Salvation Army Home and Hospital
March 24, 1940
In the birthing room, my mother heaves and pushes and shouts words that nice Southern girls don’t say—certainly not on Easter—but Pauline Miller is so condemned to hell, so far removed from nice, she curses God and man, especially the son-of-an-Alabama-bitch who put her on that bed.
I like to think so anyway. That my mother doesn’t just close her eyes from the shame of me, quietly biting her lip raw. That before I cause any more pain, she grabs the ether mask and drifts into oblivion.
Surrounding my nineteen-year-old mother is a brigade of women. Alongside the starched white nurses are Salvation Army matrons who left their altar lilies and Easter dinners to scurry down the hall to the birthing room.
Hush, the women say, it won’t be long now. No one says: it won’t be long until you’re a mother. In 1940 everyone knows: a woman can’t be a mother unless she’s married. The woman sobbing on that bed is an abomination. But as soon as the ether has cleared the room, God’s soldiers will march on Pauline’s misplaced soul. Since the first of the century, in unwed mothers’ homes across the nation, the Salvation Army’s cry has been Down But Never Out.
Pauline Miller is, without question, down.
She came from Shoal Creek, Alabama, forty miles northeast of Birmingham. A place of iron ore, muzzle-loading rifles, stubborn mules and dirt-floor depression. A place where the Friendship Baptist Church, along with a glass of consecrated grape juice, regularly served up sermons on the evils of fornication.
She came in a buggy or in a car. Driven by someone who does or does not love her. Over red clay mountains and washed out roads. Careful, slow down, can’t let the baby come too soon. No, nothing said about the baby. Look, the spring wheat is turning green.
Pauline was surprised to discover the Home is not in a slummy part of town, but high on top of Vestavia mountain, above the steely haze of the Birmingham mills. Up on Montevallo Road, where the rich folks live.
She saw gardeners cutting back the loblolly pines, making light for prized azaleas. Pauline wondered how it felt to be rich enough to hire someone to rake straw, to mulch mounds of purple and pink azaleas.
The two-storied brick Home, sitting back on ten acres, had a bare, unassuming lawn. The driveway hugged a thick privet hedge, curved up a slope and disappeared. New girls were told to come to the back door. An intake worker led my Pauline to a dormitory described in the Army’s brochure as having “beds of iron, four or five in each room. The counterpanes, pillows and sheets are of snowy whiteness and the entire home is snug.” I like to think her roommates were a comfort to her. Perhaps they sat on their girlish beds and dared to whisper truths about the lines left blank on their intake forms.
Pauline had already failed one house rule. She arrived only two weeks before delivery. The Army wanted their “little sisters” to settle in two to four months before their due date and to stay up to six months after. The Superintendent, Brigadier Frances Bean, said, “With enough time, away from the world’s scorning finger and leering eye, I can teach these girls to love.”
If Pauline had come in December, she could have been a guest at the Ladies Auxiliary’s Silver Tea. The Birmingham News reported each “wayward girl” received a box of writing paper and a small handkerchief. One volunteer said, “Most of our girls recuperate well enough to be helpful around the house. Some even learn to do beautiful needlework.” Many outstanding citizens were present at the Silver Tea. Miss Anne Hogan sang “The Lords’ Prayer.”
But it is not December. It is two days beyond the first day of spring. It is Easter and she is trying (not for the first time, certainly) to rid her body of me.
On the way to the hospital is Dr. Harold Garrison, his Easter dinner interrupted, his car inching along Montevallo Road behind all those folks gawking at the azaleas. He hopes his patient’s labor is equally slow. He parks right in front, goes quickly up the steps and through the ivy-covered trellis. In the hallways, Dr. Garrison smiles at his patients—swollen girls, girls in wheelchairs, girls just staring into space. He makes his way to the hospital wing.
“Pauline Miller,” he says.
At 1:15 he pulls me into this world. He lays me down, my skin to her skin. I am the warm, slippery thing, another stranger in the room.
Is it too much to imagine a church down the road still ringing their Easter chimes? The birthing room window open? Alleluias, relieved sobs and baby squalls singing a brand new song?
Easter had never before, nor has it ever since, fallen on the twenty-fourth day of March.
I like to think being born on Easter gave my mother and me a lucky break. Made the world think more kindly of us. That I was not a mistake after all. And when Pauline finally arrives back in Shoal Creek—alone—somehow the charge of abomination would be dropped. Miss Miller, they will say, is the girl who does such fine needlework.
They dangle floppy, brand-new feet in front of my exhausted Pauline. She watches the nurse press inky toes onto the birth certificate. She gives me a name, MariLouise Janelle Miller. A unique spelling, not a name thought of in haste, one she hopes the adopting parents will keep.
Sixty-five Easters pass before I see that smudged paper and, for the first time, discover that Pauline Miller lived in this world. But on that day, in that room, I know her. I recognize the milky taste of her, the sameness of her skin. We are two weary soldiers, breathing the same holy air.
Peggy Barnes spent years as a food and travel writer. She received her MFA in fiction from Bennington College and has earned many awards and scholarships to writers’ conferences. In late spring 2015, Peggy’s memoir, I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother, will be released.
© 2015, Peggy Barnes