From her seat on the red wheelchair, Mother points There, and now There, to the plastic gravestones haunting the perfectly edged lawns, and—Look there, she calls as we pass a skeleton fastened to a child’s tree swing as if waiting for a grown-up to send it sailing. Nearby, it’s recess time on the Catholic school playground and she wants to watch the children, but I’m wearing my tee shirt proclaiming a woman’s right to choose. Yesterday as we passed the minivans lined up for the afternoon pick-up, their bumpers were crowded with Let God Plan Parenthood! and Thank God Mom was pro-life! Do I dare risk the proximity?

But Mother has turned to me with an expectant smile, so I push the wheelchair onward toward the playground—the girls hopscotching in their regulation plaid skirts and the boys traveling the monkey bars hand over hand. Mother waves to the girls. One blond girl waves back. How sweet, I think, to acknowledge this ancient woman, who is not ancient in her own mind. Yesterday she asked if she was old enough to have children yet.

As I get closer, I see that the girl isn’t waving to us, but to the woman who has come up behind us, walking a golden retriever. He’s an old dog and I’ve seen him often, stretched out lazily on the porch of a big white storybook house set on a hill above the church. I’ve seen the woman, too, watering her plants while talking to the dog kindly, in complete sentences, leaning down to pet his head and bestow a treat from her pocket. Lucky dog, I’ve often thought.

“Hello,” the woman says to Mother, bending down to speak face to face. Her gaze moves to my shirt, then to my face, then back to my shirt. “Oh, we don’t like that,” she says.

“Planned Parenthood saved my life,” I answer. “Their screening caught the cancer early.”

“Well, I guess it worked out for you.”

“It saves women’s lives. Especially those too poor to go elsewhere.” As I was, all those decades ago. As so many others are, still today. I want to tell the woman how lucky she is—to live in that big white house on the hill, with the bright red door and the well-behaved dog. And to ask her, if she has children, were they planned by God? Or did she have a say in the matter? My aunt had only one child: By what miracle, I often wondered. No such miracle for Mother. Before the birth control pill, every method failed. I once overheard her tell a neighbor, “Sure, the rhythm method works. Perfect rhythm. A child every two years.” Mother was averaging it out—nine pregnancies in eighteen years, seven carried to term, two bleeding out and nearly taking her life with them.

“We are pro-life,” the woman says.

“We are all pro-life. All sane people are.” I say this gently, remembering my thoughtful Catholic friends, and my dead father’s gifts to Planned Parenthood, and my parents’ evangelical friends who would pull the lever against his choice. After my youngest sister was born and the pill was legal, my mother’s other life began. She went back to college, opened a pre-school, and never bled another baby out again. She loved us all, but enough was enough.

“Anti-abortion I mean,” the woman says.

“Believe me, it is not done lightly.” I know this, too. Life giveth and life taketh. And sometimes the right choice hurts like hell.

The teacher blows her whistle and the boys climb down from the jungle gym; the girls skip toward the door. Their parents will arrive soon, in their station wagons and minivans, to take the children home or to the costume store to find the scariest outfit or the strangest or most glamorous, whatever the children choose.

“Just a few more minutes,” Mother says, looking longingly at the blond girl, who has come to the fence to wave goodbye to her—or to the woman and her dog, or maybe to all of us. The girl’s face is open, trusting. May her life be long and safe and free.

Mother turns her head to face me, her eyes lightening with joy. “Am I old enough to have children yet?”

“Yes you are,” I answer, touching her head in what I trust is a motherly gesture. “But there’s no need to rush into it.”
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Rebecca McClanahan’s ten published books include The Tribal Knot (a multigenerational memoir), Word Painting, and The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, winner of the Glasgow Award in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize series, Boulevard, The Sun, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, River Teeth, and numerous other journals and anthologies. Rebecca teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop and in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. In the Key of New York City: A Midlife Memoir is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2020.

Artwork by Dev Murphy