Baxter Hall (1954-2004), on the left, housed the Snack Bar, student union and dining hall. It was named for James Phinney Baxter III, Class of 1914 and president of Williams College from 1937-1961. Baxter (1893-1975) took leave from Williams during World War II, when he served, among other things, as director of the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote Scientists Against Time, for which he won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for History.
Chapin Hall, on the right, opened its concert hall doors in 1910 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a gift from Alfred Clark Chapin, Class of 1869. Chapin (1848-1936) was a lawyer and politician who served as the mayor of Brooklyn and as a member of the House of Representatives. His sister, Alice Chapin, was an actress, playwright and, in England, a suffragette. At the Old Bailey in London, she received a prison sentence in 1911 after splashing chemicals over ballot papers. However, she was granted a King’s pardon. (Photo by Max/Flickr)
Lovingly, I rubbed my hand over my belly in a circular fashion that was so soothing that I forgot I was doing it. I was transported to a place I had never dreamt of before, a safe place. It was a forest smelling of rich, dark soil. I was hugging an oak, strong, deep-rooted and protective.
When I caught myself, I threw my hands to my sides and tried to wipe out the longing for maternity.
How is it that something so natural became so distorted? There were so many reasons.
When I was still all arms and legs, Mami taught me to wash myself everyday while sitting on the toilet with my legs spread apart. I would douse myself with a mild solution of Dettol disinfectant in a blue plastic potty. She advised me that as I grew older and my smell stronger, the solution should be more potent. Already, the cleaning antiseptic’s pungency made me wheeze; the ritual gave me discomfort. I did not know why. The dismissive look the gynecologist gave Mami as we left his office confirmed in me a torn allegiance to my instincts and to her.
“No, she did not hurt herself as she washed,” the doctor said, as he scooted us out of the examining room where the ears of the waiting patients were pricked for the story of this young girl. “She’s fine,” he told Mami, not bothering to look down and assure me. He had quickly ascertained the identity of the true patient.
After that telling encounter, I fell back on the nightly washings and then stopped altogether.
However, I had not stopped associating womanhood with disaster.
Mami and Daddy pushed to move out of the projects before I became “a young lady”, before I got my period. In the dozen years we had lived there, the projects had gotten rough, they would say. I was warned not to take the stairs – which often stank of urine – alone. I was told not to get into the elevator – when it was working – with a man I did not know.
Family by family, our friends were joining us in the exodus from our concrete village to homes with lawns in Queens and farther east on Long Island. More and more of the faces we encountered on the other side of our green-painted metal apartment door were hardened and unfamiliar. In the year before we moved to the Island, it seemed that each month was marked by a teenaged girl getting “in trouble”. When we heard the news that the girl who lived above us had found herself about to become a mother at fifteen, all eyes turned toward me and my eleven-year-old snake hips. Pregnancy had become an epidemic that had struck close to home. My parents’ strained faces intimated that I could be next. They believed that the girl upstairs and the other mothers-to-be had thwarted the possibilities of their lives. They were not the only ones who felt that way. Newspaper stories on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty also twinned teenage pregnancy with doom among “the disadvantaged”.
How would those girls finish school now? How would they get out of the projects? How would they gain merit enough to be named in newspaper stories and to be singled out as more than a statistic?
Had I traveled the distance from the Astoria projects to the little Ivy League to go nowhere?
Only one of my classmates was parenting at school. She had gotten pregnant by mistake. Children did not figure into any of our collegiate lives. Children were a dream, if that. They were something that might happen at some unforeseen juncture in the future. This woman, whom I thought unfortunate, went home to her parents’ house to give birth and returned with her daughter to finish her senior year. At her off-campus house, the cry of the baby took precedence over the call of a class. I could not fathom instinctually responding first to the baby.
Were maternal feelings conceived during pregnancy? Or had they been sleeping and awakened by the quickening of my womb? I was so expert at laundering my feelings with logic that I could not be sure.
When I was a girl, Mami’s friends would say:
“Better enjoy your life now. Once you get married and have a family, you’ll have no more time to yourself.”
“You’ll marry a man you’ll have to put up with. Lucky if he doesn’t drink or beat you.”
“Wait ‘til you get older. You’ll suffer. That’s what it means to be a woman. That’s life.”
I resisted womanhood. Why would I seek out the fate of a victim?
You could go on with your plans. You still could be a lawyer. You could forget about this, our mistake, when inconvenient to remember it.
You could. Would you?
The doubt made me and my belly quiver momentarily. One thing was certain. You could never get pregnant, and that fact of nature angered me. I resented your biological barrenness. I resented your being a man.
Don’t trust men, the female elders would counsel me.
Never trust the enemy.
I trusted you . . . to a point. We had not been together long enough for you to prove yourself. How long would that be? We had not survived any crises together. How many would we have to weather? Would I ever trust you? Would I ever trust any man?
Were men not to be trusted? Or would my fear make it so?
How I wished I could be like Abraham and have faith. If only you could as well. We were city kids taught to look over our shoulders, listen to our guts and believe in ourselves first and foremost. We were raised not to trust others and, somewhere along the way, we had begun to lead spiritually void lives. The rock of faith had been submerged under deep waters of secular modernity, intellectual arrogance and youth savvy. We insisted that we were in control of our destinies.
Where were we without faith? Lost. I was lost. There was nothing for me to reach out and hold onto. No touchstone, no star.
I was scared because I had been so certain and those around me had been so certain of what we did not want, and now certainty had eluded me.
Long before you left your mother’s house in Philadelphia for college, you had acted as her right hand and your younger brother’s father. You had been the man of the house shouldering grave responsibilities.
Now you attended to the needs of others before your own. Counselor to many, friends and family came to you for advice on putting their houses in order. They left you seeing a way where before there had been chaos.
What was this if not another mess you would be asked to straighten out?
Thinly veiled behind my thoughts of family and blood was my fear of genocide of Afro-Americans. I had read Sam Yette’s The Choice which validated my most paranoid suspicions. Should I be contemplating not having this baby when we were being killed off by drugs, crime and psychic warfare?
Did I have a responsibility to the community to have this child?