I know that self-disclosure can be a dangerous thing. With all that is going on in Texas, South Dakota, and other communities across the country, I feel a need to go there with a couple of personal stories. First and foremost, it is not my intent to debate right or wrong. Second, all I can really do is tell you how it was in my life. Third, pray that you don’t have to make the sorts of difficult decisions I have had to make. Finally, wish you the best possible outcome if you have faced or are facing similar circumstances, or know someone in such a situation.
It was 1975, and I was living in an orphanage, the Ethel Harpst Home, in the North Georgia Mountains. I had been in foster care for several years after a few years with an abusive step-parent on the heels of my mother’s death. I don’t believe, at that time, I knew what love was anymore. I felt love as a child and had loving grandparents, but there had been enormous fear and loneliness. At fifteen, I wanted to know love. I wanted to feel loved.
I met a guy at school. He was popular and his family was prominent. He jumped through hoops at the Harpst Home to be able to date me, meeting with the house parents and the home’s administrator. He wrote letters and his parents wrote letters. I felt immensely desirable. First, house dates for months, then away dates.
Then, on about the third away date, I was date raped…but he “loved” me, and I was just “confused”. Sex was supposed to be fun. It didn’t matter that my faith had indicated to me that I should remain a virgin until marriage. I had been violated, but he “loved” me. He bought me flowers, candy and jewelry. He called me twice a day. We had mutual friends and they were all having sex. It was the sexual revolution. Birth control pills had come out in 1960, so by 1975 everybody was on them, but me. To take birth control pills would mean admitting that I was having sex, and I could not do that. By March of 1976, I was pregnant. The Baptist Church I had been attending closed its doors to me. After all, what a horrible influence I would be to the other young women.
“Free love” was trendy, and casual sex, once forbidden, was becoming commonplace. Roe versus Wade had decriminalized abortion in 1974, and birth control was relatively easy; however, neither was readily accessible. I did have a Social Worker, Shelia Turner, who spoke to me about options. My boyfriend could be arrested for statutory rape. I could have an abortion, and not leave Harpst Home or disrupt my life in any way. I could go to an unwed mother’s house in Atlanta, give the baby up for adoption and return to the Harpst Home to complete my education. I had a $17,000.00 scholarship to Wesleyan and my teachers were encouraging a career in journalism. The option to have the baby and keep it was not suggested, but it was the option I chose.
My boyfriend was excited to become a father and eagerly offered to marry me. We were wed in the United Methodist Church. I stayed in school, and graduated early in advanced classes. At sixteen, December 20, 1976, I gave birth to a healthy bicentennial baby boy. My nineteen year old husband worked at a meat processing plant and he decided to join the Army as his father had been career military.
He completed his Basic Training and MOS in South Carolina. His first duty call was to Stuttgart, Germany. We could not go, my son and I, because he had not been in the service for two years. Before he left, he beat me severely to let me know that he could kill me if I was unfaithful to him while he was gone. I put him on a plane July 11th, 1978. There were tears in our eyes, and at seventeen years old, I took my eighteen month old son home to Cedartown, to our apartment which had a $300.00/month rent, $100.00/month power bill, and no groceries.
I discovered the rent had not been paid for the two months my husband had been home, nor had the power bill. I pawned my wedding band and engagement ring to pay the bills and buy food. A week later, I discovered I was pregnant despite being on birth control pills. I could not believe it. I also received a letter from my husband telling me simply, “I am tired of being married, so go back to South Georgia, Love Bryan. P.S. Take care of my son.” My son’s family refused me any assistance. His mother advised me to, “Woman up, like a military wife should!”
I had no car. There was no public transportation in that small town. I worked two jobs while my neighbor babysat raised my son. I worked as a clerk at the drug store from 1:00 pm until 9:00 pm, had two hours to walk home, eat, change clothes, and walk to my second job as a nursing assistant at the local hospital from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am. Had two hours to walk home, eat, change clothes and be back at the drug store to work from 9:00 am until 1:00 pm…every other day. I had from 2:00 pm until 10:00 pm every other day to be a parent and to sleep. I was earning $2.33 an hour. The clerk job was on a rotating shift and the nursing assistant job was straight nights. I was trying. The bills weren’t getting paid, and we barely had groceries.
The Church, you ask? Turned away.
After a month of these work hours, I went to the health department for assistance and was put on the W.I.C. program. I went to the Department of Family and Children’s service for welfare, but they could not help me because my husband was military. They sent me to the Red Cross.
The Red Cross could not get me food assistance, but they arranged for me to fly to Germany to speak with my husband’s Commanding Officer and tell my husband of my second pregnancy. I left Ft. McClellan, Alabama in a cargo plane alone. My son was with his grandparents.
Once in Stuttgart, I went to the guest house and then to see my husband’s C.O. He told me that Bryan had problems with drugs and alcohol, disobedience, and was heading for a dishonorable discharge if he did not straighten up. He told me that he was supposed to be living on post, but he had been staying off post. He gave me an address.
I took a cab to the address and had it wait, because I did not know what to expect. There was a store with an apartment above where I was to find my husband. I walked up the steps on the side of the building. Once at the top on the landing, I peered through the screen door to see my husband in bed with a woman who could have been my twin. It was a small apartment and the sofa was opened into a bed in the living room. They were sleeping in each other’s arms and appeared to be quite comfortable. I did not wake them. I went back down the stairs, got back into the cab, and went back to see the C.O. I told him what I saw, and that I was pregnant and needed some assistance. He assured me the he would get an allotment check cut out of my husband’s pay. I got back on a cargo plane and came home.
The allotment was $100.00 per month. I quit my job at the drug store. I filed for divorce, and went to the Hillcrest Clinic in Atlanta and had an abortion on August 25, 1978. I could not manage to feed one child alone. I was hopeless and helpless. It was how I chose to help myself and my son. It was my only hope. The divorce took two years. I remarried. My hat is off to women who have been able to raise kids alone. At age fifty-three, I have three grown children, two grandchildren, and retired early from a thirty year career in nursing.
I have no regrets.
You may be wondering why I decided to tell this story. I had an interview published yesterday that made me think about what motivated me to write Red Clay and Roses. Where did the passion come from to tell the stories of Althea, Bonnie Jean, and Sybil? A story that tells of three women with unplanned pregnancies before Roe versus Wade, and before birth control. The secrets they kept. The choices they made. Their consequences. The good doctor and how he illegally served his community. Swamp Witch Wilma and how she did the same. 1954. Do we need to go back there?
Tomorrow I will tell you the rest of the story. Yes, there is more. Tomorrow a young girl dies in my arms.