The Scrumbled Womb

My grandmother’s womb fell out of her one day.

I need you to know this. I need you to know that you won’t find me in my eyes or my words or my smile. If you want to know me—to really know me—you need to look into my womb. You need to examine my mother’s womb. You need a moment inside my grandmother’s uterus. Allow me to jumpstart any exploration by revealing this to you from the very start: my grandmother’s womb falling out of her was the very least of our collective matrilineal womb woes.

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Scrumbling is freeform knitting and crocheting. With no patterns or plans, scrumbling allows the fiber artist to play with stitches, to create without reservation—binding colors and textures the artist once feared might clash.  

I recently needed to scrumble a poncho. To be clear, I did not need a poncho. I needed to scrumble a poncho. I needed it the way my mother once needed alcohol.

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When my mother drank, she trickled secrets in slow, incomplete drops. It’s how I pieced together that she’d gotten pregnant at 22 and placed the baby for adoption. It’s how I learned some specifics of my father’s abusiveness. She was drinking a martini and wearing her fuzzy green robe that reminded me of a Muppet the night she first told me she’d had to drive herself to the hospital to give birth to me because my father was with his girlfriend. Her drink was caramel colored when she apologized for marrying her second husband, who wreaked his own abuse on our household. Her drink was clear when I learned she’d been pregnant with twins sometime after I was born—twins I assumed had been still-born.

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Do you know about the death rally? It’s a phenomenon wherein some sick people, within hours or days of their own death, seem to revive. They often experience a burst of energy accompanied by the desire to share memories or espouse wisdom. I’m told it’s a lovely moment for those surrounding the dying person.

My mother’s death rally was not lovely. It was more like a medieval confessional—with her own mind acting the part of Angry, Vengeful God. It was every night of my childhood when she’d drink and tell secrets all concentrated into one excruciating day. After a couple of weeks of mainly sleeping due to her pain meds and occasionally rousing long enough to greet a visitor or receive care from hospice, my mother awoke one midnight and wanted to talk. She tortured herself over broken relationships with her adult children. She agonized over seeing her father in heaven and worried aloud that he would judge her for the life she’d led. Then she asked me to find a Catholic priest. Given that my mother had stopped attending church years before, this surprised me. But she was adamant.

Between my calls to local Catholic churches, my mother filled in the gaps left by her alcohol-infused confessions throughout my childhood. It’s how I learned the rest of the story of the months leading up to my birth and the three years after. It’s how I learned that she’d had to choose between the lives of her five living children or the two unborn ones she was carrying when we left my father. 

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I’m at an age where I don’t really rush through the world anymore. I no longer tear through my house cleaning the way I did when my kids were little and I had to get it all done during their naps. This is a nice perk to aging. My body can’t do what it can’t do. The day I needed to scrumble the poncho, though, I tore through my yarn like I was searching for someone else’s lost child in an amusement park. I didn’t know what I was looking for; I just knew I needed to find it.

To my surprise, I gravitated to baby blues and pinks and bits of shocking orange. Every fiber was squishy. Every fiber demanded to be held. Jumbled together in a pile, waiting for me to commune with them, they resembled a disemboweled baby blanket. 

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We lived on a farm in Washington when I was born and up to age three. My father was an actual con man who used race horses as his bait. As far as I understand it, he sold the same few horses over and over, always taking the money from buyers when they vetted the horses and then ghosting them 1970s-style instead of delivering their horses. My mother was powerless to stop him from this, but she took solace in taking care of the horses herself, alongside her other farm duties.

Don was a jealous, abusive man. By the time my three brothers had been born, my parents’ sexual interactions amounted to nothing more than rape. I knew this before my mother’s death rally, but she wanted to make sure I truly understood it before she died. She needed me to know that her husband, my father, had raped her repeatedly. 

When my mother was pregnant with me—a product of one of those rapes—Don hung a noose in the barn to warn her of what he could do to her. He claimed she’d had an affair. His reasoning was that he couldn’t possibly be my father because my mother hadn’t wanted to have sex with him. So, throughout her pregnancy with me, he frequently took her to the barn to beat her under the noose. Once, my grandparents were visiting. My grandfather—my mother’s father—walked into the barn, saw his pregnant daughter being beaten on a haystak under a noose, and apologized for interrupting. “I guess I deserved it,” my mother cried to me during her death rally. “Daddy was so angry I’d gotten pregnant before I was married. He never recovered from it.” 

He never recovered from it,” she said.

When my mom was seven months pregnant with me, my father brought a knife with him to the barn—to the haystack under the noose. He stabbed her. He stabbed her in the womb. He stabbed my mother’s seven-month pregnant self right in the womb.

We’d been up about eight hours the day of her death rally when she got to this part of the story. I couldn’t interrupt her to ask how he hadn’t killed her in the attack. Interrupting a person during their death rally is terrifying. What if they suddenly remember they are going to die, that this is just a final burst of mental unwinding, and they stop talking altogether? I needed my mother to keep talking. I needed her to finish the drunken soliloquies of my childhood. I kept screaming in my head, “But how didn’t he kill you? Did someone help you? I need to know who helped you!”

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Scrumbling isn’t actually hard. You need only know a few elements of the craft to begin. If you know the knit stitch, you can scrumble together an exquisite piece of fabric. You just grab different pieces of yarn as your mood suits and knit that one stitch until you need to do something new. Likewise, a single crochet stitch, intentionally or randomly chained to another through various loops, can produce glorious shapes.

I knew only one thing about my poncho. I wanted the edges to be crisp and clean. I wanted the kind of clarity that comes with perfect symmetry.

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Birthdays in my childhood included drinking, of course, so I always knew the story of my birth was coming. And as the years progressed, more grotesque details of the story emerged. No matter how many times I’d wished the story would wobble enough for me to question its veracity, it never did. Once a new chapter was added, there it was, in the world, born, like me. 

During my early years, my mother only told the part about how she’d had to drive herself to the hospital. The labor was so intense she had blacked out just after pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. I’d actually grown to cherish this part of the story. The fact that she had survived it made my mother seem superhuman. 

Some highway patrolmen stopped to investigate the shouldered car. They revived my mother somehow and then one jumped into her car and drove her to the hospital while his partner offered an escort, complete with lights and sirens. I loved that part too. Even though my mother’s tone always betrayed her enough for me to intuit the story wasn’t a happy one, I relished that police escort—my own parade into existence. 

As it turns out, that officer was the one who called my father at work and told him I was on the way. Instead of rushing to the hospital, though, he went to his girlfriend’s house, drank a lot, probably committed some adultery, and then had his girlfriend call the hospital. She added that part of the story when I was in middle school, when she sometimes wore the green Muppet robe for days at a time.

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I was finishing up a sky blue row of pure alpaca held with a strand of mohair on my poncho when it occurred to me that my mother’s intense labor, despite me being her seventh pregnancy and sixth live birth, paired with her blacking out, might have had something to do with my father stabbing her two months before then. I desperately wanted to ask her if my difficult birth had to do with the stabbing. Instead, I picked up an old, scratchy art yarn in dark greens, blended it with the soft blue alpaca, and cried.

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A priest finally arrived to visit with my mother the day of her death rally. I stood in the hall outside of her small apartment, wanting to give her privacy. The priest emerged minutes later. He seemed nervous and apologetic. I went back to my mother. She was weeping. She shared a story about how she had once told her father she was going out with some girlfriends in high school, but actually met up with a boy. She said she felt so guilty and was worried her father would punish her once she got to heaven. I asked her if this is what she told the priest. She said, “No, I told him the other thing, but he said he couldn’t help me and I should find a new priest.” 

I called a few more priests. Another came quickly and then left in the same manner as the first.

My mother wept some more, begging me to keep her from dying. “My daddy can’t see me. He knows. He knows I lied to him.”

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Sometimes artists create art. I think most of the time, though, art creates the artist. As I watched my poncho emerge, I noticed that only one edge was perfectly clean, as I had intended. The others were varying degrees of ragged—raw, exposed. The emerging fabric was beginning to tell a story I didn’t yet understand.

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My father held us captive in the master bedroom of our farmhouse. I was three, the youngest of five children. My oldest brother had just gotten a new bike for his birthday. Don wielded a gun and demanded we all stay silent. He made my mom bring food for him—just him, unless we got too loud. Then he would allow her to bring us something small. We were there for three days. During that time, my mom slipped the Valium from a miscarriage she’d had a few months before into Don’s food. She didn’t know how much would kill him so she started small. She didn’t want him dead, she told me during her death rally. She just wanted him incapacitaed long enough for us to leave.

After Don devoured a sandwich with enough valium to finally knock him out, my mother reached her arm under the mattress. She’d been hiding money there, waiting to amass enough to take us away. As my brother lifted the mattress slightly, my mom swept the area. She caught Don’s open eyes peering at her. She froze, her hand on top of a lump of cash. They stared at each other and then Don fell back into a stupor. She grabbed what was in her hand and rushed us out of the room and into the car. My brother didn’t want to leave his new bike. She told him to ride to the corner and meet her there so she could figure out how to get his bike into the car. She disconnected some wire’s in Don’s car and drove to pick up my brother. She counted her money while driving. She’d managed to get $73 of her savings from that mattress.

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My mother died five years before the poncho. For five years, I could not synthesize all the bits and bobs my mother shared with me over the years, especially the final threads—the cutting details she’d never before been able to loop into her stories. As I scrumbled my poncho, I rocked to the rhythm of my needles and hooks. The bits and bobs were finally coming together for me—tangible lucidity, connection creating connection.

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We drove to San Diego the day we left my father. I want you to understand that my mother got herself and five kids from Washington state to San Diego on $73. She drove straight through. When people wonder why I am no longer angry with my mother for her drinking, for the parenting that hurt us so much, for not leaving our second father, I think of this. I think of the superhuman strength she must have mustered to accomplish this one thing—especially given that she was, once again, pregnant—another product of marital rape.

She asked my grandparents if they could take us in. They told her to return to her husband.

The exact order of the next events are murky, even after so much was clarified during my mother’s death rally. I’m not sure the order matters, really. What matters is that my mother got an abortion. They were twins, the twins I thought were stillborn. And she put us in a Catholic orphanage. She had a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized for six weeks. She got a job. She found an apartment. She took us out of the orphanage. 

Look, a mother can love you until your very being fractures her very being, and she will still do whatever it takes to keep you alive. In my mother’s case, keeping us alive meant sacrificing the twins she aborted, and possibly her own life in what would have been an illegal procedure. It meant placing us in temporary care. Keeping herself alive meant drinking and denying and raging and spending every moment up until her dying breath begging her father, her church, her God for forgiveness.

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My mother gave me permission to tell this story—all of it. When she was diagnosed with cancer and they told her she would eventually die from it, she said the world should know what it’s like to be a woman who’d had an abortion in a world that punished women who have abortions. She asked me to wait for her to die, though. She didn’t want to know how people would respond. She didn’t want to hear people defend the man who’d raped her throughout their marriage. All she wanted was for a representative of her God to tell her she could die in peace.

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A minister from the United Church of Christ came to see me the day of the death rally. Hospice had sent him at my request. I told him the whole story—that my mother wanted a Catholic priest to give her communion and last rites. Two had already come, heard her confession—that she’d had an abortion—and refused her her dying wish. He went to my mother. He didn’t tell her he was a Catholic priest, but he didn’t tell her he wasn’t one either. My mother confessed. He absolved her. He administered last rites.

A few hours later, another priest—on mission from Uganda— arrived. I’d forgotten that I’d left a message with his church. I told him the whole story. He went to my mother. He told her she didn’t need to confess again. She was forgiven. She could die when she needed to. It was a kind gesture on his part. That she felt the need to be absolved so deeply it tortured her during her final 24 hours of lucidity still needles me. She’d made an impossible choice between the lives of her five living children and her unborn child, only to spend the rest of her days suffocated by self-hatred, convinced she was not good enough to never be abused again.

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What I mean when I say you can’t know me if you don’t peer into my womb—and my mother’s womb and her mother’s womb—is that they have been the apex upon which every other moment of our lives have rested. 

The day my grandmother’s uterus fell out, she screamed for my mother to come help her. My mom was 15 at the time and found my grandmother in the bathroom holding her uterus in her hands, trying to keep it from falling further out of her. My mother called an ambulance and watched her mother be driven away. 

This happens. Wombs can fall from our bodies. Doctors shove them back in. At least, that’s what they did when my grandmother’s uterus fell out.

Somewhere around the twentieth hour of her death rally, shortly after the pastor gave her last rites and the priest confirmed her absolution, my mother re-told this story. Because my mother’s greatest gift—one she bestowed upon me—was her sense of humor, she laughed to tears telling it. “Can you imagine running to the bathroom and finding your mother sitting on the toilet, holding her own uterus in her hands? I was 15 and I kept thinking, ‘Ew, mom, that is so weird!’ Like, how is a 15 year old supposed to process her mother holding her own uterus?”

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I’d just crocheted a row of fiery orange fan stitches—stitches that fan out from an anchor loop in the row below—when I scrumbled upon the seemingly obvious realization that I was on the other side of that womb in my mother’s stories. I was there in that space that is supposed to be the safest place any human can ever be.  

My first womb, the one my mother held for me, was not a safe space. She was stabbed while pregnant with me. Stabbed in the abdomen under a noose in a barn, laying in hay as my father stabbed her, stabbed her in my safe space.

Our wombs were never safe. My grandmother’s fell out of her body. My mother’s womb was constantly violated. There was the baby taken from her womb and given away. There were the rapes by her husband. There were the beatings. and the miscarriages and stillbirths; the abortions and the men of God who punished her on her death bed for them. And then, in the end, filled with cancer, her womb killed her.

It is no wonder that when I am anxious or I cannot process an experience or emotion, my uterus hurts. It feels swollen, like it’s stuffed with cotton batting, and cramped like a contraction. Shortly after my mother died, I started bleeding—a lot. I bled through layers of clothing. I bled through the cloth cushion on a chair once. They scraped polyps out of me. Then breast cancer treatments pummeled me into menopause. I no longer bleed, but my uterus still stabs at me and swells when I am upset. Sometimes it feels like it could fall out and I think about my grandmother. I wonder what it must have been like to have a uterus fall out in 1950. I think about my mother. I wonder what it must have been like to have an illegal abortion after a rape in order to get your other children out of an orphanage and keep them alive.

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I cried when I finished making the poncho. I’d thought of my mother throughout the entire process of making it. I didn’t want it to be over. It felt like losing her again.

In the creation of that poncho, though, I’d somehow scrumbled a re-birth for myself, one that owns my place in the narrative. As I took the poncho from yarn and sticks to a sartorial blanket that envelopes me in warmth and color, the poncho took me from birth to death and life again.

Nevertheless, when Mother’s Day came shortly after I’d finished it, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Sometimes art seeps into you like cream; sometimes it attacks you. Some art does both. When I reached for my poncho before heading to a family brunch on Mother’s Day, it felt disrespectful. I wanted to think of my mom that one day without feeling her womb. I wanted to picture her in the afterlife without the scars thrust onto her by fathers and husbands and priests. I wanted to imagine her death as her own re-birth, one she is finally free to scrumble together for herself.