Monday, December 14, 2009

The Ballad of Baby Jane Doe

My name was Jane, on the day I was born - Baby Jane Doe, to be exact - born on the 22nd day of that month in that year. I know I’ve joked about it before, but it’s true.

When I was born in the latter part of the 1960’s, good boys and girls dated only within their race, and saved themselves for marriage; unwed motherhood was like a scarlet letter, and abortion was a crime reserved for the rich and the desperate.

I picture the mother I’ll never know: a hippie-chick flower child, with hazel-green eyes and marijuana-opened mind…tuned in and turned on, unlike some people, thank you very much! “Living my life on my own terms for a change – so refreshing after all those years spent suffering under the unreasonable edicts of the parental proletariat! Really, mom and pop are such squares; what do they know of our modern world – indeed, what ever could they know!? Think of how long they duped us – never so much as blinkinganeye as they lied to us, year after year, about that fascist Santa Claus!! Ha ha ha! What else were they lying to us about, hmmm? Negroes, probably, and how perfectly awful they are. I’ve found them to be not nearly so frightening as they’d led me to believe; indeed, they’re not frightening at all… rather groovy, actually…”

One such groovy lad had her particularly enchanted. On summer evenings, in the moments that followed the spending of their passion, she’d gaze in awe upon his dark, drowsy beauty and nearly begin to cry. She believed that he and she might become a civil rights power couple, and in the end, make her bigoted mother proud.

But boys often lie and leave…and mothers are so often hard to please…

There is no magic rewind button or be-gone-baby spell to make a pregnancy vanish – and so, a woman faces one eternal truth upon finding herself with child: that child will emerge from her womb either dead or alive. Either way, the road to getting unpregnant isn’t nearly as pleasant as the path to getting pregnant may have been.

I imagine my mother’s face – increasingly pinched and drawn as she missed one period, then another; suddenly unable to make contact with her baby’s daddy; and the shocked, pained expressions that swept across her parents’ faces upon learning that their daughter was pregnant with some Negro’s bastard – right around Christmas time.

How perfectly dreadful! People talk, after all – even in progressive college towns – and next steps needed to be determined quickly to prevent the entire family from becoming the local laughingstock. Out of necessity, a life-long lie was spawned for the safekeeping of the family secret. I can hear my grandmother practicing her lines in the mirror, rehearsing before her Wednesday night bowling league recital. “Oh, yes, she’s off studying at Lyons this semester, and having a simply marvelous time!”

Meanwhile, my mother languished at a home for wayward girls, waiting out the remainder of her pregnancy in anonymous exile, reading teach-yourself-French books and playing solitaire. As her due date approached, she would sleep fitfully…dreaming vividly of the brown baby that moved within her womb, and having nightmares of running after the lover who’d forsaken her.

After laboring to bring me into this world, my mother cradled me in her arms. For a few fleeting moments, she studied my face for traces of him and traces of her…laughing at the shock of black unruly hair on my head. My newborn fingers unfurled and took hold of her finger, and her eyes stung hot with sudden tears. For an awful moment that she’d forever remember, my mother doubted the choices she’d made for us.

But it was too late; the deed was done.

Glimpsing a dangerous bond in the very process of forming, the nice lady from the orphanage came walking up briskly from across the room; and in one fluid, practiced motion, lifted my swaddled form up and out of my mother’s arms and reach. “Wait!” my mother sobbed, but for naught. The nice lady never slowed down or missed a beat…and as she walked away holding me, sang out with a false note of cheer, “Don’t worry, dear…everything will be just fine…!”

And just like that, my mother was my mother no more…and I, instantly orphaned.

The once-wayward girl found her way back home again, to the open arms of her parents. Only once did anyone ever speak again of the situation.

My grandmother came walking up to see my mother quietly weeping. “Why, dear, whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, I guess I’m just a little blue, mom,” said my mother, weakly.

Mother looked daughter squarely in the face. “Now you listen here, girl, and you listen good! It will hurt for a while, baby, but not forever! Best to forget all about that Negro boy and his child, just like he forgot all about you; put them both far from your mind, like an uneasy dream. If you don’t, no decent White boy will ever want you.”

And for one rare, wounded moment, they embraced.

But my mother never stopped wondering, whatever happened to Baby Jane?


The above is almost entirely fiction – a make-believe story that’s easier on my soul than the other two possibilities; that my illegitimate creation was the result of either my mother’s easy behavior or forcible rape.

My original birth certificate lists me as Baby Jane Doe, my mother as “Caucasian Female”, and my father as “Negro Male.” I was brought from Alamosa to the El Paso County Orphanage that was filled, presumably, with other babies named either John or Jane Doe. Jane Doe I’d remain until my adoption 11 months later…

…actually, deep down inside, Jane Doe I’d remain for the rest of my life.

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