The Family Secret That Made Me a Proponent for Choice
After my mother died, I wondered if she had ever visited her mother’s grave in Maine, where she grew up. It seems strange now that I did not know the answer. After all, visiting the graves of family members is a Jewish tradition, part of the routine of honoring the dead. But, then again, my mother’s mother’s death was not routine.
My grandmother died in 1921 from an illegal abortion. She had four little girls, the youngest of whom was 15 months old and the next youngest, my mother, was about to turn three. I assume that she just couldn’t go through another pregnancy, but I don’t really know. This was not a back-alley abortion. My grandfather took her to a doctor, and she was given the plant Citrrullus colocynthis to induce an abortion. But the dosage was wrong; she took too much.
Her death, never mind the fact that she had died from an abortion, was the deepest of secrets in my family. Her very existence was denied. My mother told me much later that my grandfather had a nervous breakdown after her mother died. But he quickly got remarried – to a woman who was not happy about taking care of four children. I knew none of this during my childhood.
It seems that my mother’s only connection to Judaism as a child stemmed from the fact that her grandfather, her mother’s father, taught his four granddaughters to read Hebrew. Maybe that was his way of connecting with his daughter. My step-grandmother had a Christmas tree.
My oldest brother figured out that my mother’s “real mother,” as she was called when we learned about her, was deceased. He counted the yahrzeit candles on Yom Kippur. As far as we knew, only one grandparent, my father’s father, had died, but there were two yahrzeit candles. When he asked about it, my mother told him the truth, but he never told me.
The secret was revealed after my bat mitzvah. I grew up in a Conservative congregation – Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA – and starting in the late 1950s girls could have a bat mitzvah. It wasn’t like a boy’s bar mitzvah. I didn’t read from the Torah. I read the Haftarah on a Friday night. My grandfather died at age 76, on my birthday, three days before my bat mitzvah. It was not sudden, but my mother had hoped he would not die that week. My mother did her best to normalize the event. I remember not wanting her to wear black. My mother was a classy lady. She wore a black dress with a blue stripe down the left side. And she asked people to come back to our house to celebrate with us.
Shortly after, my mother became hysterical – crying and yelling, seemingly out of the blue. That is when I learned about Ethel, my mother’s real mother. That is when I learned of her death, though there was no occasion to mourn. My mother had kept her feelings inside because she needed her stepmother to continue to care for her father. And then there was an explosion.
My mother was, as Hope Edelman termed it in her book, a “motherless daughter.” Edelman wrote: “When a mother dies, a daughter’s mourning never completely ends.” Yet, my mother was never able to openly grieve when she was a child. She had a miserable childhood and struggled with this loss throughout her life. Edelman also writes: “Without a mother or mother-figure to guide her, a daughter also has to piece together a female self-image of her own.” And she did. My mother was smart, stylish, funny, and a phenomenal hostess. My father came from a religious background, and she hosted all Jewish holiday dinners. She made a life for herself and all of us. And we never knew how much she suffered from the loss of her mother.
A few years ago, my husband Eric and I were going to Maine on vacation. I thought that we should see if we could find my grandmother’s grave. It was surprisingly easy. There is a website called Documenting Maine Jewry and it had her family listed, including the cemetery and exact location of Ethel Cortell’s grave. We went and there it was. Standing all alone. No graves next to it. The headstone said she was 34 years old when she died. So young. So alone. And no reference to her being a wife and mother.
It finally was time for me to mourn my grandmother. For me to become a strong proponent of choice. To march in Washington in support of abortion rights for women. To become an activist on behalf of my mother and her siblings. To stand up for Ethel S. Cortell. May her memory be for a blessing.
Monday, January 22, marks the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision that legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.