“My water broke late in the afternoon, around rush hour on Lexington Avenue,” Peggy said.
Peggy is my birth mother. She surrendered me for adoption when she was nineteen. When we met, it was 1996 and I was twenty-nine years old; she was forty-eight. We met in New York City, where Peggy had rented a room at the Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotel in midtown. She said she wanted to be a few blocks from the Guild of the Infant Saviour, the Catholic unwed mothers’ home where she spent four months leading up to my birth, because she wanted to “show me around the old neighborhood.” I had given birth to my first son less than four months ago, and that weekend marked the first time I had ever been away from him.
Peggy told me about the day I was born. “I was trying to hail a cab with my ‘baby buddy,’” she said. I imagined two teenaged girls, both swollen and pregnant, one waddling to the curb and waving a frantic arm for a cab while my birth mother’s water rolled down between her thighs and into her shoes.
“We had no contact with anybody, no family contact, nobody,” Peggy said. “That was a rule.”
The Guild of the Infant Saviour was located on East 52nd Street between First and Second Avenues. Peggy’s parents sent her to live there when she couldn’t hide her pregnant belly anymore. She told me she had been keeping the pregnancy secret as best she could, but at five months the borrowed girdles and large sweatshirts couldn’t hide her growing bump.
“Call us when you have the baby and we’ll send you money for a ticket home,” her mother had said at the Metro-North train station, before shoving a one-way ticket into her hand.
Years later I would search for photos of what the Guild had looked like, but I would find only one from New York City’s Municipal Archives—a photo from the 1940s, taken for tax purposes, showing a pair of mid-nineteenth-century Italianate brownstones missing their stoops. In the photo they stood like widows holding hands. The window shades were drawn—as though the entire place had its eyes half-closed. Along with its triplet next door, made prettier by the grandly swooping front staircase, the buildings formed a quiet facade on a normal Manhattan street. There were about twenty unwed mothers living at the Guild when Peggy was there with me in 1966.
“I remember smells and boredom,” Peggy said. “We sat around waiting for our babies to be born. No joy in the waiting because we knew we were giving them up. Everybody smoked like chimneys. We sat in a dismal cloud of smoke in the living room on some old couches watching a black and white TV.”
I imagined the girls perched like fat robins on musty, donated sofas. They did their own laundry, made their meals, and cleaned. I could almost smell the cigarette smoke and Lysol. Changing the channel probably meant heaving themselves up to flip through television shows, adjust the rabbit ears, or tune the three channels that marked their tedious days.
A typical Monday of TV watching in 1966 went like this:
Morning: I Love Lucy, Supermarket Sweep, The Dating Game, Father Knows Best
Afternoon: As the World Turns, General Hospital, You Don’t Say!, The Match Game
Evening: Bonanza , I’ve Got a Secret, My Three Sons, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes .
Peggy told me the nuns rarely let the girls out of the Guild by themselves. The few times Peggy convinced them to let her go out alone, she walked to the Central Park Zoo, sat on the bench, and smoked cigarettes for hours watching the penguins glide silently underwater.
The Guild of the Infant Saviour, c. 1940. Photo courtesy New York City Municipal Archives
“My dad thought the nuns named me for the archangel Gabriel,” I said.
“Actually, I named you after Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, a feminist icon of mine,” Peggy said. “I must have been reading her biography at the time. I had a notebook of names for my future kids. I think Megan was one of those names, but there was also Daisy, Gabriella, Amanda, Calliope, Ariadne—the Greek goddess who untangled the spider’s web, or maybe it was the Gordian knot.” When she said, “The nuns were my first feminist icons,” I nearly choked on my wine.
She gasped when she realized I had grown up less than two miles from her childhood home in Norwalk, Connecticut. “My mother played bridge with your grandmother!” she said, slapping her knee and lighting another cigarette.
Peggy told me we were Hungarian and that we were related somehow to Bela Lugosi, who, she remembered, pressed quarters into the palm of her hand at family functions.
I had brought my pink Adopted Child’s Baby Book to show Peggy photos of me as a little girl. She marveled at the sterling silver baby gifts from Tiffany my mother had listed in her careful, cursive handwriting.
“My mother would have been so proud to know you were adopted into a better social class,” she said, exhaling smoke around her head.
I was confused. Why would Peggy’s mother care about what social class I belonged to when she didn’t seem to have wanted me to begin with? I realize now that this was just the beginning of the stories that would never add up, of falsehoods disguised as fact, and of memory as a coping mechanism. Back then, though, I was simply searching every inch of Peggy’s face for some sign of family resemblance.
We walked around the neighborhood and she showed me where the Guild had been located. The facade had been redone years ago and housed the Hungarian Consulate; its red, white, and green flag whipped and snapped overhead.
Peggy told me she didn’t sign away her parental rights until I was about six months old. She said she tried to keep me and visited frequently, “signing me out” and “trying to make a go of it with me herself.” She said that the sixties weren’t a good time for someone trying to be a single mother living in New York City.
I’m not sure it has ever been a good time to be a single mother, I thought to myself.
The author at approximately four months old, at her foster home in North Canaan, CT.
Years later, after I had done more research through Catholic Charities, the agency that facilitated my adoption, I would find out that I had spent the first seven months of my life in a foster home in North Canaan, Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. It was nearly three hours from New York City. My legs were in braces that were supposed to heal my hips from dysplasia. The caseworker at Catholic Charities who was helping me with my research told me they had hoped this would ensure I wouldn’t limp. To me, it seemed doubtful that Peggy could even have made that kind of journey to visit me, much less bring me back to her apartment and try to “make a go of it.”
“It feels strange to tell you this,” said the caseworker, “but you would have been considered a special needs child back in the sixties.”
If my legs hadn’t healed—if I had limped—the chances of me being “unadoptable” were high. If that had been the case, she told me that I could have spent my life in an institution. But I did heal, and I was placed in a lovely home, even though I had to wear the braces on my legs when I slept.
My adoptive mom and dad had been vetted and selected by the caseworkers, and I would meet them for the first time at the Catholic Charities offices in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I was seven months old.
“The caseworkers brought you there with me to say goodbye,” said Peggy, “but I wouldn’t sign and there was a huge thing about that, so they all went out into another room to talk about it. There was this huge pile of papers on the desk. I flipped through them and was convinced you were with some family named Starro in East Lyme, Connecticut. I remember them bringing you back in and saying ‘Don’t get attached, don’t get attached.’”
Peggy said her mother came into the room and told her, “You sign. Or, you know, that’s it.” So she signed the papers.
Later, in the courtroom where the adoption was formalized, Peggy said she watched the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror. My adoptive parents had arrived after Peggy signed the papers. They did not meet each other. We, now a family, were on the other side.
The girls at the Guild all gave birth at a charity hospital on the West Side in Hell’s Kitchen called St. Clare’s. It was located on 51st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. I wanted to visit the places Peggy had been, so I went to the hospital where I was born.
Founded in 1934, St. Clare’s Hospital was a healing crossroads for artists, indigents, and the working classes of Manhattan. In the late 1980s, New York State and federal health officials designated it the first comprehensive AIDS center in the country—the largest hospital at the time (250 beds) to be devoted to the treatment of AIDS. But in the 1990s, time was running out for the hospital. It was too small, too antiquated, and too expensive to operate. The Archdiocese merged St. Clare’s with St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, and the little neighborhood hospital’s decline accelerated. It ceased operation in 2007.
When I got there in 2009, it was abandoned. Squatters were living there, the windows were boarded up, and the doors were chained together. I thought hard about squeezing through one of the broken doors. I wanted to know what the maternity ward looked like. I wanted to see it with adult eyes and stand in a spot that might allow me to feel an umbilical connection to my own flesh and blood. When I shared this idea with Peggy, she told me I was crazy. So I asked her to remember it for me.
“I remember a big rectangular room with eight metal beds, four on each side, and a linoleum floor; a crucifix over each bed; and the chart hanging from the end of the bed,” she said. “There were no distinguishing features except for a big window at the end. The nursery was down the hall—big picture windows with lots of newborns lined up with pink or blue knitted caps.”
Over the original transom that bears its chiseled name—St. Clare’s Hospital—was a life-sized cement statue of St. Clare of Assisi holding a chubby infant in the crook of her left arm. She hovered, barefoot, above the faded blue awning like a forgotten Madonna.
“My labor was long, about sixteen hours, and about the worst pain I remember,” said Peggy. “It was like shitting a watermelon. If anybody ever had a second baby I could not tell you why. I don’t know how anyone would go through it again.
“I was in that clinic with every doctor on earth up to his elbow down there,” she said. “I was like the practice dummy. And I’d said originally that I didn’t want any drugs to the guy that helped me through the labor—his name was Dr. Moon; he was Korean—and then I kept saying ‘Dr. Moon, give me those drugs,’ and he’d say, ‘Now, now you said you didn’t want any drugs, so just breathe.’
“I was in a labor room with four beds, one occupied by a Puerto Rican woman who was yelling her head off. I remember asking the nurse if there was something they could do to help her. The nurse told her to ‘offer up’ the pain and ‘God would reward her with a wonderful baby.’”
They were both wheeled into the delivery rooms at about the same time.
“I remember someone saying, ‘This one is nine fifteen and the other is nine twenty-five.’ And I remember saying, ‘Wow! No wonder she was screaming, a nine-pound, twenty-five-ounce baby. That’s big!’ That’s how out of it I was.”
During Peggy’s delivery, she told me, the doctor performed three episiotomies—one on each side and one up the back. As she told me this, I chanted silently: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. I imagined many of the Guild girls carried these same scars.
I remembered the birth of my own son, who was delivered by emergency C-section. My doctor held him up for me to see and said, “Judging by the size of his head, I think you’re lucky it worked out this way.” It made me wonder about the trauma Peggy may have gone through having me (with my own generously sized head). I wondered if she would have had a C-section had she not been a charity case.
The papers listing the details of my birth showed that I had been a high forceps delivery. It was the kind of delivery that resulted from the baby being under stress. It also resulted in extreme tearing and trauma to the mother. By today’s standards it may have been a routine C-section to reduce the risk to mother and baby. A forceps delivery can trigger a type of facial palsy in the baby, causing their mouth to droop on one side. This explained the sneer I have lived with my entire life, the one that enticed the boys on the school bus to call me “Sidecar,” a jeering name that stuck with me throughout high school.
In the mid-sixties, birth control for Peggy meant condoms or a diaphragm, neither of which I imagined she used with any regularity. Abortion was illegal. My birth father, according to Peggy, had joined the Navy. “His parents called me a slut,” Peggy says. That word stung me just to hear it. They challenged her parents to prove it was their son’s baby. I remember gasping audibly when Peggy told me, but she waved it off like she was made of Teflon.
“When you were born I called my mother and told her I had a daughter,” Peggy said. “She wanted to have nothing to do with it. That was it. One day you were there, the next day you were gone.”
The Guild girls were not allowed back there after they had their babies at St. Clare’s. Peggy spent five days in the hospital and then took the train, alone, back to her parents’ house in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“Depending on circumstances, I guess you went back where you came from,” Peggy said. “I imagine that many girls were picked up by their parents.”
Her borrowed maternity clothes, “all raggy things,” were returned by the hospital to the Guild, laundered by the remaining unwed mothers and placed in a “found box” for incoming mothers. They even recycled underwear, Peggy told me.
I was born four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York State.
St. Clare’s Hospital, Hell’s Kitchen, New York I began retracing Peggy’s steps by visiting the places in New York City where she went when she was pregnant with me. I thought it might provide me solace, or give me a sense of where I had come from. I visited St. Clare’s because it was the charity hospital where I was born; I visited the Guild of the Infant Saviour because it was where Peggy spent four months of her pregnancy. I drove by the house where Peggy grew up in East Norwalk, Connecticut. It was a modestly sized nondescript tract house in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood across from Devine’s Dairy Farm, which was owned by my adopted father’s cousin. My dad spent summers helping out on that farm.
Peggy’s childhood home was little more than a mile from the home I was adopted into. Did that happen by design? I wondered. It was a chilling realization to think that I could have walked to her house as a child, had I known.
Most of these places as she knew them are gone now. St. Clare’s was a shell of its former self, waiting to become high-end apartments; the Guild was absorbed into the three buildings that now house the Hungarian Consulate; Peggy’s childhood home was renovated.
These places pain me like ghost limbs. There has been no sense of closing the circle, or of finding answers. They are pieces of my history that have vanished, leaving nothing but a vapor trail in their absence.
At dusk, I walked east on 51st Street toward 8th Avenue and away from the now abandoned St. Clare’s Hospital. In the distance, getting closer with each footfall, I saw a ten-foot-high neon cross. The sign—a landmark in the city—hummed on and off. As I got closer it flickered its message: get right with god.
I stopped for a minute. I smelled scuffed gum on the sidewalk; faint body odor pollinated the air, and I could feel neighborhood eyes on me. I watched the red and white sign unfold its message across the darkening sky. I kept walking and turned back to look up at the other side, which was now fully lit. It read: sin will find you out.
St Paul‘s Mission, Hell‘s Kitchen, New York. Photo courtesy Thomas Rinaldi, New York Neon blog