Nothin’ But Trouble

August 1948 • Sonora
I was welcomed into the family two years after Mom’s first breakdown, but not by her. She didn’t want another child; she wanted out. As far as she was concerned, I was a fifth burden tacking on eighteen years to her prison sentence. Another eighteen years of not wanting to be a wife or a mother, of not wanting to cook and clean and cry every day.

Just after midnight, Mom gave birth to me by optional cesarean, which was in vogue if you were wealthy. We weren’t. She wanted to have her tubes tied without Dad finding out, and Mom’s doctor was willing to do it for her. If she had it done while having a Cesarean, no one would know. It was illegal for him to perform this kind of surgery without a husband’s permission and it could’ve gotten them both in a lot of trouble. He’d been my mother’s doctor for years, though, and knew it would be the end for her if she had another child. Mom wasn’t concerned about it being against the law or a mortal sin. She was barely hanging on to her soul as it was.

Cathy Clemens 1948, SonoraSonora Union Democrat notice:
CLEMENS, In Sonora, August 16, at the Sonora Hospital, to the wife of Carl Clemens of Sonora, a daughter, at 12:10 A.M.

Plucked from my mother’s womb, I missed the struggle from one world to another. With no heroic journey or victorious birth cry, no wonder I don’t how I got here. I was short-circuited from the beginning.

None of the kids knew Mom was pregnant, although apparently it had not occurred to my parents that questions might arise upon my appearance. Larry was fourteen and clueless. Carleen, thirteen, found out in catechism the month before I was due. Stunned, she said, “Not my mother!” She knew you had to have sex to have a baby and she could hardly imagine her parents doing such a thing. Of course, Carleen didn’t tell any of the rest of the family.

Larry, Carleen, Betty, Claudia

Larry, Carleen, Betty, Claudia

Betty, now nine, was off climbing fences and protecting the weak but took the news in stride; I would be her next foundling. Claudia, at seven—and up until I came along the baby of the family—found out when she went to the store after spending her usual morning in the library. When Larry told her she had a new sister, she was happy about this news, but that was before she found out she wasn’t allowed to touch me. The first time she saw me was when Mom held me up to the second floor window of the old Sonora Hospital. I was born a block from our house in the Bromley Sanitarium, a small two-story building on lower Washington Street where many Sonora babies were born. On my arrival home, Claudia, who was curious to see what I was all about, was continually ordered, “Don’t touch the baby, don’t touch the baby,” so she didn’t have much to do with me, deciding early on that I’d be nothin’ but trouble.

Laying me on the dark mahogany dining table to change me, Carleen told Claudia to watch me and turned to get my diapers out of the sideboard’s bottom drawer. I rolled off onto the floor and wailed. Claudia, casually leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, got slapped and hollered at for not watching me. She was watching me all right, she just wasn’t about to touch me. She was no longer the fair-haired baby of the family, had lost her mother’s attention, was forbidden to suck her thumb, and wasn’t one bit happy about any of it. I sucked the two middle fingers on my left hand and rubbed Mom’s earlobe with my right. When Mom gave me cotton balls to rub between my fingers instead, Claudia sulked, “Mom never bought me any damn cotton balls.”

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  1. Susan Price says:

    interesting in that the birth announcement does not even mention your mother’s name. The status of women at the time…..Want to read more….

  2. Mary Szykowny says:

    What an adorable bundle of trouble! You are a brave and talented writer…..blunt, honest and straight from the heart. I love this story!

  3. Jeff Elliot says:

    This piece fills me with sadness and wonder. Sadness that you had to begin your journey without maternal support, and yet you have become such a wonder; finding such a moving way to gently examine and share your experiences with us, your readers! I fear I could never have reacted with your resilience. And your Mom’s struggle, long before psychology and drug therapies might have helped, is full of sorrows. Your writing is beautiful and I love seeing your smiling face on this blog!

    • Jeff, thank you for you beautiful note. I turned out as well as I have because I had other mothers who were “good enough.” Curiosity about my mother was what propelled me to write this book. Writing classed helped me get it down on paper. Personal growth classes revealed that it wasn’t about me. I also discovered that where we’re the most wounded, we’re the most accomplished. If not for my mother I would have not written this book, which, in itself was a healing. Perhaps in reading it, others may have a different window to view their childhoods if they were challenging. It’s been an interesting process, that’s for sure!

  4. Francina Richardon says:

    Such good writing… thanks Catherine.

    • Thanks Francie. The pieces I think others won’t care about much are the ones they often like the most. I’ve give up trying to figure it out, so now I just post them. The next few will also be from the original memoir.

  5. Juliette says:

    Oh 7-0 This is a movie waiting.

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