Chapter 31: Adding Things Up

After taking Mother to the nursing home, Mary and I began the job of clearing out her apartment. As we went through bureau drawers and closets, Mary told me what it had been like living with her.

“Did you know your mother approved of abortion?”

I hadn’t ever thought about it, but I wasn’t surprised. Why wasn’t I surprised? I would have to think about that later.

That night, I remembered hearing my mother say things when I was a little boy that I hadn’t understood—things about how “they” had too many children and how women who had been raped—a word I didn’t understand—should be able to have “it taken care of.” I remember her saying those things because of the way she lowered her voice and slanted a glance at me to make sure I wasn’t listening. I was, but I kept on playing with my toy soldiers to make her think I wasn’t.

She came of age during the eugenics craze—one of those “the science is settled” crazes like “peak oil,” “the population bomb,” and “climate change” that require immediate, enormous sacrifices on the part of somebody. Eugenics was the solution to “the problem” of the degeneration of the human species, which was caused by permitting inferior types to breed.

The reasoning of the eugenicists went like this: Human beings are animals. Darwin proved this. So that’s a fact. And Darwin had also pointed out that “excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” Therefore our fact-based elite concluded that “the facts” required them to purge the human species of “the unfit.”

Only superstitious Catholics and hillbilly Protestants opposed eugenics because they still believed people had souls. That belief provided a basis for the equality of all human beings in spite of their differences. But if all we are is animals, there is no basis for equality and the “fit” must keep the “unfit’ from reproducing in order to keep the species from degenerating. The popularity of this idea among fashionable people during the first half of the twentieth century is scary.

H.G. Wells declared the time had come to replace irrational Christian values with scientific values. He proposed that we improve the white race by selective breeding: “And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go.” George Bernard Shaw suggested that a humane way to send them off would be to gas them. The faculty at Harvard provided the “brain trust” for the eugenics movement. The Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations provided worldwide philanthropic support for it. The Surgeon General and the staff of the Museum of Natural History endorsed the idea. Theodore Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter. So was Bertrand Russell. So were the mainline Protestant churches. After the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to sterilize the feebleminded to keep them from having degenerate offspring, 32 of the then 48 states passed laws permitting “experts” to select and sterilize the unfit. California led the way. The Nazi laws for the prevention of diseased offspring were modeled after California’s.

Hitler brought a temporary end to the eugenics craze by making it so horrible that fashionable people could not remember ever having endorsed it. If not for him, the idea might well have totally transformed the values of many Western nations.

Eugenics must have particularly concerned my mother because she was so often told she had “bad” (Coleman) blood. Moreover, her father was a trolley car conductor!

She probably never saw the old book of photographs I found while browsing in a used bookstore. It purported to show that doctors look more intelligent than horse-car conductors, and that horse-car conductors look more intelligent than horse-car drivers! But in an era when such books circulated and when people felt free to speak about “base and servile types,” she must have realized that the nation’s elite did not consider her father an Alpha breeder (any more than her grandmother did). And then, too, after she grew up, she had to deal with the fact that she had tuberculosis. More evidence of her “unfitness.”

Her problem was that she agreed with the eugenicists. She was on the side of the people who wanted to “improve the breed.” But according to her mother and grandmother, she had “bad blood.” She was one of the “unfit.” In her heart, she knew better. She was as good as anyone and probably better. But at the same time . . .

She could never put her problem so plainly, which is one reason she couldn’t resolve it. Then I recalled her work at Kansas City’s Crittenton Home, first as a volunteer, later as a member of its board. The first Florence Crittenton Home was established in New York City in 1893 to help young women “in distress.” Soon there were Crittenton Homes all over the country. What always puzzled me was that Mary Ellen never showed much sympathy for anyone else “in distress,” only unmarried pregnant women who had “made a mistake.”

Nothing suggests that she herself was ever “in distress.” Nor was her mother. True, Bessie and Frank eloped, but they were married for two years before my mother was born. Maybe Mary Ellen’s sympathy for “girls who had made a mistake” was an indirect way of expressing sympathy for her mother, who plainly felt her marriage to Frank had been a big mistake. Or maybe Mary Ellen’s sympathy was mainly for the babies? Was she afraid that they would be treated as “unwanted burdens,” just as she had been?

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The nursing home called and a woman’s voice said that they couldn’t wake Mary Ellen up and wanted to know if I wanted them to send her to a hospital. After some more back and forth I decided not to send her to a hospital. And so she died in the Manor Care Center.

I was anticipating problems when my father died. But there were none. He had paid for a preneed plan at a funeral home for both him and my Mother. It provided for everything. Mother had written her own obituary. After she died, Mary typed a clean copy and we sent it to the newspaper along with a check. People who aren’t famous have to pay to get their obit in the paper. The publicity was important. It drew more people to the funeral than I expected. Some of Mother’s old friends came with their canes or wheelchairs. So did the children of some of her dead friends. And I was surprised to see some of my friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen for half a century.

My fellow trustee at the bank sent letters to me, my sister, and my brother explaining our choices with respect to the trust. And he put me in touch with a man who did estate sales.

All this reflected not just my parents’ self-reliance but their consideration for others—in this case, for their children. They never wanted to put anyone “to any trouble.”