounds, unheard of for my slender, athletic frame. Finally I had to face the truth. I was late, and could no longer rationalize that it was due to the stress of beginning college. There were now substantial clues: upset stomach, usually in the morning, five unwanted pounds and no period for three months.
My dreams of getting a college degree were dashed. I located a doctor to confirm my suspicions, then returned to the dorm to pack up, quit school and use my Christmas return ticket to Anchorage to stumble home, knowing I was a disgrace to my family, my community, and my church. I can still see myself, slumped miserably in a chair in my advisor’s office, sobbing and humiliated to the core as she pried the truth from me and I confessed as to why I had to leave. An abortion had been offered to me. My uncle had contacts in Seattle. But I could not, would not go down that road. Not only were they illegal at the time, but also many were unquestionably dangerous.
Only in recent years have unwanted, unplanned pregnancies not been considered so disgraceful that a girl needs to disappear into oblivion or move to Jakarta to avoid everyone she knows. Not so in 1960. Daddy was the first to meet me at the airport. I had simply telegrammed that I was coming home, no reason given. I rushed into his comforting arms, sobbing, “I’m pregnant” and his response was kind. “That’s okay, honey, we’ll take care of it.”
Mom hastily arrived a few minutes later, and I, expecting to be taken under her wing like a little duck, and soothed, choked out the same words to her. Her response was one I’ve never forgotten. “Oh my God! What will the neighbors say!” Her words stood like an icy barricade between us for thirty years.
In 1960, a girl getting pregnant “out of wedlock” – OH how I HATE that phrase! – was akin to a boy stealing a car. You couldn’t possibly do anything worse, except murder, perhaps. It was a red-letter shame that scalded the entire family, not only the girl. For after all, wasn’t she raised to KNOW BETTER?? Her parents must, most certainly, be at fault!
The day after I returned to Anchorage I went to find Doug at the grocery store where he worked. His initial delight in seeing me was short lived, and my terse suggestion that we get married was met with strong rebuff. “We can get married, but I’ll divorce you in a few months!” That sounded terrible, and I had a sudden vision of an angry, distant husband who hated me and was never around. My heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach. Well, that was that; I would not bother him about it again.
On the way home I tried to remind myself that he was just a kid – seventeen – and this was a huge bomb to drop on him out of the blue. Yet where did that leave me? There was now no alternative other than Plan B. And although I hadn’t had much time to bond with my baby, the thought of Plan B, where I would have to relinquish him, was terrifying.
The six weeks or so I spent in Anchorage that fall was a prison term. I was not allowed to go anywhere. If I needed magazines or cigarettes, Daddy would pick them up for me on his way home from work.
I called a very dear girlfriend and she came to visit me one afternoon. It was so comforting to pour my heart out to her and have no judgment in return. But when I told Dad about her visit, he was horrified, and I felt even more disgraced when I was forced to ask her to come back to the house for a “chat” with Dad. She did. He was firm, but direct, giving her strict instructions that she was not to breathe a word of my situation to anyone. She never did, not even to her folks, and although they were curious and asked, she never divulged my secret.
After that I was not allowed to contact anyone. We didn’t have company over for dinner. No one was to know of my shameful behavior. If someone happened by, we made up excuses about why I had come home, eventually settling on the pretext that I would be going to work for some woman author who traveled around the Northwest. I’m sure everyone who heard that story was skeptical.
We visited the Salvation Army home for girls on the other side of town, and I scrunched down in the passenger side of the car, terrified the whole way that someone I knew might see me. We scratched it off our list, though, when we realized that I could never leave the place; I might be spotted wandering around town, unwed, with a huge, protruding belly.
We finally decided on the Florence Crittenton Home in Renton, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. In early December I flew back to Seattle where I spent three weeks with Aunt Maureen and Uncle Glynn until a space opened up for me at the maternity home. Those weeks were a blur. Maureen had never raised a child, and was unprepared for my moods. I slept too long each day, probably as much from depression as from the need to sleep. She drank a little more than usual and it was a relief when I was finally able to move into the home.
Attorneys and maternity homes made big bucks off the baby racket in those years. I have no idea how much it cost my parents to put me there, but it was later said that my college education fund took the hit, at least a year’s worth. The unwed mother trade certainly provided a lucrative income stream to those involved. People were anxious to adopt “white” American babies, and there certainly seemed to be a surplus of them available through the numerous maternity homes burgeoning across America. Of course, in many cultures, babies of unwed mothers were absorbed into the family. African American and Hispanic girls were able to keep and support their children. White girls were not. It was a scandalous, untold shame of white, middle class America that babies were “sold” on the legitimate adoption market. Our parents paid for the privilege of selling their grandchildren, usually their first.
I wished I wasn’t white.
Some memories remain of those months. I adored Mrs. Overton, the “headmistress” of the home. She gave me my first copy of “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran and constantly encouraged me. Another girl there from Anchorage would become one of my dearest friends. We were all assigned duties. Mine was dusting and sweeping the dining room, or washing the big pots and pans after dinner. It must have been an old house, with openings in the wall behind the plumbing. Now and then someone would find a rat in the kitchen. Nominal memories of that place were happy: Mrs. Overton, a few of the girls, and gathering around the kitchen table every evening before bedtime, snacking on bananas, warm milk and graham crackers.
The home was situated on top of a long hill that sloped down into a small business district. Among the businesses on that street was a small Woolworth. It became a favorite walk for many of us, weather permitting, as spring buds came along, and my tummy grew ever larger. The small pittance of spending money that I received from home was usually spent on cigarettes or paperbacks or crochet yarn, but I splurged on one occasion and purchased a large, glittery diamond wedding set, so fake that no one in their right mind would have mistaken it for real. We wore our “wedding rings” whenever we ventured out, and made up stories about our husbands who were overseas in the service, or had met some unfortunate, mysterious death. On more than one occasion, neighborhood kids threw rocks at us as we made our way to or fro on the hillside. Eventually, we tried to avoid encounters with them, venturing out only when the kids were in school. We might as well have been labeled prostitutes. One can well imagine what the neighborhood families told their children, or how they threatened their teenage daughters.
We were all required to have some psychological testing, perhaps to discover any mental instability that might be passed along to our children. I’m sure most of us were so traumatized by this time, however, that we were all a little unstable. A tough looking, middle-aged female psychologist who looked like a drill Sergeant, administered the Rorschach Ink Blot Test to me. She also asked me to draw individual pictures of a man and a woman. Maybe it was because I was terribly nervous, or because I’d never tried to draw the human figure before, but my drawings came out looking like the stick figures drawn on the walls of ancient caves. Later, when she called me back to discuss my results, she informed me that I had never made the “transition from bonding with my father back to my mother.” “This is something,” she said, “that naturally happens about the age of six or seven.” I was devastated, and never told my parents about this prognosis, which I was certain marked me as some kind of deviant. The only person I felt I could talk to was my brother, and he came to my rescue with kindness and emotional support.
It’s no wonder my self-esteem took a colossal nose-dive and didn’t recover for years.
As my time drew closer, the more determined I was to keep my baby, and I finally got up enough courage to share this decision with my parents. Their response was not unexpected.
“Under NO circumstances can you come home with that baby!” Dad yelled into the phone. Period! No discussion. After all, what would they tell everyone if I showed up with a baby when I was supposed to have been traveling with some woman writer all over the Northwest for the winter? I still plotted and planned, and had not even come to a final decision when he was born.
When any one of us arrived at the hospital for delivery, the doctors would give us amnesia drugs that were supposed to make us forget the whole experience. In my case, I remember the drive to the hospital, but the few hours past that is a total blank. For some reason, however, the drug started to wear off just after he was born and I remember seeing the doctor put him on my stomach to they could cut the cord. My heart started breaking as I slipped back into twilight sleep.
I spent three days in the hospital with the worst headache of my life from the spinal they had given me, three days crying until I couldn’t breathe, and three days begging to see him, to hold him at least once. As I watched babies being carried to their mothers in other rooms, for me there was no snuggly little baby boy, only hopelessness, grief and depression, and deepening despair.
When I was discharged, I was only allowed to stand for a few minutes and look at him through the glass window of the nursery, forbidden to hold the baby I had carried for nine months.
Nearly a week later, when the adoption papers were shoved in front of me, I still didn’t want to let him go. But there were no options. I couldn’t take him home with me; we would not be welcome. I didn’t have an education; I didn’t have a job let alone a career. I couldn’t support us. I had no family I could depend on; I couldn’t live with my aunt and uncle. And so, as tears streamed down my face, I signed him over.
The lady from the adoption agency told me that they had a wonderful family for him. The father was an accountant, Irish. The mother was of German ancestry. He would be their first child. At least I could rest assured that he would go to a good home immediately and be loved and cared for. I hung on to that knowledge, hoping it was true. These people sold babies for profit, I thought. Could they be trusted to tell birth mothers the truth?
After I gave birth, I flew home to Anchorage. My heart was so heavy it hurt, but there was no opportunity to talk about my pain or grief. It was as if the whole episode had never happened; it was never discussed. I had to lie to friends and acquaintances about the entire winter and spring. It was a time when reality consisted of lies and denial.
Not long after, I started dating John, a fellow classmate from high school, and we fell in love and got married just before Christmas that year. Sometimes I wonder how much was love and how much was my desperate need to have another baby.
It took me decades before I could talk about my son to more than just a few trusted friends. A deep, gray sadness haunted me for years, overshadowing decisions I made along the way, and marked the beginning point of years of dysfunctional choices on my part. It was an eternity before I felt safe enough, that society felt safe enough and I could start telling the truth about my life. Only then did the guilt thrust upon me by unknowing parents and an unforgiving culture start to recede and I was able to recapture some of the self-esteem I said goodbye to decades before.
I found my son, some years ago. He is well and happy and has a good life, better than I could have given him at the time. But I often think of that period and of the tens or more of thousands of other women who have endured that same fate. And of their children, legally sold in a culture that profited off of a young girl’s shame.
About Jana Ariane Nelson
Jana Ariane Nelson (nee Janet Griffith) moved to Anchorage in 1948 with her parents, Donald and Denney Griffith, and her twin brother, Jack.
Jana worked in the legal field in Anchorage before moving to Oregon. She retired from Lane Community College in Eugene where she was the Mathematics Division Coordinator.
Her daughter, Naomi Sweetman, is the Alaska DARE Coordinator and her son, John Nelson, is a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Anchorage. Jana has 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild in the Anchorage area. Her brother, Jack, runs the Griffith Lab at the University of North Carolina.
For more stories of early Anchorage, visit growingupanchorage.com.