I graduated from Montclair High School in 1959, and here are the stories of two women who graduated around the same time – both of them became pregnant shortly after high school and gave up their babies for adoption. The first story is about a childhood friend, Miriam.
As young girls, Miriam and I galloped around Black’s Woods acting out fantastical scenarios about cowboys and queens. When we were both just learning to cook, we liked to make sugar cookies, and escaped into the basement to eat half the dough. It felt illicit and we hid that part of it from her mother, a retired Swiss pediatrician. The family had come to the U.S. because her father worked as a chemist at a pharmaceutical firm nearby.
When Miriam moved on to high school, two years before I did, I lost touch with her. Neighbors were mostly disconnected from each other on Lorraine Avenue, and I didn’t know anything more about her until five or six years later, when I learned she was in big trouble.
She had gotten pregnant by a married boyfriend, and they concocted a plan to pretend that Miriam died in a boating accident. The boyfriend would get the insurance money. After Miriam disappeared when a boat sank, the insurance company was suspicious but could not prove malfeasance, so the police told her parents that in the absence of a body and without proof of fraud, Miriam would be considered missing and presumed dead.
The parents would not accept this, and searched for her. They found her several months later waiting on tables within an hour’s drive of Montclair. She and her boyfriend were brought to trial, and during the Court proceedings she was nine months pregnant. The boyfriend went to jail, but the Court was lenient with Miriam. Part of the settlement (I don’t know whether it was her decision, or her parents’ or the Court’s) was that she had to give up the baby.
This stranger-than-fiction plot was happening right up the street, but I heard nothing more until I ran into Miriam on a bus coming out from New York several years later. I was happy to see her – she was a friend, and I had worried about her, but didn’t want to interfere in what she might consider a private matter. Miriam was working as a secretary in New York and hoping for something better. She was living with her parents. Imagine the humiliation of living with parents whom you had misled into thinking you were dead! Even more odd, Miriam’s mother knew better than anyone what it would feel like to lose a child with no substantial hope of ever seeing her again.
Miriam seemed embarrassed to see me. Perhaps she fit the description of “relinquishing mothers” provided on page 209 of The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler: “…high levels of unresolved grief in women were found to correlate with ‘lack of opportunity to express feelings about the loss, the lack of finality of the loss (the child continues to exist), the perception of coercion, and the resulting guilt and shame over the surrender [of the child].’”
Many years later I learned that Miriam had not married or had any more children. Unless her fortunes changed later in life, she thus joins the 30% of “relinquishing mothers” for whom the relinquished child is their only child. For these mothers, the pain never ends.
In my next post, I will tell the story of Susan.