My mother explains that the last time she had seen my father was in June 1962, his final secret visit to Seattle, during which they broke up. A few months later, she discovered that she was pregnant. They made some gestures towards reconciliation, but my father was on his way to the east coast for his doctorate and they soon realized it wouldn't work.
When my grandfather found out, he was furious, insisting that my mother get an abortion. She refused. That was the real reason he disowned her. The reason she had dropped to the living room floor after wandering barefoot in the asparagus fields. The reason I had been born in Spokane.
My mother cocks a brow and takes me by surprise: "That's where the home for unwed mothers was." She winces a bit, waits.
The home for unwed mothers? In a good origin tale, miraculous babes are found beneath garden leaves, nestled on riverbanks, even in the womb of a she-wolf, but not in state-run institutions reeking of cabbage and shame. My mouth drops, and it occurs to me that she is making this whole thing sound easier than it was. This version may be more truthful, but it's still a story. Perhaps my mother's decision to have a mixed-race child alone was not a carefree slap in the face of convention after all. Perhaps I try this idea on for the first time she was not in control of her fate.
The image of my self-sufficient mother being hustled out of town in the middle of the night to give birth at some secret institution hundreds of miles from home is so foreign that I feel my mind withering. My scope of my questions shrinks to meet it. "How did you get pregnant?" I focus on details.
Sipping her tea, she confesses that she had been intentionally careless. "I think I knew we were breaking up," she confides, "and subconsciously I wanted a baby."
"What about Saint Elizabeth's?" I want to know which details upon to hang my birth. Was Saint Elizabeth's a lie? And what of the nurses who vied to hold me, who had never seen such well-defined features in a newborn, such heavily-lashed eyes, such a full rosebud mouth? Who had really been there as I took my first breath?
My mother assures me that both the nurses and Saint Elizabeth's were real. The only difference is that I had been born in the Home's maternity ward. Saint Elizabeth's Hospital sent nurses and doctors to the Home to oversee the deliveries. Together the two institutions collaborated on a procedure of secrecy. Saint Elizabeth's staff signed my birth certificate and registered my arrival with the hospital so that no record of my true birthplace would exist.