Shame Catcher

The antiseptic odor of rubbing alcohol permeated the room and a crisp white sheet of paper crinkled as I shifted myself off the examining table, but I still felt soiled. The college clinic physician’s conclusion, You’re pregnant. I can refer you for an abortion if this pregnancy causes physical or psychological harm. Make an appointment for next week. Meanwhile, consider your mental distress. At this time in the seventies, the Catholic Women’s League at my parish protested regularly in front of the local hospital because it provided abortions. I returned to the health clinic a week later and told the doctor I couldn’t abort. My plans beyond that decision snarled.


In catechism class, I memorized a knotted rosary of sins, bead by bead. Grade school: don’t disobey your parents, lie, or cheat. High school: no masturbation, premarital sex, or birth control pills. Unforgivable transgression: abortion. In middle school, I wiped damp palms on my plaid skirt and struggled to remember my small misdeeds when nuns herded us to confession. In high school, I found it easier.

I hated high school because boys loved to tease me. Blotches of scarlet twisted up my neck each time the boy seated behind me snapped my bra strap. When I summoned the courage to complain to Mr. Gregoire, my grade-twelve chemistry teacher, he bellowed about my excessive sensitivity. The next day, while scratching a diagram depicting the attraction between neutrons and protons on the blackboard, he turned and stared at me. Girls, clench an aspirin between your knees if you don’t want to get tainted by pregnancy. One of his many random, bewildering comments.

I was seventeen and had been dating the same boy for six months when Dad delivered the talk.  He waited until I was trapped in the car as we drove to the library. In a matter-of-fact monotone, he cautioned me to remain constantly vigilant for the uncontrollable surge of teenaged boys’ hormones. It’s just chemistry. You need to resist its inevitable pull. The left-turn signal ticked. Light reflecting through the front windshield converted from amber to red.

I didn’t discuss sex with my mother although I had counted the weeks between her marriage and my birth: thirty-five. Mom often mentioned my younger sister’s premature birth.

Mom, was I premature too?

No, you were full-term.

I never found the courage to ask why my birth was five weeks closer to her wedding than it should be.

One gym period, Miss Reynold herded the girls into a classroom. After a film about sperm penetrating ova flickered by, she warned us that boys could breeze through premarital sex without taking responsibility. Just say no. You don’t want to end up trapped, a single mother on welfare. We stared down at laced fingers resting on ink-stained desks in silence while the projector’s fan hummed.  

I started going all the way in my final year of high school. My boyfriend’s elderly aunt, our chaperone, shouted from the top stair but couldn’t manage the steep descent to the windowless basement. Soiled in-door/out-door carpet in a mildewed basement, not the milieu I had imagined. Still, I spasmed with pleasure when his hand brushed across my erect nipple. Diluted blood spiraled down the drain when I rinsed out my panties afterward. 

In our small town, the Public Health Unit housed the only clinic that provided birth control without parental consent. I feared my father, who worked there, would catch me scuttling across the building’s polished floors. My boyfriend refused to expose himself to the bright-lighted scrutiny of purchasing condoms in a pharmacy. Between rows at the back of the library, I read about the Rhythm Method. No need to reveal my conundrum to anybody. 


I returned home from college for Christmas still concealing my time-limited secret. While my fourteen-year-old sister and I did the dishes, she complimented me on the increased size of my bustline. Perhaps, she was more observant because of the recent pucker in her t-shirts. Lemon-scented dish soap bubbles burst as fixed my gaze forward. “Shut up and dry.” 

I blurted out the truth during winter Reading Week while my boyfriend and I were cross-country skiing. He demanded that I quit school, move home, and get married. I insisted on time to decide. He swished, swished, swished across virgin snow as he steamed ahead. I wove my way down the trail home alone. 

When I told my parents, they lamented about how my disgraceful sins had ensnared them. They bemoaned the humiliation I inflicted upon them. After they prayed with their priest for the charity and strength to forgive me, they summoned me into the living room. They offered to help me if I stayed in school. We never discussed whether that help included assistance raising the baby or adoption. Winter sunlight bounced off snow and streamed in the bay window as I sat there in silence. I returned to college after the winter break with my future tangled in a web of conflicting demands. 

The first decision I had to make about my pregnancy was the easiest. I understood life as a precious gift, and I wanted to take care of the baby I cradled inside me. I left my first obstetrical visit with a prescription for prenatal vitamins and went directly to the pharmacy. At the check-out counter, I searched through my pockets and the bottom of my purse for ten more cents. The cashier took a dime from her wallet. Did she ask herself, “Why punish the unborn for the sins of the mother?” I asked myself the same question as I tried to make my next decision. Put the child up for adoption? Stay in school as a single mom? Leave school and get married? In frequent nightmares, I fell down the spiral stairs at college and miscarried. In daylight, I clutched banisters. 

Baby’s father pressed his hand against the stretched skin of my abdomen. The corner of his eyes and lips wrinkled with delight when he felt baby’s flutters. I decided the baby deserved a family’s love. Baby’s daddy was someone I could cling to for support. I convinced my parents and we began planning a low-budget wedding. 

We met my parent’s priest in his pine-sol-scented office to prepare for the ceremony. He instructed us to confess then remain celibate so we could enter into marriage purified. How ridiculously impossible to become virginal again. Although I envisioned a sweater unraveling back into a skein of wool, I still said the five rosaries the priest gave me as penance. Hail Mary, mother of Jesus, take care of my baby.

My fiancée invited me to walk with him. He had to meet with his professor to discuss loose ends with his final practicum. As we approached the verdant fields in front of the campus, he began to fidget. He released my hand while gulls swooped and cawed above. Instead of knitting us together, he cast me off around the corner from his professor’s office. Prickles of heat feathered my face as I stood alone in the hallway. My belly button protruded; my ring finger still naked. But with wedding invitations already mailed, I saw only one path forward.

My classmates surprised me with a “wedding” shower before I returned to my hometown. Gifts ranged from cookbooks to baby bibs. Although no one planned a baby shower for me at home, my mother bought me a crib and my mother-in-law knitted a blanket. I still wanted a mobile. At the time, knock-off dreamcatchers were ubiquitous and I considered buying one. These hoops wrapped in imitation suede surrounded a web of yarn and had unidentified feathers and plastic beads dangling from them. Dreamcatchers hung over a cradle trapped nightmares within their web but allowed pleasant dreams to slip through the spaces, slide down its feathers to the sleeping infant. At some point between the wedding and the baptism, my mother called. She told Dad to stop bringing me gifts like fresh cheese or their leftover ham. She said I had to live with the consequences of my actions. I needed to protect my newborn from more than nightmares. 

I rummaged around the back of my underwear drawer for the plastic and string rosary the nuns gave me after my first confession. I snipped it into four eleven bead strings and fashioned them into a mobile with cardboard, leftover wool, and grey-tipped gull feathers I collect from the riverbank. I only tacked it up above my son when I was near enough to watch. I didn’t want him to accidentally choke on a rosary bead.


Kimberly PetersonKimberly Peterson’s recent work has appeared in Entropy, Prairie Fire, EVENT, Understorey, and Bywords. She received honorable mention in The Banister (2016) and Passager (2019) poetry contests and notable essay designation in Memoir Magazine’s essay contest (2018). She is currently polishing a poetry manuscript. Visit her website to read her work.