How A Mother’s Shame Can Morph Over Time

As I walked out of my mother’s room in Mt. Sinai hospital that summer day in 1982, I ran into my cousin, who was a surgical resident on her floor. My mother was recovering from the second surgery in six months. The cancer could not be stopped.

“How’s Mom doing?

He shook his head. “She will get out of the hospital this time, but she won’t go home the next time.”

My father left her room and came out into the corridor. Dad and I were on our way out to dinner together. We stepped into the elevator, eyes facing the closing doors.

“What did Charlie tell you?”

“He said, it’s curtains for Rosie.”

Neither of us took our eyes from the elevator door, but we leaned toward each other. I was relieved to know the truth from Charlie, and my dad was relieved not to have to deliver the news to me. We jumped into a cab and headed for a Chinese restaurant on 86th Street.

“Your mother lived a long life,” Dad said as the drinks were served. I nodded vehemently. She had lived an amazing life.

“Longer than you know.” I looked up. “She lied about her age. She’s really 77.”

I was also glad to know that she got all the way to 77. Seventy-three seemed awfully young to die.

“There’s more you need to know, and I want your advice,” my father said as the food was delivered. He had my attention. We both were eating the diced food with our chopsticks as we talked. Small pieces are easier to swallow when you are holding back tears.

“When Rosie was in graduate school, she got pregnant. Columbia would have thrown her out of the Ph.D program if she were having a baby, and you know what her degree meant to your mom. We decided on an abortion.” This was in 1934. Abortions were illegal, but their good friend, an OB/GYN, performed it at home — on my father’s giant desk. They covered the desk with a thick layer of newspaper. I gulped.

“How does that make you feel?” I was fine. “You know, Dad, you and Mom were bound to have only two children, and if she had carried that baby, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. So it’s more than OK.” At that time, over 30 years ago, I didn’t consider the impact that abortion might have had on their attitude toward my brother, who was born two years later. In some way he must have been a replacement child. That might help to explain some of the expectations they had for their son.

There was more to this. My father and mother were struggling over whether to leave that episode in the autobiography my mother was writing. She had become very close to some high-ranking members of the Catholic Church through her devotion to Girls’ Town of Italy, and whenever they visited Rome, they had an audience with the Pope. Now she wanted to keep the story of her abortion secret. A long-ago decision, seemingly made easily, was causing her shame a half-century later.

My dad, an ardent feminist, wanted her to include the story of her abortion in the book. He wanted women who faced the same dilemma to get courage from my mother’s story. He was not at all attached to her friends in the Church. Maybe this was his way to separate her from then. What did I think?

I was torn. As a feminist, I agreed with my father. But as an editor, I have always believed that the writer should make her own decision. I followed the editor’s Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. Including the story in her book would have made my mother uncomfortable. That is the last thing she needed at the time, and so that’s what I told my father. He listened to me. He never bothered her about it again. She didn’t live long enough to finish the book, and it was never published. (Her written legacy was 25 years’ worth of advice columns published in the New York Post under her married name, Dr. Rose N. Franzblau, and it resides in the library at Columbia.)

I can tell this story now, because my parents and my mother’s dear friend the Monseigneur are long dead. The lesson I take from it today is that shame, the great maker of secrets, can morph over time. I think she was fine with these events until she found a group that might judge her, and then she wanted nothing to do with the incident. I can understand that completely. It’s a good lesson to learn. Everybody struggles with revelation and secrecy. Changes in the values of the culture are central to what make something worthy of suppressing.

So what do I think about that sad Chinese dinner in 1982? I stand by my advice. We have a right to our privacy, which is a different thing from a secret withheld from family members. Mom and Dad made that decision together, and they didn’t hide the truth from each other. A woman born in 1902 was not about to tell her children about this, and we all survived.

Finding out the truth about her age was a wonderful surprise. We had always mistrusted what she said about her date of birth. The stories of her childhood and the historical facts never jibed. My kids used to search through her drawers looking for evidence of her true age. They never found it.

When I shared this secret with them, we loved her more. They were pleased to know that their suspicions were valid. And we all got to know here a little better. She was vain, and she was strong, and she lived the life she wanted.