In 1964, Linda Richards learned a secret about her grandmother. Today, almost 60 years later, she shares her secret with us.
This is True Stories in Sound. I’m Meghan Offtermatt.
Family secrets can stay hidden forever. These secrets are the empty spaces in scrapbooks where photos were ripped out and torn up. Some secrets go to the grave. Others surface suddenly and without warning and just like that [whooshing into snapping sound sfx] they aren’t secrets anymore.
I needed to tell this story. You need to hear this story.
That’s my mom’s friend, Linda Richards. A few years back Linda told my mom a story, and my mom told me. I’ve been thinking about Linda’s story a lot lately.
I am the only one out of all the grandchildren that my grandmother had that she told this story to. I have housed this story in my heart from the time I met with her way back in 1964.
That year, Linda was living in Santa Monica when her grandmother, Mary, came to visit her. Mary was in her early 70s at the time. Linda and her grandmother were close, and she thought she knew everything there was to know about her, until her grandmother told her something she had never told anyone.
And she says to me, “Linchka! I have something to tell you. I did abortions with wooden spoons. I learned how to by watching it done and then tried with the abortionist watching me. I never took any money. I have never told anyone — not even your mother — what I did.”
To understand why Mary was part of an underground abortion network, we have to go back in time to the 30s in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
[archival depression tape from October 29, 1929]
[depression music fade in under OFFTERMATT_5]
This midwestern neighborhood was made up of mostly poor, working-class European immigrants from Poland, Germany, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia. Mary had immigrated to the United States from present-day Slovenia in 1912. Nearly everyone in the community worked in factories, and when the depression descended on Cleveland, they all lost their jobs.
[archival depression tape cont. under A_5 and fade out]
People were desperate.
Mary and her husband, Frank, owned a grocery store. People were so poor they couldn’t pay for their groceries. Frank would let them leave without paying, adding their food to tabs he knew would never be covered.
So the women who came to the grocery store…some of them were so poor that they just couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. The other group of women were women who had children and were exhausted. Their bodies could not bear another child.
[music fade in under A_6]
And my grandmother heard their stories and she felt a great deal of compassion for them. If they needed an abortion they’d let my grandmother know they were suffering.
Mary never told anyone what she did. And she waited thirty years to tell Linda.
When I think back to my whole family and what they’re like, I was certainly the perfect person for my grandmother to tell the story.
Linda was the lone progressive outlier in a traditionally conservative family. She didn’t associate abortion with shame or sin.
I knew I couldn’t tell my family because there is a Catholic priest in the family — one of the grandchildren.
For years, Linda was afraid that if she spilled her grandmother’s secret, it would tarnish the family’s memory of her. But Linda doesn’t want the story to end with her.
I’ve just turned 80. You know, there’s not a lot of time. And so here you come with this opportunity to share this story with the universe.
Sharing this story means acknowledging why these abortions were necessary. Back then, women were expected to have children. Even if the number of children in their home exceeded their financial bandwidth, preventing pregnancy wasn’t always an option.
There was no way to practice any birth control. The only thing you could do was abstain.
But abstinence wasn’t always an option either. So Mary decided to do something to help these women. She gave one woman an abortion, then another, and another. And so, like in a game of telephone, the women whispered and by word of mouth they shared the news about Mary’s service.
[sfx game of telephone echo]
It was it’s own sort of underground community. The women were in it.
As Linda got older, she found herself in it, too. She started volunteering at an abortion clinic in Cleveland called Preterm, and in 2005, she found a way to honor her grandmother’s work.
And I said, “I’m going to send you a check for $2,000 and I’d like my grandmother, Mary Vidmar, to be honored because she did abortions.
Preterm, which is a short drive from where I grew up, is one of six surgical abortion clinics left in the state of Ohio. Each year, the number of clinics providing abortion services in the state drops. In 2014, Ohio had 17 facilities. In 2017 that number dropped to 14. Today, there are only nine facilities that offer abortion services and the state continues to push legislation restricting abortion access.
[archival tape from the heartbeat bill]
Every time a new piece of legislation is pushed forward in my home state of Ohio — whether its banning abortion at the six week mark, or forcing doctors to cremate fetal tissue, or pushing non-medically necessary ultrasounds on women seeking abortions — I think about Linda’s grandmother.
I don’t know what she’d be like with the freedom that she would have today in our world. She certainly had the makings for an activist.
I think about how much Mary risked to provide reproductive care to women who didn’t have access and how little has changed in nearly 100 years. Access is still hard to come by. Over 90% of counties in Ohio don’t have facilities that offer abortion. An entire culture war was born out of the battle over abortion.
[archival tape from pro-choice advocates fighting anti-choice legislation]
[heartbeat sfx grows under tape and into OFFTERMATT_16]
Mary may not be here, but her pulse is the steady undercurrent that pushes women to protect each other, help each other and fight for each other.
All the women who do all the work that they’re doing today with causes such as this are supported by women like my grandmother from the past.
Linda says that her grandmother would be proud that her story is being told and, given the circumstances, that her story needs to be told. Her sense of urgency to share the story now is as strong as her grandmother’s was back in 1964.
She must have felt, she’s growing older, somebody needs to know, and let me use this word: the contribution that I’ve made to the world.
And 60 years later, we finally know.