Last of the Unwanted Children
My grandmother was born into poverty, in the northern part of the American Midwest, near the end of the Great Depression. She lived the first 17 years of her life in a place plagued by bitterly cold winters, in a home filled with violence, to a family that didn’t want her.
Her story does not have a happy ending.
The second child of what would eventually be nine, but the eldest daughter, she wasn’t as useful to the family as the boys were. Sure, she could help with chores, and she could do the hours-long, thankless jobs of cooking and sweeping, but there was no income to be earned from her labor in the long run. There was not enough upper-body strength in her five-foot-two frame to be of any real use on the farm that barely sustained their family through long, harsh winters.
Her mother never wanted to be a mother. Her mother — my great-grandmother — had also been born into poverty in a miserably cold, wet, dreary place with no opportunities for young girls. She did the only thing she could to survive in the middle of the Depression: she got married.
She married a small-town man with no education, but at least she would be provided for. They had three babies in four years; the latter parts of her pregnancies became the only times he wasn’t hitting her. Something about the big, obvious belly stayed his hand.
Then the U.S. entered World War II, and that uneducated man joined the U.S. Navy. He never saw combat, but he stayed in the military long after the Germans were defeated. He came home every couple years, drank a lot, hit everyone who got in his way, and left again. His military paychecks supported the family, but nine months after every visit, there was another mouth to feed.
Those first three babies — which included my grandmother — had come quickly, but the next six were spread out over the course of 20 years as a result of my great-grandfather’s military service-related absences. During those years, my great-grandmother complained loudly and often about how she was “stuck” with all these kids. Nine of them, by the time all was said and done. She started having babies when she was 19 years old…