Sally Piper “has less common sense than her five-year-old son.” That sentence, written in 1958, sounds harsh, but my biological mother’s judgment was questioned by the social worker who visited her while she was carrying me.
“Questioned” may be the wrong word.
“Correctly described” is closer to the truth, since Sally Piper seems to have drifted from marital crisis to medical crisis to romantic entanglements without much concern for her son, Richard, or her self-respect. Flipping through the social worker reports, I’m struck by how little Sally Piper seems to have wanted out of life, although she’d grown up a child of great privilege, or so she haughtily reports on a number of pages. Like some mad queen, her tone expresses expectation she will be removed from her two-room apartment over a hardware store and returned to her childhood mansion of rolled lawns. It never happened. She died in 1965, age 33, in Lowell, MA. I was six at the time, and didn’t learn of her death for another 40 years, allowing me the fantasy she was out there somewhere, and maybe we’d eventually meet.
The only literary work I know that gives me some sense of her life is Peyton Place. While at the time it was shocking for its portrayal of small-town scandal and sex, Peyton Place is really a study of what semi-rural poverty can do to people of intelligence and, to some extent, good hearts. Unlike the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, though, this poverty didn’t heat its victims, drawing off impurities and leaving gold behind. Instead, it left them as cold and slimy as lunchmeat left out on an October back porch.
As it happens, I know one of the characters from that book. Really. I didn’t meet him until years after the steamy novel had been turned into a movie then a TV show then included in a Jeannie C. Riley song then disappeared off the national radar. “Little Joe” was his name in the book, although he never uses either diminutive as an adult. He is Joseph and Peyton Place was written by his Aunt Grace. He is (was?) a good man, although one whose life has veered downward over time. We are roughly the same age, although Joseph’s rougher life for the last decade makes him look a bit older. The last time I met with him, we had lunch in Concord, and he was, I believe, back to living down by the river in a camp with other homeless folks. I wish him well, and would love to buy him lunch again. Joseph was taken from his mother as a child, placed in an orphanage, went into the Army, and filed his life with some successes followed by abysmal failures. In short, he led the life I could have had.
As Baby Number Two (aka Baby-Boy Newell, my birth name, the last name taken from the man to whom she was currently married although not my biological father) in a single-parent family in 1958, I could easily have ended up another dead-end kid, doomed from the womb. I might well have ended up left on a church step at dusk and taken into an orphanage. Likewise, I could have been dragged through a tenement existence with a round-heeled ne’er-be-realistic mother and a series of men, with only my older brother as a guide, and he one who had no more sense of the world than I would have. Finally, I could have ended up not ending up at all, my existence snuffed out in the womb by an illegal abortionist. Since Sally Piper had a peck of unplanned pregnancies, and dropped children out on a regular basis, placing them with adoption agencies, I assume at least one of three things was true. Either she had an aversion to abortion, she was too stuck inside her own fantasies to notice she was pregnant until it was too late for even a back-room procedure, or she liked being pregnant because it got her lots of attention and a chance to be treated well by prenatal providers. Regardless, she got pregnant twice more after me, having an adoption-bound stillbirth girl and another daughter placed at birth.
Instead, I got the royal treatment and was swept off, Queen-for-a-Lifetime-like, to live as low-rent royalty, the first-born (or first-adopted, at least) to Beverly and Richard Howard of Durham, NH, my parents. We had boarders when I was little, college students who’d lived with my parents on Faculty Road before they brought me home. To my knowledge, though, my mother never slept with any of them. Except for the adoption workers doing background and adjustment checks before and after my placement and, I imagine, before and after my younger sister’s adoption a few years later, we didn’t have social services keeping an eye on our family. My parents were good, responsible, decent folks about whom no one would declare a lack of common sense. In short, they were the opposite of Sally (Piper) (Newell) Hughes (her name at death), an opposition that helped make me the man I am today.
Joseph may be down by the river behind the ice arena in Concord or, I hope, have crawled out of the bottle and rejoined the land of the fully alive. In the other land that was the late 1950’s, two women were unpreparedly pregnant with boys. Two women faced the choice of a dangerous and illegal abortion or giving birth. Both chose to complete their pregnancies. Both women had to choose between holding those babies or placing them for adoption. Joseph’s mother chose to keep him, dragging him through an early life in a tragic novel before having the state step into separate them. Sally Piper chose to set me free. I’d like to think she did it for my sake, praying there was a childless couple out there that could give me the love and guidance and support she couldn’t—unless she was granted her crazy dream of a return to childhood wealth. I’d like to think she asked that her newborn be brought to her bedside so she could kiss his forehead and wish him good luck. I’d like to think those things, but I can’t, since there is zero evidence Sally Piper was capable of such feelings or performing such actions. What she did was walk away from a complication, only to search for new balls of string to tangle. Joseph’s mother preferred to hold her baby boy tightly, snarling his insides in ways that may take more than a lifetime to sort out.
If Joseph had been raised by my parents in an affluent college town, surrounded by an intellectually curious and emotionally supportive community, instead of, first, by a distracted alcoholic mother and, later, hourly-paid workers at an orphanage, would he have turned out differently? Of course. How could he not? If I’d come into the world of Peyton Place poverty, instead of Durham, would I be who I am? Of course not. How could I?
Two little boys breathing their first breaths of life. The coin gets flipped. Neither gets to call it in the air . . .