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A Trip to Nogales

Vaguely aware, and semi-conscious, I heard my mother speaking urgently into a telephone in a darkened motel room.

My mind was numb. I was angry. Very angry. At the age of 17 I had been cut-off from my feelings, emotions, friends and from my parents, as if imprisoned. I had been sedated with some of my mother’s tranquilizers. The whole nightmare of getting from my home in Santa Barbara, CA to Nogales, Mexico began to take shape.

I faintly heard a man’s voice. “Do exactly what I tell you. Give simple answers to border patrol guard. Dress modestly in dresses or skirts, some makeup and lipstick. Look natural. No suitcases. Your driver will pick you up in the morning.”

One week prior my pristine life was over and forever changed. I sat in my dad’s car while he drove me home slowly from a Santa Barbara doctor’s office. I told my dad:

“I need mom. Take me home.”

The doctor, a few minutes earlier, had just examined me, then told me:

“You’re pregnant; better get your mother and come right back here this afternoon, after 5pm. No earlier.”

When my dad and I walked through our front door, I ran to my bedroom. I was shaking and my head throbbed in a darkening afternoon. I picked up my pink princess telephone and called my boyfriend who was working at an ice cream parlor that afternoon. My mother’s screams echoed through the house.

“I’m pregnant!” I blubbered into the phone to my boyfriend. I felt numb and his, response was a stunned “Oh no! What are you going to do?”

Eventually, I crept out of my bedroom as my dad handed mom the keys to the car. Silently, my mother drove me back to the doctor’s office. We sat side by side in the doctor’s office in stony silence. The doctor began.

“This is a very difficult situation. Your daughter is going to need all your support.” My tears began to fall silently.

The doctor simply lowered his head. He offered some kind words and facts. “It appears your daughter is about 10 weeks pregnant. It’s a very critical time and I advise you to seek another doctor. Get some help and quickly.”

Abortion was illegal in the U.S. in 1967. Any physician found to be aiding or even advising anyone to take such an extreme measure could be held criminally liable.

The doctor I visited that day in March 1967 had not even suggested a radical solution. In fact, he confirmed that at about 10 weeks pregnancy it was a dangerous timeframe. There could be grave consequences if any attempt was made to end the pregnancy. This delicate conversation was held in his hushed darkened office, after his regular office hours, accompanied by an air of extreme paranoia on all our parts.

I was in shock, numb and barely felt the tears that were streaming down my face. To my left, my mother grabbed the arms of the stiff leather chair she was sitting in. She lifted herself out of the chair as she wheeled towards me “How could you do this to me?!” I rather wished she had hit me. Her rage was interrupted by the soft voice of the doctor. “Now, please, she is going to need your support. Please stop.” My mother shrank back into her chair, as I proceeded to retch and cry. The doctor passed me a small metal trash can and came out from behind his desk to place his hand on my shoulder. My mother didn’t touch me. I shrank back into myself.

In the emotional storm that followed at home that evening some kind reasoning took place. My dad made phone calls and spoke with various trusted friends and family members

One friend was a Unitarian minister, Lex. He was WWII Veteran, like my dad. He had started having friendly conversations with my dad when we had first arrived in Santa Barbara about 2 years earlier. Lex was very intelligent, kind, open minded. In the conservative Southern California community of Santa Barbara, he was widely considered an outlier, an activist. My dad called Lex and pleaded with him to come quickly to our house that night. And he did come that very evening offering some quiet words and pleading with us to remain calm. He promised to help.

The next afternoon, a somber gathering took place in our living room. My parents, boyfriend, his mother (Heddy), the unitarian minister (Lex), and my paternal grandmother, Clara, all sat around awkwardly while my mother busied herself making tea and plates of cookies. Together they reached a mutual understanding with a plan. They would seek an abortion for me in Mexico. The boyfriend, Butch, would pay my father a specified sum of money each month towards the expense. The Unitarian minister would make phone calls, secure airline tickets for my mother and me. He also arranged for the anonymous payment. I was in no shape to make any of my own decisions. I was in a state of shock and unable to speak. My muffled cries into my tear-soaked pillow all through the night turned into spasmodic, uncontrollable sobbing and I was unable to eat or drink anything. All food, colors, textures and smells turned gray and rancid in  my senses.

Sitting in my parents’ hushed living room that evening Butch made promises to marry me. All were idle threats of running away. A shotgun wedding was swept aside. After all, we didn’t know what we were talking about. The adults told us to shut up and listen. His mother sighed and patted Butch on the knee as she mumbled some unintelligible words in German, her native tongue. My grandmother reached out to hold my hand in hers.

This was to be no pleasure trip to Mexico. To this day, I have never traveled into Mexico beyond the border towns of Tijuana, San Diego and Baja. In 1967 only my mother and I traveled to find help. It was a weekday. We spoke few words during the entire trip.

The flight from the Santa Barbara Airport to a small Arizona border town was short. I slept on the plane and dozed in the taxi that took us to a small motel. When we arrived at the edge of the desert it was early evening. I felt heaviness overtake me and grateful that the sun was going down. My mother and I each sat on small twin beds in the musty motel room listening to a rattling, noisy air conditioner. We were waiting for a phone call from a stranger. When the phone on the nightstand rang, my mother jumped up and with shaky hands gripped the heavy black receiver to her mouth.

The stranger, a man, instructed us to go to a small café the next morning and order a regular breakfast. A dark sedan with a driver would wait at the curb outside the cafe. We were each to carry a small handbag with our U.S. Passports, nothing else.

The next morning, as we entered the appointed nearby café, an overwhelming smokey aroma of frying bacon sent me reeling with nausea. I ran for the bathroom at the back. When I came back to our table, my mother gave me a withering look and said “Get yourself cleaned up Now! Look at the mess you made of your dress.” I limped back to the bathroom and swiped at the stains. I still felt nothing. I was encased in a heavy fog. My mother must have given me some more of the pills – tranquilizers, maybe even a sleeping pill. My whole being, ears and eyes felt as if they were stuffed with cotton.

Soon after the breakfast the driver appeared at the curb, as promised, in a 4 door, dark colored sedan. My mother and I slid into the backseat. As he drove, he told us how we would be crossing the border soon and what we were to do and say. “Only answer the questions the border guard asks. Do not volunteer anything. Most likely, they may just ask you what you are doing in Mexico. If they ask what your travel plans are, you may say you are visiting a sick friend for the day. Then we will need to return and follow the same trip tomorrow. OK? Understand?” Yes – we both answered.

Within a 15-minute drive, we arrived at a low concrete building. Only my mother and I got out of the car. The driver pointed to a metal door at the corner of the building. We knocked and were admitted. A woman escorted us into a room furnished with a metal desk and 2 wood chairs. She began to explain: “First of all, do you understand why you are here?” She had directed the question with piercing clear eyes only to me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother’s frown. She stayed silent. “Yes.” I replied.

The woman then proceeded to explain the procedure I was about to undergo with few details. “Today, we will only be examining and then inserting medicine and gauze. It takes 24 hours to expand inside. There will be mild cramping but no significant pain.” She proceeded. “The second day you will be sedated and return for surgery in a different location. Your driver knows where to go.”

I began to shake. Words could not escape my throat. My already stooped posture enclosed me. My stomach cramped and I was barely able to stand. My mother preceded me out of the room. The woman held me gently by the elbow and pointed to another waiting chair. My mother was outside smoking a cigarette. Another car waited to take us back to the motel where a tepid bottle of Coca Cola sat on a table in our room next to a sweating ice bucket. I lay down on one of the twin beds and watched the sun set through a small tear in the floral print drapes. I slept.

The dangers were real and extreme. For the most part, I remained blissfully unaware. The fog of emotional trauma, medications, strict instructions, and my mother’s silence helped to keep me quiet. The next day we were once again picked up by the same driver, welcomed into a different concrete building from the day before. A new woman greeted us. My mother was told to wait in a small ante-room. Another woman, in a pale green uniform led me into a brightly lit, cold room. There were about four men and women standing around a narrow bed. I was told to undress behind a gray metal screen. A thin green cotton gown was handed to me. My bare feet seemed to stick to the linoleum floor, I was instructed to lay down on the bed. A hard block was placed under my head and an oxygen mask was firmly affixed over my nose and mouth. “Just breathe normal” were the only words I heard. When I awoke on a hard camp cot, my mother was sitting in a chair next to me. I moaned and very consciously instead of calling out “Mom” I mumbled the name of my boyfriend. I did not want my mother. There was no comfort or care in this place. She didn’t want to be there with me. From behind the thin curtain surrounding my cot I glimpsed another young woman, alone, blond and crying. We were strangers.

My lifelong break in my relationship with my mother was now going to be complete.

The time to run away, leave my mother, my father and my childhood forever would come just a few months later. I was so angry with no way to express my anger.

Today, I am very angry. Another angry woman – Ruth Bader Ginsberg – she knew. This quote from RBG in 1992 “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped,” she said, “may prove unstable.”

Weak limbs, crumbling pillars of democracy. How? When did we get lazy and so comfortable? Like my 17 year-old self and my parents in 1967. After all, life was good, and my dad had survived flying missions in Europe during WWII against all odds. As an American family we took a lot of things for granted. My parents had no compunction to confront me with realities and difficult discussions.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling for Roe v. Wade was still another 6 years from reality in 1967. It would be another 20 years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg would ascend to the highest court in the land where she would carry burdens of women’s’ and men’s’ rights along with difficult realities and self-doubt.

Her legacy endured for 5 decades. She defended a woman’s right to choose. Her fine and thorough understanding and judgment about equal rights and treatment of all citizens, no matter gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief is the solid cornerstone of her many gifts of service to this country.

RBG’s analyses of Roe v. Wade reveals her consternation and ambivalence because of the complex structure of the law.

Not only is a woman’s right to choose now being widely denied; all equal rights regarding personal choices, voting, issues of privacy, financial standing or employment status, or any number of other gender related issues and struggles – are now being dismantled at an alarming rate.

My own struggle in 1967 was an abrupt reckoning. My entitled, privileged life was woefully lacking in preparing me for coming face to face with reality. There was no education, open communication or courage in my family.

In a September 21, 2020, an article by RBG’s official biographer, Professor Mary Hartnett, appeared in the New York Times:

“She (RBG) would say, ‘You just have to move forward and get to work…”

The ruling (Roe v. Wade), she noted in a lecture at New York University in 1992, tried to do too much, too fast — it essentially made every abortion restriction in the country at the time illegal in one fell swoop — leaving it open to fierce attacks. Read the full article at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-roe-v-wade.html

Why should any woman ever face the extreme fear and danger that I experienced in 1967? During this time, and earlier, the medical establishment and activists worked hard to establish some safe, underground options for women in need of safe abortions. Planned Parenthood was founded in 1916 but it would take decades of cooperation and aid between the U.S. and Mexico’s governments and myriad political activists before we would commence the decades of work to make abortion safe and legal with the ruling of Roe v. Wade.

Now, this landmark decision about equality and choice fades away without enough fight. It’s time to get angry. “Get to Work!”

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