Gloria and I worked together during the two years I held employment with the State of Illinois. She was our secretary. I would guess that, when I first met her, she was in her mid-fifties.
If there’s one thing that I miss most about her is the way that she would emphasize a point that she was making by saying, “Doncha know.” It was her trademark. She said it with an “oomph” that belied her generally quiet and reserved demeanor.
After two years of seeing how government “works” I had enough. I was off to make my mark on the world in my own business totally unaware that, in that effort, the world would leave some scars on me. But I never regretted the decision – or having gotten to know Gloria.
It would be an overstatement to say that we were bosom buddies, but we would speak to each other every few weeks. I always took her out to a nice dinner for her birthday as she did me and she always included me in the little annual Holiday party that she would host in her brownstone in Lincoln Park.
The menu and the guest list for these parties was always the same. There were eight of us. The Johnsons, the Whites, the Bartholomews, Gloria and me. Gloria always catered the dinner from Gaper’s and would order a nice fresh green salad, beef stroganoff with noodles and chicken marsala with risotto and lightly sauteed string beans. For desert there was a baba rum torte and lots of good strong coffee to help overcome the effects which we all experienced from the cocktail hour that preceded dinner.
It may sound a little boring to the more adventurous of you, having the same meal year after year (for more than twenty of them), but for me it became another wonderful tradition of the Holidays.
It was much like looking forward to the two to three feet of snow which inevitably fell the day of Gloria’s parties – but a lot warmer and more inviting. I thought of Gloria’s guests as part of an adopted extended family – if for only one night a year.
After desert and coffee, the eight of us would play a game. Whether it was hangman or charades (how untechnological you will say), or we would group into teams and play a board game. One year our after dinner activities were curtailed because the snow which was supposed to have fallen already had not. In fact, Chicago had not seen a snowflake for five days and the streets were unusually passable.
But as we began our after-dinner entertainment, suddenly we could see out the bay window of Gloria’s living room that Mother Nature had gotten back on schedule and a deluge of white was beginning its descent. The other guests decided to take their leave before the roads became difficult to navigate and bid their adieus.
I stayed behind and offered to help Gloria clean up her little apartment, do the dishes and put away the leftovers. She was feeling a little under the weather that year and for the first time she agreed to my help.
We went into the kitchen and I realized suddenly what a mess eight people – even rather genteel people – could make. Gloria turned on the little portable television which sat on the counter facing the kitchen table at which she normally took her meals. As it happened the nightly news was on.
I began organizing the plates and the silverware so that I could start washing them. Gloria said, “Doncha know,” I’m feeling a little faint so I’m just going to rest for a moment. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll help you in a few minutes. But I had things under control and told her to take it easy and that I would keep washing while she rested.
As I was at my task, a story came on the news about a protest outside an abortion clinic. Gloria made a mad dash from her seat and turned off the television. I had never before seen her behave like his and I was startled. But I didn’t say anything. This was a Gloria whom I didn’t know.
At the point of this event, Gloria and I had known each other for about ten years. She was a very private person. I had sensed that about her from the earliest moments we knew each other. And I never pried into her affairs.
I was not about to alter my behavior or make any comments about her turning off the television. So I was very surprised that she felt sufficiently confident to bring up the subject with me.
She said, “Doncha know, about two years before my mother’s death she told me something that really shocked me.”
“She said that when my father and she were first married they had to struggle to survive and had decided to put off having a family until they could afford one. But mother got pregnant before that time had come. I was that baby.”
“She told me that, even though it was illegal then, she considered having an abortion. And it’s very hard for me to hear anything on the subject. They talk about ‘procedures’ like it’s having a tooth pulled. And I always think, ‘I could have been that tooth that was pulled’.”
I went over to her and hugged her and we both began crying. After we embraced for a few minutes, we went back to clearing up the rest of the dishes and putting away the leftovers. Gloria and I never discussed the subject again.
I’ve replayed that Holiday party night in my mind thousands of times. I know that we have a tendency to look at the question of abortion in a clinical way. To Gloria, it was as personal as it could get.
That evening left me with a lingering, haunting feeling.
Had her mother made a different decision, the world would have been deprived of this caring and loving woman. And I would have had one less friend.