Published on November 21st, 2017 | by Lisa Sinnett


What They Were Told—Detroit 1967

I felt it before I was born, felt my father’s pulsing prayer.

“Not another girl, not another girl, please Jesus, not another girl.”

I tried to rearrange myself in the womb; acrid blood filling every open spot—nose, mouth, ears. I was not an easy sleeper down there, so I heard everything. I grabbed at my heart for a piece of flesh to mold into a baby boy’s body. My fist struck something floating beside me, smaller, shriveling, my twin brother. He never made the light of day, and me, I never finished building myself into the boy my father wanted so he could show the world what a man he was, stop being bullied. I couldn’t be the boy my mother wanted either so that I, baby number five, would be the last. But, I was born, not a boy, but the worst kind of girl, a girl that had just one breast, no major pectoralis muscle, sternum poking up through my chest like another alien baby was going to be born, but all in all, another girl.

My existence meant another mouth to feed, bottle full of milk flakes propped in the corner on a frayed blanket, while a bustling room full of girls, girls, girls in diapers, drooled, tried out the potty chair, pulled down the curtains, begged for more potato flakes and pears from the backyard alley tree, circled my mother like tiny vultures.

Mother and dad worried about how much money a deformed alien baby cost. When I needed to be seen by the doctor they’d waited a month for the appointment and taken me all the way downtown. They had to leave my five sisters with the elderly Mrs. Miller’s regardless of her lack of ability to keep them from running outside and flapping out into the middle of Stansbury street.

It was the Summer of Love, and in San Francisco the children of the wealthy wore bell- bottoms and smoked weed but in Detroit, people rioted, and tanks rumbled down the street. My parents, oblivious to national events, even as they were being televised and broadcast to the whole nation, were in their own private purgatory. They wove past a man and his son handing new shoes through a shattered plate glass window to a group standing on the sidewalk. Tense and worried, they stepped around the crowd. They wanted to get back to our house on Stansbury street in case Mrs. Miller lost one of my sisters, or the uprising reached our street. They parked the Mercury on a side street near the medical center, and carried me the two blocks to the appointment.

They waited, thumbing through an old National Geographic. On the grainy black and white television set, coverage of the escalating violence and the National Guard converging on Detroit crackled and faded out. Maybe they didn’t have to wait long, maybe the doctor didn’t look at my mother’s do-it-yourself haircut and dad’s taped up horned rims, and talk to them very slow. Maybe he was going to tell them that I would be all right.

“There’s something wrong with the baby, look at her, there’s a hole in her chest.” Mother thrust me into the doctor’s reluctant arms. He tried to push me away.

“What’s wrong with the baby?” She insisted. “There’s a hole in her chest.”

He set me down on the examining table, the cold metal feeling like a punishment. A few minutes later he said “This baby is deformed and has a birth defect.” He pushed me back into my father’s arms; mom’s arms were crossed, staring at the doctor. “She’ll always be weak, always have trouble. But there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

Elsewhere in the city, a few miles away, tanks were advancing on unarmed civilians, but here at the medical center mom pushed me into dad’s arms, she didn’t want a baby who needed too much. Dad held me in his arms. Maybe he worried about me and my weak chest, angry and scared, wondering how he was going to make the house payment, but he didn’t let go. Mother put her gloved hand in the crook of dad’s elbow and they walked without speaking, past the crowds, and all the way to the car. At least, that’s the way I imagined it. Maybe there was a moment that mother held me and defended me, parted the seas, loved me the most.

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About the Author

Lisa Sinnett is an immigrant to the middle class and was dismayed to discover shortly after her arrival that it was being dismantled. She enjoys life on her severely curtailed teacher’s salary, because she’s remembered that she has more friends when she’s broke, and is considering moving to Canada with her family and anyone she can convince to go with her. She admires writers, Dreamers, activists and fellow teachers who are hanging in there for public education.

She works on her writing in Ariel Gore’s School for Wayward Writers. Selections of her in progress Detroit memoir have been published in and/or recognized by Hipmamazine, Penduline Press, Glimmer Train, Stealing Time Magazine and Friends Journal. Learn more at http://www.lisasinnett.com

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