Saturday, December 3, 2016

Against the Odds

by Jean Roberta

Please excuse the lateness of this post. I hope it doesn’t look like a lame conclusion to the current topic.

I can’t remember having any cliff-hanging (literal or metaphorical) close calls, so I will discuss a few events which might have turned out much worse.

Sixty-five years ago, birth was generally more dangerous to mothers and babies than it is now.

As far as I know, ob/gyns didn’t know in advance what position the little creature was in when the mother went into labor, and after that point, surgery would be dangerous at best and fatal at worst. So whether the baby was trying to come out feet-first, bum-first or sideways, efforts were made to get him or her out through the usual opening without major damage to the mother.

Dr. Abraham Feinstein of Redwood City, California (possibly related to a future Mayor of San Francisco) preferred to err on the side of caution. When he found that his patient’s baby was in the breech position, he was concerned about the length of time the baby would be without oxygen. So he arranged for an oxygen tent to be in the delivery room, and he rushed the baby into it as soon as she had emerged, curled up in a ball like a hedgehog. The normal procedure of that time was for the doctor to dangle the baby upside down by his/her ankles and swat the little bottom to start the breathing process.

Dr. Feinstein advised his patient to gently pull the baby’s legs down as a regular exercise. Laying her on her back usually resulted in a curled-up baby in the “fetal” position. When the baby was about a year old, her parents were advised to put her in corrective baby shoes so she wouldn’t be bow-legged. Baby legs tend to be pliable, and within a few months, the baby had straight legs.

As far as anyone could tell, the baby didn’t suffer any damage to the brain due to lack of oxygen, or much damage to the body due to her unusual position in the womb. (As an adult, she was found to have slight curvature of the spine, but it hasn’t inconvenienced her.)

Dr. Feinstein, like everyone else in the Jewish diaspora of the 1940s, was devastated by the “war in Europe” (not yet called the Holocaust), followed by the “McCarthy Era” in the U.S., which disproportionately targeted leftist Jews.

His patient, Jane, might have chosen him because she saw him as a kindred soul. Although Jane was not Jewish herself, she had come of age in New York City in a close-knit group of artsy-intellectual Jewish high-school friends who proudly considered themselves “bohemian.” Had her family stayed in Scranton, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression instead of moving to the big city to find work, so many things would probably have turned out differently.

If Jane had not been introduced to radical thought, she probably would not have earned a degree from Hunter College on scholarships, or traveled all the way to Oregon to do graduate work in English at the University of Oregon, where she met two male friends who were both interested in her. She chose Arthur rather than Dean. She and Arthur (Art) were engaged when Art joined the U.S. Navy after the Japanese Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor late in 1941. (Art had a sensitive stomach, and could get seasick on Ferris wheels, but he felt it was his patriotic duty to join the armed forces, and to a West Coast boy, the Navy seemed like the obvious choice.)

Art was stationed in New York City in 1944, and given a promotion, which gave him the right to marry. He and Jane were married, and apparently they enjoyed each other’s company so much that for the first few years, they didn’t want to spoil things by having children.

What Jane’s Jewish friends had done for her was done for Art by the G.I. Bill, which provided free college tuition for men who had served in the armed forces. In 1950, Jane and Art were back on the West Coast, this time in California, where Art was earning a Master’s degree in Economics at Stanford University.

The U.S. economy was booming, and the media encouraged everyone to “start a family.” Jane and Art jumped on the bandwagon. (As they later explained, their baby was conceived on Thanksgiving, when they were drinking more than usual.) In summer 1951, Dr. Feinstein delivered their first baby girl. Jane, Art and their family (which eventually included three daughters) survived surprisingly well.

If you haven’t already guessed, I was the breech-born baby who took her first breath in an oxygen tent. So many things could have gone wrong: deprivation of oxygen during a difficult birth could have turned me into a vegetable.

Before that, my parents might never have met. (And since they grew up on opposite sides of the continent, chances were against it.) At the University of Oregon, Jane might have chosen Dean instead of Art – if she hadn’t already chosen a nice Jewish boy in New York City and decided to stay there instead of venturing into the Wild West.

Or Jane could have chosen to remain a very discreet lesbian (discretion being the only option at the time) after her early affair with a young woman she met in church.

And of course, Art could have been killed in the war. Or – if he had openly expressed left-of-center political views in the 1950s, he could have been blacklisted from every intellectual/professional job, which happened to several of Jane’s friends from high school. Or he and Jane might have decided to stay childless.

As the U.S. enters the Era of Trump, and Britain has entered the Era of Brexit, and the whole world seems to be going to hell, we need to remember that things weren’t necessarily better in the past. Every little happy event seems to be the result of a close call or a bubble of oxygen in an ocean which has drowned so many.


  1. So many variables to affect how an individual comes to be! It's interesting to consider how big a role time plays. Breech babies have been risky forever, but their chances have improved as time goes by. My younger son was a breech baby, ten pounds and a very big (inherited) head. I was persuaded to schedule a C-section, which we did, and I was disappointed that it had to be done that way, but it really was necessary. I used to think I could have been a rugged pioneer woman and given birth beside a covered wagon, but it's just as well that I came along in the mid-20th century and my son came along decades later.

  2. This reminds me of my "chicken wire theory of reality". There are so many choice points in history and in our lives, so many places where the outcome of some event creates multiple paths that potentially diverge into different futures. What if all these realities co-exist, simultaneously? It all depends on the path you follow from one choice point to the next.

    In any case, I feel honored to know you in *this* reality. And I'm very curious about your mother's lesbian affair, which I don't think you've mentioned before. Perhaps you'll write about it in some future post.

    1. I love this "chicken wire theory of reality" Idea. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Sacchi and Lisabet. Re difficult births, my own daughter was a face presentation (head down, the way it's supposed to be, but not facing my backbone, which enables a baby to come out at the right angle). This situation seemed parallel to my own at birth, but by 1977, doctors knew how to stop contractions (even in the third stage) in order to do a caesarian, so I agreed to that after my general practitioner called in an ob/gyn, who tried to pull her out with forceps, with no success. I was glad to have options! The possibility of damage to the baby (physical and/or mental) outweighed any concerns I had about damage to me.

  4. Oh yes, my mother's lesbian affair! I'm not sure if my dad ever knew. (And if he did, he wouldn't have taken it seriously.) When I was 18, my mother told me about her "friend" Graciela, originally from Puerto Rico (so not part of my mother's regular high school crowd) who was called "Chickie" for some reason. They were both teenagers during the Depression, and apparently they used to go to the movies and sit in the balcony so they could hug and kiss without being seen. (Presumably they looked for mostly-empty movie theaters.) This was my mother's description of what sounded to me like a sexual relationship, though I'm not sure how far they went. I don't think my mother had any contact with Chickie after she spent 5 days on a train in 1940 to go to the University of Oregon. I always wondered why she went so far when there are quite a few universities in the eastern U.S. My guess is that something happened to Jane and Chickie -- they were probably "outed" to their relatives, who were horrified, and threatened to have them locked up somewhere. Moving from the East Coast to the West Coast put a lot of space between them, and then Jane's engagement to a very white-bread Oregon country boy (poor but WASP, descended from Daniel Boone and slave-owning southerners on his mother's side) completed her makeover as a "normal" woman of the time. That's my guess, though my mother never explained it that way, and now she could only be contacted by seance.

  5. I love this piece, Jean, and it feels like a good summation of the topic. Nearly anything has the potential to careen into disaster (or rise into wonderfulness) at any given moment, and that's one of the amazing but also bewildering things about life. Your piece illustrates that so clearly, and it's a truth at the heart of the idea of a close call.


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