It’s a long story, but it all starts with red hair. Sort of. She was a redhead, and in love. And 17-year-old redheads in love do impulsive things. It was a different era. Johnson was president.
Her parents were against the romance. His parents were against it, too. But redheads make decisions without consulting the rest of the world. When the young couple found out she was pregnant, they married.
Her father and mother were mad; she had never been so excited. They moved to California. He took a job driving a truck. He was gone a lot, making all-night runs across the U.S., but they were happy.
One lonely night she was rattled awake by loud knocking on the front door. She answered it in her bathrobe. Two patrolmen on her porch said that her husband’s eighteen-wheeler flipped, and he was gone.
She went through pregnancy alone. And on the morning she gave birth, she was unsure about what to feel. She held her boy against her chest and wept over him with the joyful kind of tears that only widows know.
She worked low-paying jobs. A receptionist in a textile factory. An orderly in a rest home. Finally, she decided to go back to school. The night classes were hard, but she stuck with them for many years. During the same week that her son graduated from 7th grade, she graduated with her teaching certificate, and life was looking up.
First she taught elementary, then high school. She was miserable with both jobs. Children can test a woman’s patience and cause her to use very strong cuss words in public sometimes.
She applied for a position at a junior college, it was only a part-time gig, and modest pay. She loved it. The college kids were much more sincere than high-schoolers who spent the majority of their class period grabbing each other’s butts.
There was one student in particular. A girl. Twenty-one. Black hair. Mexican-American. The bump in the girl’s belly gave her away and left her open to ridicule. These were the eighties. Reagan was president.
The girl was taking remedial classes at the college, studying for her GED, and she had a full-time job. The teacher recognized a sadness in this girl’s eyes. A sadness not so different from the kind widows have.
The girl told the woman she was living with friends ever since her boyfriend had been killed in a construction accident. Her family was non-existent. She was, more or less, alone.
The teacher and the girl became friends and started spending a lot of time together. They picked out maternity clothes from secondhand stores, they went to clinical visits together. And eventually they moved into the same apartment.
And on the summer night when the girl began having contractions, her teacher was beside her. From beginning to end. The redheaded woman drove the girl to the hospital. She stood near her bed, reminding her to breathe, telling her to “Push, sweetie!”
The teacher was the second person to hold this new child. And the one to change the first ceremonial poop-filled diaper.
Stay with me here, the story isn’t over yet.
College wasn’t that difficult for the young mother. Especially with the help of a redhead who’d already been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt.
The girl worked hard. She pulled long hours of studying. And when the young mother walked down the aisle to accept her diploma, the first in the audience to applaud was a woman with red hair.
Time moved forward. Soon, the girl was not a girl at all. Her first job was as a part-time teacher, teaching English to Spanish speakers who wanted to learn. Her students were mostly service workers and kitchen staff.
After a few years of this, one of her friends suggested she apply to be a courtroom translator. So she tried it. It was decent money, and she was good at her work. The job eventually led her to hospitals where she worked as an interpreter for several years.
One night, in the emergency room, she met a girl. The girl was on a hospital bed, pregnant, 18 years old, and scared to death. It was a different era. George W. Bush was president.
The woman introduced herself to the girl. The girl cried because she was in dire straits. And it wasn’t the loud kind of crying, it was the kind that only a woman who has been there can understand.
The girl’s story was not unfamiliar: Her mother kicked her out when she found out she was pregnant. So she was living with her cousin who wasn’t exactly a model citizen, who’d just been arrested for drugs. Her boyfriend didn’t want his own baby, so he had disappeared. And she was alone.
Well. The answer seemed so easy to the woman. The woman told the girl she had a free guest bedroom if the girl wanted it. The sheets were fresh. And the woman was more than happy to have company.
Thus, on one winter day, the girl gave birth to a little boy, with the help of a roommate she never expected to have.
Several years later, her baby boy would grow to be a healthy young man. And one day, that young man would be stuck indoors during a quarantine because of a global pandemic, and he would become bored.
The young man would send a long email to a redheaded writer who lives on the other side of the United States, telling him about a string of powerful women who came before him. They were unrelated by blood, but held together by the ropes of friendship.
And now the redheaded writer has just told you.