No Crib For a Bed

Now I've heard there was a secret chord 
That David played, and it pleased the Lord 
But you don't really care for music, do you? 

I’ve always known that my family moved to West Mifflin when I was a preschooler so while I can lay claim to that corner of the blue collar world as the place where I grew up, I was not born there.

I was born in St. Clair Hospital in Upper St. Clair on October 22, 1970. My parents lived in nearby Mt. Lebanon. At some point, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Baldwin. And then landed in West Mifflin somewhere around age 3 or 4?

To the world, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. To most Pittsburgh folx, I was born in St. Clair Hospital and raised in West Mifflin. Do the details matter? Let’s discuss.

Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet headThe stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hayThe cattle are lowing
The Baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

I have no emotional tie to identifying as a native St. Clairian or Mt. Lebanonian(?) because I’ve rarely been to either place. They are mostly spaces where Route 19 gets quite confusing.

But I wasn’t born in Baldwin and it is decidedly unclear how much time elapsed between said birth and my landing in Baldwin Court Apartments with a man who brutalized many women in my family. I didn’t end up in Bethel Park or Pleasant Hills or West Mifflin or Michigan with safe family members. Does their decision to leave me in Baldwin offset their perceived status as safe adults?

The only anecdotes from those parts of my life are the story of my mother going in labor, the fact that my baby doll was a piece of cloth with a string neck, like a ghost. Her name is Mary and I still have her. There’s a photo, now lost, of me with a Christmas tree at age 14 months. No one else is in the photo and no idea where it was taken. I have a second photo of me as a baby or maybe not. And then voila! I’m in kindergarten with lots of stories like most kids.

My first baby doll, Mary, in her “crib” a converted planter. She’s about 51 years old.

It is weird that there are no details. It feels weird that I just leaned into ‘born and raised in West Mifflin’ … the story of mother going into labor was told often and she pointed out the apartment where she lived while pregnant with me so it was part of my backstory, the lore about your life that other people tell. It just never occurred to me that it was the only part I ever heard. Nothing about first steps, first words, first anything. I’m just born and then boom – I’m going to kindergarten.

But I was being programmed by the predator in my family and that is probably why I just didn’t think about it. No one ever told the story of my brother’s birth. And I never thought about it. I have no idea where he was born or any of the details.

The reality that I’ve painstakingly pieced together with fragments and scraps is that my mother was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution (this was the 70s) while pregnant with my brother. I’m not making any of that up.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

In 99% of cases about my own backstory, I can simply say “born and raised in Pittsburgh” and have no issues. But as I prepare to observe the first Christmas since my mother’s death last February, I realize how my options to get that information are almost all gone. Those who are still living won’t talk about it. And they don’t talk to me because I am talking about it. A lot.

Talking about it is my mission in life. I want to record every nuance of the trauma, ever fact I can ferret out, every detail I can draw upon so future generations understand that these terrible things happened in our family and people suffered, some didn’t survive. Almost everyone turned a blind eye.

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did—well, really—what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

The only way it will stop is to shine a bright light in the darkest corners. It is painful and almost sacrificial to force everyone’s hand. But future generations deserve to have the burden lifted, not simply ignored. It has to stop. My choice not to have or raise children was one way to stop it. Writing down the details is another way.

Why is this weighing on me this year?

Perhaps because the Christmas story in Christianity is literally about a baby being born with nowhere to live, receiving all of this adulation and allegiance, then disappearing until suddenly he’s old enough to attend a festival with his parents. What happened in between? Why doesn’t it matter enough to warrant documentation? We just assume it was all okay. But the trauma and terror of the census, being chased to another country to avoid a massacre, living with the weight of that massacre of so many innocents, none of this was normal even if its not true. They weren’t a typical family.

So where did Jesus live when he took his first steps, spoke his first words? Was he ever safe? Perhaps this is why too many Christians obsess about abortion – a founding story involves birth then nothing until Jesus is a tween. There’s no in-between documented or shared.

But what we do know is he was born into what Leonard Cohen described as the “cold and broken” – the Hallelujah of birth and early days was wracked with fear, misery, guilt, and probably a lot of cold. It wasn’t a cozy story.

The word “hallelujah,” he teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, mourning, regret, catharsis, and reconciliation. The original song is the story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, and penance, and of finding peace in brokenness.

This post didn’t start out with the intent of tying my birth story, my early childhood trauma to the birth of Jesus. I promise. But bits of Hallelujah kept leaping to mind as I wrote this. I kept thinking about Christmas carols about his birth, but my subconscious mind took me to the song that was most relevant – to both of us? Also, it is not a Christmas song.

I don’t have any clear answers now. I’m still Sue, born in St. Clair Hospital and eventually landed in West Mifflin. I was in exile during the other times. I was lost to myself and my mother and my father. I was at the mercy of those who had malicious intent and those who were indifferent or willfully ignorant.

The poignancy of not having an origin story is a space of deep mourning for me right now. I am quite broken and the processing of my trauma seems to exacerbate that pain. It is so very sad. But still far better than being unaware and thrashing around in all of that horror.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


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