I was in New Jersey visiting family last weekend. We attended the 2017 Full Circle event at the Matheny Medical and Educational Center where my uncle lives, benefitting the facility’s Arts Access program. It was a beautiful performance, showcasing poetry, theater, dance, and visual art created by residents of the center. These are people with complex developmental disabilities — people who used to be invisible back when America was great.
My grandparents founded the Matheny school for my uncle, who was born with cerebral palsy in 1941. He had come into a world that was ill-equipped to accommodate children with special needs. So my grandfather obtained a GI loan to open a school for my uncle and other similarly afflicted kids. My mother grew up immersed in a therapeutic environment designed to bring my uncle and his peers to their fullest potential.
You cannot help but learn empathy when you grow up in a place like Matheny. These are people who are profoundly affected by their disabilities, people for whom God-given intellectual and creative gifts are often eclipsed by the bodies they’ve received — people deserving of care and respect. Certainly more care and respect than was given to the gentleman mocked by a certain person during his Presidential campaign.
I had to drive by the Trump International Golf Resort in Bedminster on my way to the Matheny event. I may or may not have flipped the bird as I sped by.
I’m working on a new project now — a story about someone in my family whom I have never met.
My mother was adopted, after have been born to an unwed girl in the early 1950s, when America was great. A girl who hid her pregnancy from her family so well that when she went into labor on a Saturday in late September, her mother telephoned the doctor for a house call to see why her daughter was having such a bellyache.
My mother entered the world prematurely — perhaps due to the girl’s corseting, or stress. Or both. The doctor delivered my mother and rushed her to the hospital, where she remained in an incubator for another month before the Matheny family took her home. The girl, who labored and writhed and cried out in pain as her body expelled her sin and the trees outside her window released their autumn leaves — the girl was left behind. She never saw my mother. The girl’s name was Ginger; she had once been a counselor at a Matheny summer camp.
I was a freshman in college when my mother began the search for her birth parents. She hired a private investigator, who helped her with the process of tracking down her roots. I have the artifacts of their work in my office — thick notebooks containing photographs and correspondence, certificates of birth, marriage and death.
I am working on that story now, but suffice it to say that the plot of Ginger’s story resembles gravity. Like a branch dropped from a tree into a river coursing by, dragged under bridges by the cold current and thrown against the jagged edges of rock until finally stopping dead in a silt-choked place.
The narrative we told ourselves once we learned the painful details of Ginger’s life focused on the blessings of adoption — thank God you were raised by someone else — and of course we were right to be grateful for my mother’s adoptive family. But we said this as if her birth mother had been the Titanic, as if the ensuing alcoholism and suspected abusive marriage and mental health issues were inevitable, and had nothing to do with the shunning or the trauma she endured.
We said this as if she’d been bad, like a bruised fruit instead of a person. Like she wasn’t the kind of person who had enough character to work with the disabled.
This project deviates from my usual environmental work, I know. But aside from the fact that this story is part of my own, I am interested in the circumstances surrounding my mother’s birth because I think Ginger’s story is emblematic of a larger thing.
What I mean to say is that I think the way society treats its women is connected to its propensity for violence,
… which is connected to oppression,
… which is connected to exploitation,
…which is connected to destruction.
There’s parallel refrain in the study of women and earth in our culture. A parallel refrain of consumption and control.
Look at how women and the environment were treated, for example, back when America was great. Or better yet, look at the current policy agenda of the Trump administration.
During my weekend trip to New Jersey, I visited some of the places where Ginger had lived. I started with the house where my mother was born. It sits on a curved county road in an affluent part of the state, near a one-lane bridge that crosses the Lamington River. A place with historic farmlands and equestrian stables — not all that far from the Trump golf resort.
After I stopped to record my impressions of the place, I returned to my car and drove on, quickly passing a house owned by someone as offended by Trump as myself. Their yard was filled with protest signs: Hate Has No Home Here, Stand with the ACLU, Resist the Madness, Clinics Not Alleys.
Hours later, into upstate New York, I drove through the trailer park where Ginger had eventually settled after she left her husband. Then onto Newburgh, where she died all alone. Here, the storefronts of buildings were covered with plywood and corrugated metal, and the curbs of the streets were littered with trash. Sidewalks were occupied by drifting, listless people — stereotypical urban decay, stereotypical human decline.
I hadn’t expected my heart to pound the way it did, hadn’t expected to hear my own heightened breath. But there I was in the car, anxious to turn around and head for home. I know my own privilege amplified my reaction to the final place where my biological grandmother lived. Or maybe it was the thought that she had likely been one of those aimless people smoking a cigarette in an alcove of an abandoned store.
All I know is that I fought hot, angry tears when I saw that car right in front of me a few miles down the road, as I made my way back to the highway — that red Chevy sedan with a Trump bumper sticker and another one that read: Stop Planned Parenthood Now.
The saddest part of the story is that she died all alone, that nobody came to claim her after she took her final breath.
Last year in Indiana, then-Governor and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence signed a law requiring health care facilities to notify female patients who miscarry and undergo abortions in their care, that arrangements must be made for proper cremation or burial of “their baby.” Lawmakers in Ohio, South Carolina, and Mississippi have recently considered similar measures; those in Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas have already succeeded in codifying such policies into statute. Which means that, in many places, there is more concern for the dignity of fetal tissue than for someone like the invisible woman from which my mother and I came.
I am aware of the irony of my unwavering pro-choice position — my mother and I probably wouldn’t even exist if birth control had been widely available in the 1950s, or if accessible, legal abortion had been an option for Ginger back when America was great.
But I believe this woman’s life was wasted because she had wandered outside the lines. She endured what she endured because she didn’t have much choice. I believe that she was somebody, a real person who had once cared for others less fortunate than her. And I can’t help the expression of empathy that she has passed down in my DNA.
Photo Credit: Sal Pellingra/EyeEm/Getty Images
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.