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I always wondered why Clara Zolanoffski’s family didn’t change their name. Today it’s fashionable to preserve your ethnicity, but Clara's about seventy-five, and when her grandparents came to this country people rushed to assimilate.

I have known Clara for about 25 years. She’s a crusty old broad, a doctor on the East Coast, but she has always been a good friend with kindness towards our family. She never married, and lives alone with two cats. She’s a bright lady, a fine internist, a rather tall, staunch woman with stringy, dark blond hair. In her youth she was probably attractive, but now she cuts an imposing figure accented by her very definite views.

Several years ago Clara purchased a house in a southeastern city where coincidentally we have some friends. This seemed a bewildering move because it wasn’t beach or lakefront property or a fishing cottage or vacation home. She explained vaguely that her only relatives lived there, and she was helping them out and would be visiting quite a bit.

Then a couple of years ago she said her relatives were doing pretty well, and she rented the house. We had introduced her to our friends, and when I talked with them recently I mentioned my surprise that she kept the place, and they said confidentially, “Well, you know, the relative she has here is her daughter.”

Shock and awe.

Apparently she had a child when she was in school and had given her up for adoption. That child is now a divorced mother of a son and two daughters. So, old-maid, curmudgeonly Clara is a mother and a grandmother and has kept that secret for all these years.

I was happy for her, a reaction she probably never expected anyone to have. But I am saddened because I can never say anything. She is still unable to publicly discuss her "terrible secret."

An unwed mother was unacceptable in her generation. It brought shame to one’s family and ruined one’s reputation. Especially if you were trying to assimilate. You were a pariah. It was possibly the worst thing that could happen to you. Abortions were illegal and dangerous. You had few options. Having a child would have interfered with, possibly prevented, Clara's career plans. What excruciating, unbelievable, choices she had to make.

How lucky contemporary young women are. Whatever congress or courts do with the abortion question, women still have socially acceptable choices. In my own life I have one cousin and several close friends who are unmarried and have children. I just recently attended a wedding where the bride was seven months pregnant. That's no longer so unusual. It's even okay to be an unwed teen mother in “momma grizzly” country. Or to be single, pregnant and nominated for an academy award. How much pain this saves, on women, their offspring and their families. Choices are still difficult, but at least they can be discussed.

Clara’s decision to reconnect with a lost child and perhaps provide her family with a home seems to speak to a certain longing.

What would Clara have done today?

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