Thompson Memorial Chapel, an interfaith sanctuary at Williams College, was completed in 1904 in memory of Frederick Ferris Thompson (1836-1899), who, at the time of his death, had been the most generous benefactor in the College’s history, according to the College. At the news of his passing, the school suspended all classes and events for the day, and the community gathered in a chapel to pay tribute to Thompson, who had attended Williams.
During the Civil War, Thompson organized and drilled members of the U.S. Colored Troops. He hoped that the soldiers would be allowed to fight for the Union, reported The New York Times (April 11, 1899). Thompson, a prominent banker and railroad president, co-founded the First National Bank which survives today as Citibank.
Naked, she stood proud with her shoulders back and her head high. Gold drop earrings dangled from her elongated ears, and red beads hung round her long neck and full hips. Her posture regal and expression serene, I felt far removed from her poise and ease with herself.
She was an Ashanti fertility doll carved out of blond wood, a gift from a friend’s brother in Kumasi, Ghana, to you for me. She frightened me. I never told you.
This icon of womanhood spooked me because she made me doubt what I knew in my heart of hearts. She said I would not be a woman until I gave birth, until I could be addressed as someone else’s mother the way many Ashanti women are called, their own names and identities washed away in the surge toward the future. Could an entire culture be wrong? Was I bucking up against a universal truth?
No. There is no wrong or right. Having a child is a woman’s choice. It’s up to her.
It’s my body. It’s up to me.
It’s up to me.
It’s up to me.
I had not even decided whether I wanted children. I did not romanticize having children. When I held babies, I felt the ponderous weight of responsibility. I felt rational, not instinctual.
A woman named Akwa (Wednesday) struggled with trying to get pregnant, the story has it. She was advised to carry a fertility doll and care for it like her future child (ba). Soon, she became pregnant and gave birth. From then on, Ashanti women practiced this custom of carrying an akwaba.
Creative fertility. That’s what my Ashanti doll represents, I told you.
Oh, you. Why hadn’t I told you, my friend, my lover, my confidante, that I was pregnant?
I knew that it would change us. Whether I had the baby – our baby – or not, kept it or gave it away, it would always be in our lives.
I was not considering giving up our child for adoption. No one I knew in my parents’ generation or my own had ever done such a thing.
Could I get an abortion? It was not an alien alternative to me. As a young girl, Mami had been privy to desperate women approaching Grandma for herbs, advice and help to get pregnant, not get pregnant or end pregnancies. Like birth, like death, abortions and miscarriages are a part of life.
I believed in my right to terminate a pregnancy conceived and expected to end in abominable conditions. Was I being selfish? Was that the right I had won as a liberated woman of the 1970s? Would I ever be able to terminate the guilt? I didn’t have the answer.
We had not planned on what we would do if I got pregnant. Once, as we sat on the carpeted floor of your room behind the closed door plastered with posters of red, black and green, the colors of black liberation, you had broached the subject. I began biting my nails. You kept on talking up a situation I could not imagine, and I did not want to hear it. In a steely imperial voice, my back ramrod straight, I ruled out the possibility as though I could forbid it. You pulled me backwards into your arms and enveloped me. "Of course, it’s your decision,” you had said.
“I know,” I had said immediately, both happy and sad. Happy that you were such a feminist and sad that if I were to find myself in this damning condition, then I alone would be holding the Sword of Damocles as well as sitting under it.
“It’s up to you,” you had said.
It’s up to me.
It’s up to me.
It’s up to me.
You had gone through this with an ex-girlfriend. She had chosen to get an abortion. You went with her to the clinic. You cried – one of the few times – with her. I thought your actions heroic because I expected so little of men.
God, I needed you now if I ever needed you.
Why couldn’t this be happening to your body? I was afraid of my intuition. You used yours and, in this, I saw power and strength. You seemed more instinctual and maternal than I when really, you were more at ease with yourself. I used to tell you that you should have our children if we were to have them at all. I thought that you would have made a better mother.
My God, I was so tired. Tired of feeling. Tired of thinking. Tired of being. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to stop it.
I lay down on the rock. Over the soft mounds of my swollen breasts, I roped in the moon through the branches of a maple tree. The river gurgled cheerfully in my ears. The woodsy perfume of new life filled me with spring, and I became aware of the beauty of it. Somehow by stopping and taking in the peacefulness of the riverside, I realized my part in nature. I was happy. Happy to be alive. After hours of agonizing, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
As I dreamt, the moon lit up secret parts of my life. I romped back to the long ago and far away, and I caught a glimpse of a woman with straw-colored hair. She wore a red velvet dress.
“Time to come home,” I heard you say in my sleep.
“Huh,” I mumbled.
Your kiss touched my lips, forcing my eyes open.
“I was worried about you,” you said. You took my hand.
“I left you a note,” I said.
“You left me a note sixteen hours ago,” you said, your voice rising as you recalled how upset you had been in your mad scramble to find me.
“I didn’t mean to make you worry. I’m sorry,” I said in a soft tone that complemented the night.
“Talk to me. Please.”
“I will as we walk home,” I said, my fears chased away by your insistence that I remember who you were in my life. “I’m so happy you’re here. I love you.”
“I love you, too. More than you know.”
I packed up my books into a bag you took from me. I did not protest. We held hands.
Neither of us spoke. After we threaded our way out of the woods and onto the asphalt of a deserted Route 7, I broke the silence:
“I don’t know how to tell you this, except to just tell you. I’m pregnant.”
“I know,” you said, as soon as the words left my mouth.
“You know,” I asked, so astonished that I stopped in my tracks.
“Yes, I know. Of course, I know. We live together. You haven’t had your period in two months. Your moods seem different. And you haven’t been smoking pot.
“I’ve been waiting for you to tell me. I figured you had to do it in your own time. But when you disappeared today, I got scared that you had done something crazy.”
“Like what? Killed myself?”
My eyes grew big. I said: “I’ve thought about suicide in a literary way – Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar -- when I was younger. In high school. Not now. I’ve been thinking about options now, but ending my life hasn’t been one of them.”
“Thank God. I don’t know what I would do without you. I can’t imagine living without you.”
We flew into each other’s arms and squeezed so tightly I could barely talk.
“I feel the same way, but I was afraid. Afraid that feeling it, much less saying it, would change things, that it would make you feel obligated.”
I pulled back from you. With our hands still on each other’s waist and looking into each other’s eyes, I said:
“The last thing I want is for you to be with me out of a sense of obligation. I want you to be with me because you want to be.”
“I do. Believe me. With all my heart, I do.”
“I believe you.”
One arm hugging the other’s waist, we resumed walking in step. For a long stretch, we let our souls do the talking. When we reached Thompson Memorial Chapel, the clock in Lasell Bell Tower across the road struck the first hour of a new day. We turned right off Route 7 toward Chapin Hall.
“So, what have you been thinking,” you asked.
“For the most part, about my family.”
“What they’ll say?”
“No, not directly. Memories of my childhood and what my parents taught me about life as a woman.”
“What did they teach you?”
“That being born a woman was to have a tragic destiny.”
“Do you believe that?”
I sighed deeply before answering:
“In this heyday of women’s lib and the raising of consciousness, I hate to admit that I do.”
“Do you feel that this pregnancy is tragic?”
I paused before saying:
“Why do I feel that to say yes would be a betrayal of you, of us?”
“Because the baby – our baby – was conceived in love.”
“Yes,” I gasped, tears streaming down my face.
We were at the start of the path leading to Mission Park, at the top of the hill. We stopped and stood there under the light of the moon and a star-drizzled sky. Still crying, chills traveled down my back and arms. I trembled.
You placed your hand over our daughter. I placed my hand over yours.
Because of you, I saw a way that I had not seen before.
Because of us, I saw a way.
We saw a way because of us.
"I saw a raven flying toward the sun, toward a new day."
I had broken loose from the mooring of my unloved past and began to see a future. This break gave me a tremendous burst of energy. My pregnancy became a sacred time, my womb a place of sacred waters.
My dream life blossomed after we decided to keep our daughter. Ancestral spirits and ones from our past lives visited me. Fear no longer locked them out of my nights.
My nighttime experiences were many and varied. Bizarre frequently. They began with a dream in which I smelled my father’s Christmas Old Spice cologne, and we communicated by thought. His sharp message to me – don’t trust men, don’t trust men – nailed me to the floor flat on my back, reverberating through my body like a hammer’s steady strike. I tried to ward it off by sitting up, but I kept meeting resistance at a place I could not push past – Daddy’s warnings. Almost defeated, I gathered my strength for a last attempt. I could hear myself groan and feel my heart race as I heaved myself up and broke the seal of fear. My eyes flew open as I reached out to your sleeping body and touched you. I trusted you.
I met Mami’s fraternal grandmother rattling off the names of family members as she had done on her deathbed in the Mayan tradition. She had tasted one hundred and two wet seasons. Her white hair was spread under her frail body like a receiving blanket for a newborn. She had closed the circle of life by becoming helpless again. She vanished after she spoke my mother’s name, my father’s, my brother’s and mine.
I saw Mami’s maternal grandmother extend her arms to me in a loving gesture of continuity. Her eyes were triumphant despite the sadness they had seen. I began to understand that hard-earned look which I had recognized in many who had lived seventy years or more. They knew there was nothing new under the sun. They had seen so much that life’s twists and turns did not trip them. They, too, saw the future, in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They saw it in their painting, music and writing. The future lay outside their mortal selves. I was only nineteen and at the start of a long road.
Then one night, she came. A woman who soothed me as soon as I saw her. She gave me the calm of sitting by the river. I recognized her as someone I had known, someone I had been, in another life.
She wore red velvet and no shoes.
Gracefully, she seated herself on a leather stool you had brought back from Ghana. She adjusted her skirt, revealing her long, delicate feet. Slowly, she teased her big toe along the top of her other foot to her ankle backwards and forwards, quelling an itch. The motion mesmerized me.
“I’m entranced by your feet. They’re beautiful,” I tried to say. Although the words did not sally forth, she acknowledged my thoughts with a smile.
“Thank you,” she said without speaking.
She sat tall, proud and confident. Memories of her washed over me in waves. I jumped at the cold reawakening to the time when she had been broken apart.
“You’re having the baby,” she asked.
“Oh,” she closed her eyes as she gasped in relief. “I knew you would, but I had to hear it.”
“Why? Did you know her?”
“Yes. Briefly,” she said, rubbing her flat stomach. “I’ve missed her.”
“Oh,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes when I got her meaning.
She said: “As soon as I realized I was with child, I struggled to figure out a way to protect my girl. I wish I did not have to part ways with her, but I saw no choice. I had no choice. You had no choice either, only the illusion of it.”
When she said this, I wiped the tears from my face and began to form an intellectual objection. Then, I stopped and listened to my heart. I said nothing.
“This is no time for tears,” she consoled me. “You’re going to give life. You’re going to do so without fear of the future.”
“Oh, but I do have fears. I’m afraid that my daughter will be cut down by people thinking the worst of her because of her color. I’m afraid that the possibilities for her will be limited because she’s female. I’m afraid that warped and stunted perceptions will destroy her.”
“That they will destroy her or you?”
The poignancy of her question stopped my tears. I paused before answering:
“You’re right. I never thought of it that way before. I am afraid for myself and my daughter. She isn’t me, is she?”
“Her father and I can give her a foundation of love, can’t we?”
“Yes,” she whispered, with hope. “Your young man respects you, doesn’t he? Your home will be a loving one, won’t it?”
“Respectful and loving are not the same. Respectful can be cold and exacting.”
“I know. How do you show your love for each other? Are you affectionate or abusive?”
“Abusive? Never! What are you asking?”
She forged ahead with determination. “Do you ever hit each other?”
“No! We love each other. Why would we try to hurt each other?” I shrieked, pained at the thought of it.
“Why? Because you love each other.”
On first hearing, it sounded ridiculous. Then, I stayed quiet, and I remembered our shared past and smelled the fear of abandonment. She also remembered the horror. Her left cheek lifted slightly in a grimace; her shoulder rose imperceptibly. She grabbed her left fist with her right hand and held them in her lap.
“If your daughter is made to feel special – as we all are – at home, she will have some perspective on other people’s prejudices. There is hope. However, if she is beaten, if she is humiliated and made to feel small, then the warped perceptions will be her own.
“What greater monster could there be than that?”
Stunned into silence, we looked at each other with stark recognition. I saw the river flowing. I saw the braided oak. I saw the blood-stained robe in her hands. She started to cry. It was my turn to comfort her.
“This is no time for sadness. We’ve left that pain behind in the past.”
“Maybe. Yet, the past does not stay put. And it doesn’t stay the same.”
I walked up to her and hugged her. After my arms went round her, she vanished, and I found that I was hugging myself.
“What are you doing,” you asked.
I was torn between my waking and dream states.
“Come back to bed,” you said.
I climbed back in. Your arms and legs enveloped me.
I saw a raven flying toward the sun, toward a new day.
The baby somersaulted. My heart leapt.