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Opinion >  Column

My grandmother’s botched abortion transformed three generations

By John Turturro

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, my first thought was of my grandmother and the botched illegal abortion that transformed three generations of my family. My mother, Katherine, the fourth of six children, was born in Brooklyn to immigrants from Sicily. Her mother, Rosa, took care of the family and worked as a seamstress from home; her father, Giovanni, earned his living as a shoemaker. They struggled as many poor families did, then and now, to feed and clothe their children. Then Rosa became pregnant with child number seven.

She was 40. She had a baby, a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 7-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old. I imagine the method of birth control was rudimentary. Rosa’s older sister Margarita was distraught that Rosa would have another mouth to feed. Margarita persuaded her sister not to bear another child.

Margarita promised to make her a special drink, a combination of certain powerful plants (most likely pennyroyal, tansy or savin, among other ingredients that were used at the time). That concoction would “take care of it.” Rosa acquiesced to her older sister. My mother was 6 years old at the time.

My grandmother became feverish – most likely from an infection that turned into septic shock that evening – on fire from the poison, burning inside. Pennyroyal, I know now, can be toxic to the liver. My mom watched her mother stand up on her bed, pulling at her hair and asking God, “Why?”

Rosa Inzerillo was taken to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn on April 18, 1927. She died on April 25 at about 7 a.m. The doctor was unable to state definitively the cause of death; the last diagnosis during her last illness was manic depressive psychosis. Contributory: exhaustion.

One late night at the kitchen table, my mother told me this story, slowly and quietly, haunted by the images of her mother’s death. For years, she had hinted that something tragic had happened but she had never put it fully into words until then. She remembered her Aunt Margarita whispering to her mother, coaxing her, while she played with her doll.

My grandfather worked at the Hanan Shoe Factory in Brooklyn for $35 a week. After my grandmother’s death, the Brooklyn Department of Welfare sent all the children to City Hospital. None of the immediate relatives was able to take in any of the children; after every family name – maternal uncle, aunt, grandmother – the official report says, simply: “Cannot assist.”

On June 2, 1927, my mother was taken away screaming and admitted to St. Joseph’s Female Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. The reason for admission: destitution. She remembered being locked in a clothes closet because she could not stop crying and asking for her mother. Her younger brother Fred went to the boys’ section of St. Joseph’s Asylum. Her two older brothers, Anthony and Nicholas, were sent to St. John’s Home – one of them soon ran away, only to be returned. Her older sister, Margaret, went to live at St. Germaine’s Home in Peekskill, N.Y. Her baby brother, Carmello, remained at home with my grandfather and died when he was 4.

As a result of this botched illegal abortion, my mother lost not only her mother but also her home, her family, her native Sicilian language (which she was forbidden to speak by the Irish nuns who ran the orphanage), her sense of safety and security, and her childhood. She felt, throughout her life, that her father had abandoned her and her siblings. When he came to visit on Sundays, she forbade him to speak to her in Sicilian. When she did not follow the rules, she was beaten by the nuns who were supposed to care for her. After five years in the orphanage, she was discharged on her birthday along with her younger brother Fred, when her father married Lena Salvato, a widow with nine children. My mother held a distinct memory of all the cars on the street outside the orphanage and the fear of crossing as she left it. Four years later, her stepmother died of a brain abscess.

The family was split up all over again. My grandfather moved to a furnished room. My mother, now 15, was left with her six stepsiblings. Her older brothers had hardened from the loss. Her brother Nicholas broke into a gas station and stole a radio and a bit of cash – the value of the goods was $16.63. He was sentenced to five to 10 years for petty larceny and sent to Sing Sing prison.

My mother, meanwhile, was forced to quit high school. She had hoped to study dress design. The wound of Rosa’s wrenching death never left her or her siblings. Her brothers were in and out of trouble, leaving broken families in their wake. My mother made sure that didn’t happen to us. She never became the dress designer that she wanted to be, but she never stopped drawing, working as a seamstress and then making wedding dresses at home. She fought fiercely to protect her three children with unconditional love and gave us the gift of security that she never had. I am sure her story is not unusual.

She gave me the gift of this story, perhaps knowing that I would dig into what happened. When I was a little boy, I always eavesdropped on the women, huddled together whispering, juggling, speaking their secret language. They held us together.

My mother never stopped yearning for her mother, but she kept it private; only rarely did I hear her cry out for her. Who would my mother or the rest of her siblings have been had abortion been legal and Rosa allowed to parent her six children, rather than dying to keep them fed?

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