It was February 2003, and I would soon be celebrating the four-year anniversary of my reunion with my thirty-four-year-old daughter, Joanne. Much healing had taken place over the course of the past few years, thanks to the help of my therapist, Katie. In an effort to further my healing process, I recognized the need to return to St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mother’s, and decided to just do it! Just get in the car and go. But something held me back. Something told me to first place a call. For what, I didn’t quite know. I just felt it was the right thing to do. When I finally dialed the number, of course no human was available to answer my call and I was offered a menu of choices. I randomly selected an extension. “Good afternoon, how may I help you?” said the voice at the other end of the phone.
Clearing my throat, I attempted to say something intelligible. “Could I please have directions from Rt.93N?” I barely croaked.
The friendly voice began to direct me but, for some reason, I wasn’t listening. After hearing a jumble of words, the words, “What is your interest in visiting St. Mary’s?” came through loud and clear.
Unnerved, I was leery to admit that I simply needed to see the old place, walk the corridors and into my old room. What if it wasn’t allowed and I’m barred from visiting went through my mind. Fortunately, my secret past of lies was over, and I told the truth. Surprisingly enough, she was thrilled to hear that I had once lived at St. Mary’s and invited me to visit when she could give me a guided tour. I couldn’t believe my luck. I then shared with her both my fear of telling her the truth, as well as how I had honestly thought that if I just showed up, looking pathetic and sad, they wouldn’t have the heart to throw me out. We shared a chuckle and set a date for the following Saturday for my long-needed visit to the place I called home during the last eleven weeks of my pregnancy.
Feeling it would have been far too intimidating to go alone, I was fortunate enough to be going with three other reunited birth moms, two of whom are also alumni of St. Mary’s. The fourth girl “served her time” at the Florence Crittenton Home, in Boston. We decided to go together to offer the support we were certain we would each need to pass through that phase of our healing journeys.
I didn’t sleep well the night before thinking about walking those halls again. As much as I had always wanted to return, I was scared. Of what exactly, I didn’t know. Can one ever really go back? I wondered. Was I afraid that all I remembered to be true wouldn’t be? That my memories were fantasy, not fact? Those thoughts unnerved me, as I had become comfortable with the things I remembered.
On the ride to meet Chris, who lived at St. Mary’s in 1969, my mind wandered back to 1968. Back to being pregnant and afraid. Back to being a new mother, holding my beautiful baby girl and wondering what was to become of us. Before long, the tears were streaming down my face. Not the sobbing, out-of-control kind of tears and crying, just the sad tears from an old wound. By the time I picked up Chris, my tears had stopped but my face was still all blotchy, so there was no choice but to share with her what I was feeling. She laughed and admitted that she, too, cried on her way to meet me. We talked a little about what we expected to experience at St. Mary’s and then went on to other things.
As promised, we were greeted upon arrival. The young woman was very obliging, and had already gathered some old photos of St. Mary’s being DEMOLISHED in 1994. I couldn’t believe my eyes. St. Mary’s was gone! The only home I had ever openly shared with Joanne. The only place I could ever admit I was her mother. In its place was a playground for the children who live in the new St. Mary’s “Shelter for Women & Children,” housed at the now closed St. Margaret’s hospital next door. I was sick, stunned, and disappointed. I so wanted so to walk the halls, see my room and face my fears of long ago, and couldn’t understand why she hadn’t told me this on the phone. Perhaps she didn’t realize we didn’t know it was gone. She quickly offered to take us up to the delivery rooms and maternity ward.
The room where I had stayed as an inpatient is now a private sitting room. Although the nursery windows remained the same, the nursery had been converted into office space. Standing at those windows, I closed my eyes and touched the glass with my fingertips. Memories flooded back. I felt weak in the knees as I envisioned my precious baby girl lying there, all bundled up, in her little basinet in the back row. Yes, the back row, where all the St. Mary’s babies were kept…kept like second-class citizens. I recalled so vividly seeing my appointed, fake name, “Stella,” printed on the birth information card at her head, in the crib, and how angry, hurt, and insignificant that had made me feel. To think, for nearly three months, I had tirelessly fought in vein to keep my name, because it was so important to have my real name, Susan, on that card. In essence, looking back now, I had already lost my daughter. I had spent most every minute she wasn’t with me in my room in front of those windows. The first couple of days, I had to tap on the window to have the nurse roll her crib to the front. After that, whenever she saw me, she gladly brought my little “Madlyn Jeanne” up to the front so I could watch her sleep. I spent so much time at these windows that, on more than one occasion, I accompanied the nurse as she rolled the bassinet back to my room, when it was time to feed her.
Going upstairs to the labor and delivery rooms, the knot in my stomach was getting tighter and tighter, I was so frightened of what feelings and unexplored memories might come next. But, once there, I couldn’t distinguish one room from the other, and quickly remembered how drugged I had been for most of my time spent in labor. Just one more fact that still bothers me today.
While riding down in the elevator at the end of our tour, one of the resident teenage mothers had her newborn son in a carry-all. We were introduced and she was told the reason for our visit. When she learned we had left our babies at St.Mary’s years ago, it’s was easy to see by the disgusted look on her face, that she was shocked. Her only reply was, “You’d have to kill me first before anyone took my baby away from me.”
I could feel her power, her strength, and the determination in her words and I thanked God that the narrow minded thinking of the 60’s, that nearly destroyed my life, was gone. All I could do was smile warmly and say, “Good for you!”
Upon leaving, I was grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but felt unexpectedly empty. The peace I had hoped to gain wasn’t to be found. It had been torn down and trucked away, along with any and all validation of my memories of St. Mary’s. So, maybe it was a good thing I didn’t go back sooner. Good that I never knew it was to be demolished. An earlier visit might have changed my memories of St. Mary’s and influenced my writing in “The Same Smile.” As a result, my interpretation of my time spent there will forever remain a treasure, a cherished treasure in my mind.