The Colors Down in Mexico
by Sandi Sonnenfeld
My mother had an abortion somewhere in the heart of Mexico City. I know this because one day in late August 1984, lingering over Sunday morning breakfast with my three closest college friends, whom had come to stay the weekend before we all headed back to school, my mother overheard us talking about reproductive rights, and my mother suddenly told me about Mexico. She told me about it calmly, in a voice that almost seemed to imply it had happened to someone else. She didn’t even so much tell me, as much as she told the four of us collectively, her way, I guess, of joining in the conversation.
At the time, I don’t know if was more stunned by the news of the abortion itself or that she somehow felt it appropriate information to share with my friends—particularly as my mother and I have never been close. Indeed, I was so caught off guard by my mother’s secret that I didn’t bother to press her for details. And I’ve never been comfortable enough with her for me to bring the issue up again on my own.
Twenty years later, though, I still find myself trying to picture it all my head—my parents wandering around the crowded streets of Mexico City, the hot sun casting a blinding glare off the windows of the skyscrapers. I imagine them walking through a busy urban marketplace, as vendors proudly display fiery red jalapenos, green chilies, orange citrus from Central America, and exotic colored fish caught off the waters of the Yucatan Peninsula. The vendors call out to my parents noisily in Spanish, a language neither of them speak. Perhaps that’s why my mother hesitates at a corner storefront, staring at the brightly woven cloths manufactured in one of Mexico’s many textile mills, reds and yellows and blues dancing across the bottom of a peasant skirt. The smell of yellow corn meal, sweaty bodies and hot roasting coffee fills the air as my father grabs hold of my mother’s hand, leading her towards the white, sterile-looking medical building they seek.
I know the building must have been white and clean, otherwise my father wouldn’t have let my mother go in. Then again, that they were down in Mexico at all to have a medical procedure has caused me to reconfigure everything I thought I knew about my parents.
I do know my parents were not the usual statistics: married eleven years in 1966, they lived in the upper-middle class suburbs of Long Island. My mother’s doctor was considered one of the best ob/gyns in Manhattan. But it had been less than a year since Dinah, the last of us kids, had been born, and my mother was beginning to tire.
“There is only so much of me to go around,” she probably said to my father.
Or maybe she said, “We won’t be able to afford college for five.”
I know I do not question my mother’s decision. Perhaps because I remember my childhood and how there was never enough reading time, never enough of my mother’s voice as she sang show tunes while accompanying herself on the piano, never enough time to talk or not talk about brief exotic trips to Mexico.
Instead, she sent us out to play alone, so she could food shop or wash the kitchen floor. She sent us out alone and did not know about the bigger kids who would hog the swings or the bully who called Dinah an ugly witch because she had a tiny wart on her nose.
Or perhaps it is because I myself am now a married woman, with a busy career and a witty, talented, though largely unemployed husband, since a workplace accident left him partially disabled. Perhaps it is because I am forty-five-years old, ten years older than my mother was when she went down to Mexico, and the choice as to whether or not to bear a child of my own expired long ago.
No, her decision is not what I wonder about as my parents move through the crowds of Mexico City with a hastily scrawled address clutched in my mother’s hand. After all, this was why they had traveled one thousand miles in the first place: to have it done right, to have it done safely, to avoid dark back alleys, coat hangers, and the exorbitant price of breaking United States law.
It’s my father I question. My father who loved the law, loved its subtleties, the way a case could sometimes turn on a phrase or even a single word in a document. He practiced corporate litigation, more because of its reliance on such documents than any true affinity for giant conglomerations.
Early on in his career, my father tried the only criminal case of his life. It happened before any of us were born, back when my mother taught high school in Harlem and my father earned fifty-five dollars a week as a junior associate.
The case was about a Mexican immigrant named Pedro Gravas who stole a chicken from a local grocery store. He was nervous, his large brown hands shaking as he tried to shove the trussed up bird underneath his jacket. He never even got out of the store. The owner caught him and immediately pressed charges.
“It was just a chicken,” my father said. “In those days, it was worth about forty cents. I tried to explain that to the judge. Pedro didn’t try to rob the store. He just wanted to feed his family. He and his wife had four children and another on the way.”
My parents also had four children on that day in Mexico; it was the one on the way they had come to take care of.
As for Pedro Gravas, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. The case had turned my father’s stomach—that families should go hungry in America seemed less excusable than a stolen chicken—but in such cases the law seemed murky about what was right or wrong, dark and sinister.
“Things aren’t always black and white,” my father told me, about a year after my mother casually shared her news, when I was trying to decide whether to drop out of college to pursue a dance career or take the safer route and stay enrolled. “It’s those gray areas that need to be considered.”
He did not say, “It’s those gray areas that can scare you.” He did not say, “I’m sorry I’m only telling you this now.”
Because before college set off warning bells of uncertainty about what I really wanted to do with my life, the world in which I grew up was indeed black and white.
My father drank black and white ice cream sodas, wore black shoes, black-framed glasses, and a nicely starched white shirt under his dark suit. He took us skating on smooth, white ice on Sundays in the winter. And drove us to the beach to lie on glistening hot white sand on Saturdays in the summer. The waves were black and cool and he would lift me up in his arms whenever I felt afraid that the water had grown too deep.
Marijuana, loud music, and color television were all bad for you. Black and white Humphrey Bogart films, The New York Times, and a college education were good for you.
I remember a time when he came back from a business trip in Boston.
“I bought you a record,” he told me. “Look, I bought you a Beatles album.”
I clapped my hands in delight. The Beatles had broken up almost a decade earlier, but I was twelve and had just discovered their captivating studio sound, their sometimes poignant lyrics.
He put the record cover in my hands. Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Plays the Beatles. On the cover Fiedler’s wild white hair looked even wilder against the cut of his black tuxedo. But there was no hint of the four boys from Liverpool, no trace left of the hysteria that caused girls to swoon and scream out their adoration in auditoriums all across the world. There was only the thin white baton used to temper notes that might go astray.
So while the bright colors of Mexico are not those of my childhood, they may explain why carelessness was not tolerated in my household, why my adolescent fantasies were limited to watching celluloid images kiss chastely on the screen while my friends made messy, wonderful, and sometimes horrible discoveries underneath the bleachers of our high school football field or on the sands of Long Beach.
When hiking never deviate from the trails; when in Manhattan never look anyone directly in the eye; both were family absolutes. Don’t tell lies, avoid melodrama at all costs, and always think long and hard before you attempt anything risky.
Yet, there was a richness to my black and white world, a gritty sort of beauty that perhaps would have gone unnoticed in a more technicolor life.
I know my parents’ journey to Mexico was not a mistake. I am proud of their quiet courage to defy both convention and US law to do what they felt was right. And surely my father must have resolved it all in his head before he booked the flights, must have weighed the implications carefully before deciding that legal or not, fetus or not, his biggest moral obligation was to his wife and her needs.
Yet, as with every decision one makes that truly matters, both my parents obviously paid a price. That maybe the reason why mother and I never were close stemmed from her need to emotionally distance herself from the children she had in order not to think about the one that might have been. If my father’s precise cautiousness, his endless urging for us to choose carefully, think rationally, might be a form of atonement for the condom failing, for in a moment of passion, impregnating his wife a fifth time with a child she didn’t feel equipped to handle.
And sometimes, even though I have never seen them, I long for the colors down in Mexico, to get caught up in the florid reds, purples and golds all mixing together, vibrant, humming with life and terribly, terribly real.