Saving Sammie's Baby
It was the first day of the first week of the first time I went away to college. It was the early ‘70s. My father drove me out there, scowling and convinced that he would have to tie me up and shut me in the trunk of the car and bring me home again. News of campus unrest had reached even our little hamlet, and he said he was darned if what little money he had to send me to college was going to support that kind of malarkey.
It really didn´t help that when we pulled into the gates of the college a rangy fellow burst from the bushes and ran in front of the car, flapping his wings like a huge gull and screaming. Later I learned it was Elliot so he was probably tripping. Now my father claims he doesn´t even remember that, but I quaked at the time, dead sure my college career was over before it started.
After unloading me and depositing me in my room with two large suitcases, a trunk, and a lot of wide-eyed optimism on my part, my parents conveniently disappeared. I set to putting my stuff away before the arrival of my roommate. She turned out to be a lot more versed in the drug culture than I was. Already, by that evening, I was dissolutely trolling the halls for a room not full of pot smoke. That´s how I found Sammie.
I heard strains of harp and guitar. The door was slightly open, so I knocked. There was a long pause, and a quiet “Yes?” so I stuck my head in. Seated cross-legged on a sumptuous velvet pillow in the middle of her floor, her head was bound in a turban of printed Indian silk, her hands resting on her knees. A small brass bowl burned incense, surrounded by a pinecone, an autumn leaf, a crystal rock. I was enthralled. I apologized but she just bade me come in. I insisted that this was the only room where I could breathe, and could I just stay?
I did stay. We began a conversation that lasted into that night, through that semester, and for at least the next fifteen years. Sammie was my goddess. Unlike me, she came through puberty with an equanimity that I still struggle for now, in my late thirties. At eighteen, she already had a good grasp of what life promised and what she would agree to deliver.
That first semester was a lot of fun. We traded men like younger girls trade model horses and Barbie dolls. We weren´t going to be tied down, so we had a pact to make a mutual decision on our lovers and to be sure we each didn´t get hung up on one.
Halfway through the semester we hitchhiked to Colorado for a few days. It blew my econ grade, but it was worth it. Sammie loved it, and before the next semester was half over, she jumped into a van with a couple of hippies and went back there to stay.
After a while I got a nice long letter about her life on the commune. That summer, after school was over, I took the train out to stay with her. My middle class family was calling. My father wanted me home to work and help out around the house. He couldn´t understand where I was going, or why I was going there, and most of all, why I would spend my hard-earned money on a bus ticket.
But the mountains were purple and gorgeous in their ruggedness; the spring flowers spread out everywhere in breathtaking splendor. Sammy and I rejoiced. We hiked for hours, lay on the rocks, contemplated the sky, and talked out everything we hadn´t had the endless nights to do so in for a long time.
Sammie said that she was gloriously happy on the commune farm, but she felt like it was time to do some work. The war was still on, and there were protests to lodge and letters to write, and other things to sabotage that she didn´t really want to go into yet.
Though we wrote more religiously to each other after that it seemed like Sammie was always on the go from a demonstration here to an alternative community there. Her capacity for organizing was incredible, so she was really in demand—but we managed.
I went to England for my senior undergrad year, and Sammie joined me there for six whole months in my little bedsitter. Every second I had off from school we traveled—to Stonehenge, to Paris, to Amsterdam. At Christmas we got tickets to Greece, donned our backpacks, converted all our cash, and flew to Athens.
Sammie was wonderful to travel with. Undaunted by not knowing the language she heckled the vendors.
“What´s this?” She would gesture until they understood she wanted a word, and then she would repeat it until her pronunciation was right. At the very next vendor she´d insist on using the word.
“Right? Right?” She would say, beaming and laughing. That laugh of hers that seemed to say all life is a pleasant afternoon of pink lemonade and croquet.
We stayed in Athens for a few days, walking to the ruins of the old city to throw food scraps down for the millions of cats who made their homes there. Sammie enticed one of the wild things with a tidbit right into her lap.
We climbed the mountain to the Acropolis, and at the top we sat silently for several hours in the wind. Sammie had her eyes shut, she was transported. We knew we had been there in another life; we had been temple handmaidens together.
A bus took us south to the coast, and we hopped a boat to Corfu. There we exploded centuries of gender separatism by invading back street bars full of black-clad men at their afternoon business. We were not asked to leave, but these were places that Greek women never ventured. We laughed when we got a small hotel room that would cost us thirty cents a night more if we wanted a toilet seat.
In the land of the ancients we read Sappho and Plato to each other. We hiked the mountains and breathed in the freedom of the olive trees. We caught a ride in a van with some draft dodgers to Italy, and then parted company in Madrid. I had to go back to reality—the new semester was starting back in England. Sammie wanted to stay with the draft dodgers and eventually end up in Singapore.
As she walked away I knew Sammie led a charmed life. I never could be sure where her money came from, but her needs were so few, she did things on a pittance that would have been impossible for others. It was the end, for a very long time, of that precious time in our lives when we had been able to live and breathe each other.
I packed my bag and sat on the bed until rosy-fingered dawn let me creep to the train station and thence to an airplane. Back in my bedsitter in Oxford I lay on the bed for days before I began to bicycle into the countryside again.
I missed Sammie a lot. I didn´t hear from her, except for a brief postcard now and again tracking her trek across the continents. Midway through the next summer a lengthy letter arrived at my parents’ house.
She was in India and she had married an Indian man for a permit to stay there. It was unclear to me if they were lovers, it appeared not, but Sammie was entranced with India and this was how she could remain there as long as she wanted.
I was in grad school, when, after a particularly wonderful letter describing the lush mountain shrines, all communication stopped. I had the address of her husband, but my letters dropped off the face of the earth. No replies. With my first full paycheck in the bank after I graduated, I spent one whole night with the international operator, finding a phone number for the address. It seemed to be a hotel.
When I called and asked for Sammie the fellow shouted not here. I finally communicated the name of her husband, and he said, “Call back in morning.”
Several aborted attempts finally yielded a soft-spoken man who informed me that Sammie his wife was not with him anymore.
“She is not spoken of here,” he said, and abruptly hung up.
It´s torture, not knowing. There isn´t a lot you can do when you can´t find someone. The world has become smaller and smaller as communication has improved, but even so, one person out in that vastness is unreachable no matter what century of what millennia you are in.
I let it drop. I was consumed working for a social service agency, and life was rewarding me with the middle-class privilege that I knew I could expect. I married a stable man and I had Nathan and Susanna and went through their preschool years immersed in children´s books and snotty noses. I had no time for friendships anyway, between work and babysitters and the house.
By the time Adam and I divorced, Nathan was in school full time and Susanna, always the independent one, was taking her own baths and dressing herself. I was beyond worrying about "quality" time, being a professional and single parent.
Then Sammie came back.
“Hey, Nora.” She walked up the front steps one day, knocked on the door, and greeted me as if we just saw each other a few days ago. We hugged and kissed and laughed and cried a lot.
The old wire-rims were gone and in their place were large-lensed contemporary plastic frames. The love beads and dangly earrings had been replaced by five small posts piercing each ear from lobe to cartilage. Her hair was longer and pulled back in one braid. The Indian silk scarves and colorful hippie skirts had given way to a simple long-underwear waffle top and a mid-calf black skirt. Sensible shoes, worn but well cared for.
We were both older. Before the mirror together we looked like women. I had the haggard look of long hours at a sedentary job with needy clients and the worries of a paycheck too short for growing children. Sammie had the dignity and glow of a woman on her own.
In India she had thrived on her devotion to feeding beggars and lepers. But she was rounded up by the police one day with a small bit of contraband in her rucksack, the forgotten gift of a couple of American friends who stopped to see her. A bad move to be a white woman used to walking the streets on your own, conversing with undesirables. And then this.
She spent a while in jail, she said, and declined to describe that for me. I couldn´t picture Sammie in prison. I could not believe that she stood before me alive after that. I thought it would have killed her.
She finally got out of prison through the unrelenting efforts of her family. They paid for her to return to the States. She spent a brief time with them, but even that was too much for her. Water was thicker than blood in Sammie´s family. She found me to save her sanity.
Life took on new meaning for me when we were roommates again. Nathan found her stories fascinating, and she and Susanna sewed delightful costumes for the little faceless dolls Sammie loved to make. We did all the museums, we did the zoos and beaches, we went camping when it got warmer.
I wanted her to stay forever. There is something in the companionship of your favorite woman friend which goes beyond anything a male lover could offer. I was at the time falling out with Tom, the second big love mistake of my life. I think having Sammie there, with all the offer of companionship and none of the aggravation of male love helped that stupid thing go by the wayside in short order. It was great.
But by summer Sammie said she couldn´t impose on me anymore. She hooked up with an anti-nuclear group, and was once again in the saddle for social change. Moving in with a group on the south side of the city she tucked her pallet into the eaves of a recycling warehouse. When you are called to reshape the excesses of capitalism, these things are enough.
We still got together as much as we could. I was back in school again for my doctorate, and teaching part-time. Social service had finally burned me out. If I could only hang on through another stint in grad school, I’d be qualified to teach full time at one of the local universities or colleges.
Together we devoured the cultural offerings of the city. At times, then, my complete absorption in the delight we had together would slip for a short moment, and I would see her as the crowd around us seemed to--plain, rough clothes amongst tuxedos and gold lamé, her thatch-colored hair pulled back in a single braid, her face without make-up. She was a perfect foil for the opulence around us.
Sometimes I longed for Sammie’s life--the relief of being satisfied just with the chance to be alive. Bills and papers and orthodonture sometimes distressed me to the point of transcendence—the kind that usually ends up in a headlong fling into the blues.
There was a reunion at our old college that fall. I hadn´t seen Sammie in some months. She showed up for the reception the first night. Amongst the preppy costumes and polite conversation of the others, her plain denim jumper was only slightly out of place. But she seemed quiet to me.
I guess I really didn´t notice she was pregnant. To this day I wonder why I didn´t ask, and why she didn´t tell me. It seems, in retrospect, like a change in life that would put one into a tizzy of excitement and sharing with your best woman friend. But I guess, really, that was not her.
When Sammie came up at Christmas to spend the day, her baby was nearly six weeks old. Sammie carried her under her coat in a homemade baby pack. Gambol was coffee-colored with a frizz of dark hair that made a glorious halo around her head. She was just starting to flesh out from the meatloaf stage of the newborn. Exquisite and fine featured, she possessed a glow of purity, sleeping peacefully after she nursed.
It was hard not to notice the difference between Sammie´s quiet competence in wearing her infant daughter and the clutter of toys, designer clothes, disposable diapers and other tools of parenting that had recently avalanched into my household along with my brother and sister-in-law, who came to stay for the holiday. The constancy of the demands and anxieties of Kathy’s maternalism with all the privileges of money and affluence was exhausting and debilitating next to Sammie´s quiet independence.
Kathy seemed subdued after Sammie came—as if in disbelief at her ability to take single motherhood in stride. For the first time since their arrival I did not hear my sister-in-law constantly ordering my brother to jump this way and that for contrived emergencies. I wondered if she resented that Sammie had both her motherhood and her freedom. It was a self-imposed slavery that Kathy labored under, I thought.
We roasted ducks outside on the grill in a snowstorm, and the table was piled higher and higher with holiday treats. As friends and guests and children arrived, the holiday mood permeated everything. Laughter reigned, as did music. The next morning Sammie hugged me goodbye, shooshing off consternation about her traveling alone and it being cold. My brother drove her to the train.
That was the last time I ever saw her. Somehow we never got together the rest of that spring. I talked to her briefly on the phone a few times, always thinking that surely next weekend there would be time to visit. She was tied up in organizing demonstrations and caring for Gambol. In the middle of the summer we planned to spend time at the beach, but Nathan had asthma and Gambol was down with a cold, so we called it off.
Barely two months later a tentative-sounding voice was on my answering machine. He identified himself as Rick, the fellow who owned the warehouse where Sammie stayed, and he left a number. There was something in the chill of his voice that made me call, even though it was almost midnight when I got home.
Sammie was dead in a storm that tore through the towns south of the city, wreaking a devastation the area had never seen before. I was silent. The betrayal of a middle-class universe predictable and understandable gripped my heart with an anger that was almost ungovernable. She had been dead a few weeks, and my instincts had not even told me. I had lived a few weeks without Sammie in the universe without even mourning. I had betrayed our friendship in not knowing.
I could barely talk to Rick. Apparently, he found my number in a small phone book among her few things at the warehouse. She was dead and buried and gone, and I hadn´t even known.
"Where´s the baby?" Gambol had been with Sammie on the porch, sprawled across her lap. When the twister touched down, both Sammie and Gambol were thrown clear into a cornfield. Gambol, without a scratch, lay dazed next to her mother, who died instantly of a broken neck. Now Gambol was with social services.
I put down the phone. I sat in the chair for a while, staring at the wall and trying to comprehend. Susanna came down the stairs for a drink of water and asked me what the matter was. I took care of her and shooed her back to bed.
The next day I called Rick back and put a few more pieces together. There was to be a memorial service that weekend. He was calling all the people in Sammie´s little address book and asking them to call others. He wanted me to say something. I agreed, but I quaked at the thought. Sammie´s life was not one that lent itself to the formalities of a funeral. However many times I had spoken in public, this seemed impossible.
The night I went down to the memorial service it was raining and foggy, and this didn´t help my mood. In a full state of despondence I arrived at the warehouse, dimly lit in one central area by strings of little white lights. I recognized a few friends from college. Our conversation was strained, the usual, “When did you see her last?”
Sammie knew everyone. The news spread fast through her familiar friends and there were street people, there were lawyers in black mourning suits, there were clerks from the stores she frequented. She had no family that any of us knew of, and try though he might, Rick turned up no-one. Gambol, of course, was not there.
I gagged at the thought of what Gambol’s life might be like. I knew social work in and out. There were good foster parents, sure. But how soon would an adoptive home be found for her? How many times might she have to get attached to one family, only to be uprooted and sent to another? What if she had any—medical, or learning problems? Would they be addressed in time not to have any long term effects on her?
I kept thinking of my granny Helena. She would always say, the “Lord moves in mysterious ways. When He closes a door, He opens a window.”
I used to hate that saying. I loved Granny, but I always pictured that when that window opened, everything good fell out.
As I sat dreadfully alone through the memorial service of my very best friend in my whole life, I knew suddenly what Sammie wanted me to do. There really wasn´t any other choice for me. Whatever you´ve decided about what your life should be, it has to rearrange itself around what you know to be true.
I began the search for Josiah as soon as I got home. I asked Rick for Sammie´s address book, and I called each and every number asking about him. I finally located him in New York. He had gone there after he and Sammie were done with the Ottawa demonstration, and no, he hadn´t really talked to her in almost two years.
He wasn´t surprised about Gambol, but he wasn´t aware that it all happened. Sammie never told him and never asked him for anything. Yes, of course he would help me. No, he wasn´t interested in his paternal rights otherwise. He traveled too much and he lived from gig to gig. He would, however, come up to the city on his way through the Midwest.
In a way, when you know the rules of the middle class you can use them to your advantage. You just need the right kind of person to get something done. Tom´s knowledge of the courts was extensive and detailed.
I called him for a favor for the first time since we split, and he was pretty helpful in finding a lawyer friend who knew just what to do. I made the appointment and had the papers drawn up by the time Josiah showed up.
Signed, sealed, and delivered. We walked into the courtroom, me, Josiah, and the lawyer. We were armed with the birth certificate naming Josiah, my resume and character witness, the adoption papers, the home-study, and Josiah´s colorful narrative of Sammie´s love for me. The clincher was the letter she left that Rick found, naming me to take care of Gambol in her father’s absences.
My triumph was tempered by my middle-class guilt. Was I offering Gambol enough by offering her only one parent? One parent who was tired a lot? Sometimes late at night I still cringe under the covers, wondering what madness set me on this path with another child, an infant no less, when I was already struggling with two kids old enough to kind of take care of themselves a little bit.
But Sammie wanted me to do it, and I couldn’t refuse her. And anyway, despite all our best efforts, we could find no one else with a closer filial tie than Josiah, and he wanted me to have her. The thought of leaving Gambol to an unknown fate was more than I could bear.
I´m raising Sammie´s spirit now. The freedom of a baby not your own is the thrill of complete and utter spiritual union without the encumbrances of biological anxiety. It´s like the love you have for your best friend, the kind that makes your lover jealous because there is no ownership to taint your joy. Susanna and Nathan are entranced with Gambol, and as she grows, I can see she has everything wonderful that Sammie could ever have gifted to a child.
And me, I am still overworked, I am still unsure, I am still boringly mainstream middle class. But I feel free.