A single tangible vestige remains of the marriage that ended over forty years ago: a threadbare hand towel imprinted with faded flowers. When it arrived, gift wrapped in paper covered with wedding bells, I was twenty-two, three months pregnant, and trying to believe I was still in love with the nineteen- year- old boy who, in a state where the legal age for marriage was twenty-one, forged the application for the license that legitimized a union that was doomed from its start. The towel in question was one of the few gifts we received after I tried to restore a whiff of middle class respectability to the marriage by paying more money than our cheap wedding rings cost to have announcements printed (after consulting a book of etiquette by Emily Post from which I also learned to set a table and write a proper RSVP) exactly as the book mandated: “Mr. and Mrs. Francis E. Roy announce the marriage of their daughter Paula Alida Roy to ….” The announcement avoided the fact that my father and mother, Francis and Yvonne, estranged and living separately, knew nothing about the elopement until after the fact. No copy of the announcement remains, but for some reason this towel endures, the only domestic remnant of that life-changing union.
Now almost 60 years later, 40- plus years after the marriage ended, that towel, the last survivor of a set of bath towel, hand towel, and washcloth, covers the teak bath stool on which I sit after every shower to dry and lotion my pale, skinny shanks. Having removed it from the dryer after its weekly wash, I held it up to begin folding it. The light from the window passed through its antique thinness. Whatever thread count once defined its slight heft has now thinned into near-sheer fabric through which I can see not only light but also the actual window frame. I wonder why I haven’t banished it to the rag box. Is a tatty towel that is hardly capable of of drying anything but perhaps the most reluctant tears, a mnemonic, an cotton umbilicus tying me to that sad girl a long time ago who opened the gift with little gratitude because its drab homeliness challenged the veneer I was already trying to stroke, layer upon layer, over our “shotgun wedding”?
For that’s what unkind acquaintances, raising eyebrows, surely called it. People at my place of employment knew that there was too little time between the news of my marriage date and the bulge at my waist. They sniggered when I waddled by, a walking version of an old, old story. Remember: this was 1962, long before femnist consciousness raising and Roe v. Wade, and Murphy Brown vs Dan Quayle. Being unmarried and pregnant suggested sin, scandal and disgrace. I should note, however, that the unhappy union did result in the happy birth of three children within 17 months, another reason it endured for another 15 years before ending in anger, outrage, and mutual recrimination. I thought I had put its memory behind me until I found myself staring at the shabby towel stretched between my hands.
One of the antonyms for memoir is bewilderment. Holding the towel, I begin in bewilderment, not at the pull on memory that the towel exerts, but on the narrative that spools out from it, telling me my own story that I thought I understood fully over the years that passed in forward time. As I write now, I think that I understood so little of what happened to me, to us, to the world around us. The shabby towel prompts what Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved remarkably called “rememory,” a word she used both as noun and verb, as in “I rememory…” I rememory the time of the towel as I stand holding it up to the light from the window. Before this old towel is consigned to the dustbin of history where other memory-evoking items have disappeared, I want to wring out of its scanty shape what it may have to say to me in 2022.
I graduated from college in June, 1962. In the fall, I realized that I might be pregnant, a fear confirmed by the obstetrician recommended by a married friend. I wore a fake wedding band to the appointment; I pretended I was thrilled when the doctor confirmed the pregnancy. I remember feeling as I left the office on I street in Washington, DC, as though I had fallen through a rabbit hole into an impossible alternative universe, as unreal and inescapable as being kidnapped by a stranger. The feeling of being held hostage dominated the next months. I think it is difficult for educated and liberated young women today to understand the utter powerlessness I felt. All I knew about access to abortion was the story of a college friend who had gone to Puerto Rico to have an illegal abortion; the details were terrifying and the cost impossible. There was no way I could imagine seeking to terminate the pregnancy; while I had by that time rejected most Cathoic Church teachings, I still felt ambivalent about abortion; it takes a long time for Catholic indoctrination to wear off. So the first pregnancy ran its course, and then a second accident resulted in twin daughters. Three babies in eighteen months. My first obstetrician had refused to prescribe the pill or fit a diaphragm. My second, non-Catholic obstetrician offered both, and thus I joined so many women liberated by the birth control pill into the paradoxes of the “sexual revolution.”
This old towel I hold in my hands, warm from the dryer, its hem unraveling into loose fringe, must have dried all of our bodies at one point or another, must have toweled skin and hair, hands and feet of our grown up bodies and those of our babies. I remember the smell of a newly bathed baby, the pleasure of nuzzling damp, warm belly skin, ruffling the downy hair dry. This towel was small enough to wrap a wet baby like a burrito before carrying the little wriggling body to the changing table to diaper and dress. Three babies, bathed one at a time until they could sit up safely together in the tub. In memory, it seems like a pleasure; in truth it was a chore, coming at the end of a day of endless diaper changes times three, the rank diaper pail, heaped loads of laundry waiting to be pinned to a clothesline, bottles and baby food, the boredom of repetition. No one tells young mothers-to-be about the boredom of caring for the physical bodies of babies and toddlers, let alone the constant anxiety and fear that one is not providing the emotional sustenance and intellectual stimulation and patient love that is supposed to instinctively guide a new mother’s every thought and gesture. No one tells you that you might find yourself tempted to violence or flight after three days of feverish children suffering with simultaneous colds, their hot faces crusted with dried snot, their crying a cacophony of wordless need. Alone with the babies all day, then the tense, combative dinner times and evenings. I often thought I was a bad wife and mother, that is, when I was not too tired to think.
Life’s trajectory can change in a second. My beloved children were conceived in such a second or however long it takes to start the process. Now all three teeter at the edges of 60. Smart, funny, caring, productive, loving individuals who have given me both angst and joy in more or less equal measure and six cherished grandchildren. As I rememory the early years of my children’s lives and of my troubled marriage, I wonder if I regret what felt like the inevitability of their births. I know I have said, when asked, that I would have considered abortion had it been legal back then. And some listeners have responded with horror: “How could you imagine not having your children, those wonderful men and women?” I can’t imagine it because I did have them, maybe not a freely chosen decision, but here we all are. I know that had I chosen to terminate a pregnancy, I would not have been ending the life of a now-known, loved, and cherished human being. There is more to every human being than the cells that separate and grow in the uterus. Potential life is not the life of a fully developed human being. To tell the truth, I don’t know what I would have chosen if I had had a choice. The woman I am now thinks I would have left the relationship; in daydreams, I imagine I would have continued my association with the civil rights movement, maybe gone south to register voters, maybe gone on to graduate school and scholarship and university teaching. I daydream in hindsight, however. At the time, I think that I did what most people do when faced with a crisis: I did the best I could. I worked at a full time job through both pregnancies; the boy I married found a decent job, too, after the twins were born. We held the marriage together as best we could, moving to Connecticut and Kansas and then to New Jersey, where it finally collapsed under the weight of too much pretense and pretending. The husband and father moved out and away; I raised the children more or less alone while pursuing a rewarding career in education. They grew up into their own lives; I too grew up and grew old.
At the recent bat mitzvah for my youngest grandchild, I was surrounded for the first time in over ten years by all of my children and grandchildren, literally surrounded for photos and embraces. On a sunny roof terrace in Brooklyn, in the bright light of the day and of the now, I had no regrets. Life is what it becomes as one tries to make the best of gains and losses. Much of it was not what I imagined or dreamed. Nothing I imagined, however, could replace the joy and love I felt among the men and women who are my family.
Memory and regret and silent partners. They often conspire in the sleepless, lonely shadows to animate our demons, to replay our acts of failure and cruelty and meanness; to enlarge disappointment and disillusion; to mock and diminish even our little triumphs and successes. To my mind, Morrison’s rememory is different: it’s divorced from regret and self-recrimination. It may hurt, but it also heals. Rememory asks that we take another look back through a more honest and compassionate lens. Rememory reminds us to try to understand and forgive ourselves and others. Rememory is old age tinged with grace.
The towel with which I began this essay? It still covers the teak stool on which I sit after each shower. I think I shall keep it there. After all, that raggedy piece of cloth has touched the bodies of people I love and of people I have lost. It’s a relic, really, not unlike, though less famous and fraught, the shroud of Turin, Jesus’ burial cloth on which his face is said to be imprinted. The story has been officially debunked, but that doesn’t stop believers from pilgrimage and worship. None of our body parts is visibly imprinted on my towel, but I do claim it as a relic. The word relic suggests the sacred to me. That’s a heavy label for a shabby old towel to bear, but things acquire what meaning or sacredness we bestow on them, individually or culturally. I have made this old towel into a relic imprinted symbolically, invisibly with the hands of everyone who touched it.
As Carl Jung suggests in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “It all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”