written by Mary Rose Betten
Once I stood with a friend looking down at a lake where wild geese floated in quiet fancy. Out of the blue she asked, “ Are you at home in the world?” Eyes fastened on symmetry I answered, ‘Yes,” and promised myself never to forget the peace of my yes, floating and gliding above the feral geese.
Back in Illinois when I was eighteen, the summer of ’54, I found myself pregnant without benefit of marriage. I had won a scholarship in camp counseling to a girls camp near Canada; a one way ticket out. I needed only to graduate and go. I stumbled through high school graduation from a Catholic girls academy, a miracle since in those days pregnant girls were forbidden graduation. At the camp I stayed till I could no longer zip my uniform then slipped off to a small town in upstate New York, gave birth and relinquished the child to Catholic Charities. For the second time I left town; and headed for “The Big Apple,” where I was given a choice to a cherished profession; character actress. Back home no one, including my parents ever knew I gave birth. Both died never knowing this up-state grandchild existed. Now I have been married forty years, we have one child. When she turned 18 I shared she has a half sister and a few years ago proceeded with the paper work necessary to locate my first child to no avail. Never in all this time had I ever said aloud the name of the upstate N.Y. town where I gave birth fearing my tongue might knot.
Just seven days ago I attended a poetry conference. We broke for lunch and gathered on the lawn with plates of fancy tuna salad. A poetess I admire was telling how she came to be a fast eater. “My family was so big, I grew up in——.” And she said the name. Said aloud in front of God and all those salad eaters the dreaded small town name that sounds like a bird flying against a closed window. I choked on my tuna salad, and went inside.
For the remainder of the afternoon I couldn’t bring myself to look at the woman who trippingly pronounced that name that resonates with someone landing face-down on concrete. Poets continued reading aloud, affirming, sharing thoughts, testing words with the grace of humming birds and butterflies. But the hummingbirds hummed against my forhead and the butterflies settled in my stomach. I left early.
Driving home I thought of names I had been called as a child, soul-piercing names like my brothers dubbing me, Mary Nose. The harsh nun who forbid me name my child. The sounds of assurance my cat makes kneading my thigh, how applause modulates to standing ovation, how my husband announces love, the ahhhs following fireworks, how na-na-na-na-na connotes spite in any language. How never again will I taste tuna salad without hearing; Plattsburgh! Plattsburgh! Plattsburgh!