Chapter 3. Summer of Love, Summer of Loss …
“…Little ditty about Jack and Diane…
Two American kids doing the best they can …”
John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack and Diane, from American Fool, 1982
Nineteen-fifty nine. October, I believe. It was a bittersweet parting, the girl, just 16 and still in high school … the boy, a man now, serving his country, going away with the usual promises of love and fidelity … but they were in love, or so they thought … they had no idea …
The first year flew by, what with basic training and school assignments and first duty stations … she finished her junior year in high school, he survived Airman Basic. He came home on leave twice, and each time they renewed their promises … and then came his orders for California, a million miles away.
She wandered through her senior year with no direction, no focus other than getting by … she wrote him several times a week, and he answered, and love was renewed with smeared ball-point X&O’s and little hearts dotting the ‘I’s. She went to her senior prom with her two best friends … one who was too shy to ask a date, and one whose girlfriend was in another school and could not attend. They were a ménage a trois of misery.
Finally. Graduation, and endless summer. It was 1961; summer was in full lust as only July can be. And he came home on leave. It was more intense than ever, and now that she was done with school, the whole future took on a new dimension. So, as they will, the soft summer night and the honeysuckle-honed air carried them away into love one more time. And then, too soon, he went away again. More promises. More tears. More emptiness.
It was not long before she knew she was pregnant. Her mother became a Valkyrie of accusation. The girl was just 18, and still three years shy of being an adult, in that Neanderthal Age of the Chattel Property Laws of the Commonwealth. She would do her mother’s bidding (her father never knew, was never told), or be ruled a delinquent and sent away in shame. Her mother made inquiries, having connections with well-placed people in the community who always knew someone. And upon arranging the time and place, dragged the girl to the City into Jewtown, where, it was well known, the best doctors practiced. Well. The cleanest, at any rate. And there, on a Friday evening, Shabbos nothwithstanding, the girl was relieved of her dirty little secret with no anesthesia on an exam table in a back room of an office, and given very little time to recover afterwards. Her mother spirited her back to her home, berating her at every mile, piling her plate full of the guilt that would last a lifetime.
Then her mother turned her not-insignificant rage on the boy, and wrote him in no uncertain terms that he would never see the girl again. That if he persisted, his commanding officer would be advised of the boy’s reluctance to obey her, and he would certainly see a mother’s point of view. She did not, however, tell him of the girl’s pregnancy. The girl was forbidden to tell, as well. Being a good daughter, and fearing for the boy, she obeyed. After all, in two years, they would be together forever. It wouldn’t matter. Ah, youth … the boy, fearing the mother would make good her threats, dropped off the radar for good, found a California girl, and went on with his life.
So. The girl’s life went on, as well. And only three people (not counting the doctor) ever knew … her mother, her mother’s connected friend, and the girl herself.
Years went by. The boy had married long before. The girl had married (badly) as well, and subsequently divorced. She had no children, most likely because the procedure had left her with damage that was not reversible. The girl’s mother died. Then the mother’s friend died. And it was only the girl, now a middle-aged woman of 59, who was left to carry the secret. She had carried it for forty years, and she was getting tired. It was a new millennium, it was 2002, and she wanted to put it down. Then, quite by accident, through the vagaries of the Internet, she found him, that boy of 40 years before, now an older man of 61, living a life of silent desperation. And, at some point a few months after the connection, she told him the rest of the story. She believed he had a right to know. Here, she said, hold this. But he wouldn’t … or couldn’t … share the weight. And the connection was finally severed, once and for all.
Now the girl, older still at 66, understands the importance of CHOICE. Choice is not restricted to yes, or no, but allows either, and renders either one acceptable under law. She understands this because she was not given the freedom of choice. It does not matter what one chooses, only that the choice is allowed. Even today, she does not know what her choice would have been, had she been able to make it; she only knows that it would have been her choice, of her own free will … and she would not have been a victim of coercion. She would have had her own voice. She would have been free to say, No, I will not do this. You cannot force this on me. As it was, she said nothing. No one would have listened to her anyway.
She also understands that the boy was not worth her, not then, not now. She finally understands that she has worth, that her existence is individual, and special, and unique. She is a child of the universe, and her life has meaning. It has come late to her, but it has come.
But when she dies, there will be no child to mourn her. Because she did not have a choice. That is the greater tragedy.