If A Jewish Girl Falls into the East River…
“He wanted me to have an abortion when I told him I was pregnant with you,” she said. “Did you know that?”
We were at Houston’s, a swanky restaurant on Park Avenue having rotisserie chicken and splitting a plate of those skinny, shoelace French fries. I’d already moved from New York to actual Houston, the city, where my fiancé lived. A few months earlier, I had been baptized a Christian on the beach at Coney Island, in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Though my mother wasn’t Jewish, until my whirlwind conversion I’d always self-identified as such. Maybe because of the New York neighborhood I grew up in, but also because my Jewish father once told me we couldn’t join a certain country club where I liked to ice-skate because they were anti-Semitic. Henceforth I was Jewish, culturally speaking.
But in matters of actual religious practice, because my family belonged to neither temple nor church, I was an outsider. By the time a charismatic bunch of Jesus followers hit the Lower East Side, I’d been perusing the religious marketplace for some time. Nothing I’d tried, not Wicca or yoga or beat-poet-Buddhism, seemed to stick. Those artsy Christians felt like home to me, and I was among their first converts. Shortly after, I moved to Texas to start a new life. Now, my fiancé, whom I’d met on a trip to Austin years earlier, was eking out a living as a musician while I was back in New York playing the Southern bride-to-be, talking grooms’ cakes and boutonnieres with my mother.
It was nine months after 9/11 and George W. Bush was President. I’d watched on television as he donned a cowboy hat and stood atop a pile of rubble that could well have been the bones of my friends. He quoted a Bible passage and promised to get the bad guys. I believed him. I thought it no coincidence I was putting my life in the hands of another Texan man.
At Houston’s, when I had first announced I’d invited my father to the wedding, my mother had tucked into her third glass of wine. It was true I had sent him an invitation; it was hand-pressed and calligraphed. But I included no additional handwritten note; I didn’t want to risk him actually coming. My mother aggressively fingered the clasp on her Gucci handbag as she politely reminded me that she’d paid for those calligraphed invitations. Then she dropped the abortion bombshell.
I didn’t blame her for this passive aggression at the time, especially considering my recent conversion. Since I was a Christian now I was supposed to hate abortion. So she knew her comment would give me pause. Whereas in the recent past, I had been to Planned Parenthood for the morning-after pill, and a series of humiliating questions about my sex life. Forgiveness for my past transgressions was a convenient byproduct of my new Christianity, but my mother was hoping it wasn’t going to extend as far as my deadbeat father. Perhaps she hoped her comment would knock me off my Pollyanna campaign to reunite our dysfunctional family, because the potentially-aborted fetus in question was me.
My mother had let me work at her fashion office part-time, while I sang at The Bitter End or CBGB’s Gallery with my band at night. She’d tolerated my Scripture-quoting over drinks with her boyfriend, the lawyer, while she silently wondered if I’d joined a cult. Raised Catholic until her divorced mother was pushed out of their local parish, my mother was confounded by my presumed intimacy with the Good Book. “Where did you get a Bible?” she asked.
I’d moved into the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn a few months after my conversion to be closer to my church. My mother sponsored weekly sushi dinners to lure me back to Manhattan. Once satisfied I was in no danger, she relayed stories of her days as Young Life leader and homecoming queen at her Pittsburgh High School.
“Jesus was the ‘it’ thing!” she mused, “and I was the ‘it’ girl!”
My father was married with two teenaged sons when he met my mother. In the cab ride from Houston’s back to Brooklyn that night, I thought about my half-brothers, who never disguised their disgust with our father for leaving them behind to marry my mother, a blonde goy seventeen years his junior. Almost two decades after my parents met they divorced, an ending that was as cataclysmic as their beginning. My father’s animus for my mother was plain; he blamed her for the lost relationship with his sons, for his failed career as a garmento, and for his heart condition.
But although he rejected her, I’d always thought my father wanted me, at the very least, to be born. When I was a kid he would tell a story about the day I was born, a cliché really, but told with signature bravado, about how he nervously paced the hallway outside the delivery room, and when the nurse announced “It’s a girl!,” as they did in those days before 3D ultrasounds, he handed out cigars to everyone on the obstetrics ward. He told this story when his mood was high and the occasion warranted, so not very often, but I thought of it sometimes when things were rough between us.
As my cab hurtled down the BQE I watched the searchlights at Ground Zero flicker over lower Manhattan and wondered aloud what Jesus would do. Geometric slices of light flung off the Manhattan Bridge like suicides. Convenience stores, overpasses, and Hispanic kids on fire escapes slipped past me like time.
If I exist, could I have not existed? If a Jewish girl falls into the East River does she make a sound?
I rewound my life. I started with the present. What if I’d stayed in Pittsburgh where I went to college—the city where my both parents grew up? I would’ve never met the Brooklyn Christians, the artists and poets who paid the cover to see me sing dozens of times and sheltered me from my violent, manic depressive roommate. I’d have never risen from the grey Atlantic claiming Christ as my savior, as the Wonder Wheel winked at me from the boardwalk, while those same artists looked on with approval. What if my parents never met that night at the 21 Club in New York, when “Me and Bobby McGee” was on the radio and Richard Nixon was President? They’d grown up a mile apart but it took that one, smoky, booze-soaked tête-à-tête at the famous former speakeasy to bring them together. What if he’d gone home early, or she’d declined his salacious invitation? What if some non-existent fidelity to their respective spouses, a fidelity they wouldn’t have for each other, had beckoned like the ghost of their future misery? What if that ghost had tugged at his cashmere coat, or ruffled her pageant-ready bouffant, urging them away from their destiny and mine?
I leaped back and back and back. What if one spring night, as my pregnant mother smoked a Benson & Hedges on the balcony of their high-rise apartment, he pushed her, or she fell? What if later, alert to the mistake she’d made marrying my father, my mother had thrown me—a colicky and jaundiced newborn—off that same balcony, like she’d said she’d considered doing, while numb with post-partum depression? Or, what if I’d never been told any of this? Or worse, what if it none of it really happened?
When you’re planning a wedding, you think it’s the most important job in the world. You blot out the fear of disaster with wedding showers, engagement parties, and monogrammed towel sets; a Rorschach test for future happiness. You attempt to undo your parents’ mistakes by choosing everything they did not. I chose Jesus. I moved to Texas, and married the musician.
For years, I saw my father through the lens of my mother’s abortion comment. I tried to make peace with the idea that he’d never wanted me. I saw our every interaction, as few and far between as they were, in light of my potential non-existence, and it made a lot of sense. No wonder he never pursued a relationship with me after their divorce, I thought. I’d told gatherings of women in Texas churches about how my mother saved my life by refusing to abort me, but I felt like I was betraying some confidence, and not just my family’s. As a new Christian, I wasn’t sure how I felt about abortion, but I used the story anyway. Each telling alienated me further from my father, and, for better or worse, sewed me deeper into Southern evangelical culture—a culture that is quite sure how it feels about abortion.
Years later, after I’d had my own child, and then my own post-partum depression, I finally asked my mother about the abortion comment. She and I are sitting knee to knee in our pajamas, sipping pinot noir on the white sofa in the chilly living room of the condo in Palm Beach she shares with her boyfriend. Though she is nearly halfway through her sixth decade, her tanned, strong legs look better than mine. We’re silently drinking and leafing through fashion magazines as my three-year-old daughter lightly snores in the next room.
“Remember when you said my father wanted to abort me?” I blurt, hefting a thick September Vogue from her glass coffee table. I continued to remain in an anti-space on the subject of abortion, even after twelve years an evangelical.
I remember feeling particularly knitted to my mother in that moment, proud of the life she’d made for herself in spite of my father. It was a moment in which I was looking to confirm our sisterhood perhaps, to cement for myself the notion that it was us against the world, or at the very least, us against my father. Maybe I wanted her to absolve me of the nagging guilt I felt for making my father the villain, despite what I knew to be true about him.
“I never said that,” she says, pausing. “I never said that,” she repeats after a moment, as if convincing herself.
Birth is not what happens between conception and the first squall from new, wet lungs in an over-lit delivery room. Birth is not the digital heartbeat made real by a rush of blood, pain, and joy. Birth happens when a mother provides her child with information that will finally and forever separate them, like altered Siamese twins.
Information that suggests: You are on your own. I am an unreliable witness.
We’d all made choices, religious or otherwise. My mother chose me, and for that, I am grateful. I know that these decisions, upon which a life is, or is not, allowed, are important ones, but I can’t help but think, despite the temporal drama between my parents, that I would’ve found a way to struggle to the surface, to pierce through the primordial muck, to be born, and born again, and, perhaps, again.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a musician and writer, pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University. Her essays and poems have appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Columbia Poetry Review, NYLON, This Zine Will Change Your Life, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @therebeccawest.