To a little kid, the county fair was pure enchantment. There was a puppet show and a 4-H cake booth and animals and gardens. There were kiddie rides, too, and a man who made wonderful charms out of molten glass. My favorite activity was the “fish pond,” in which you were handed a fishing rod, dipped the hook into a wading pool, and came out with a toy. I liked that it required no luck, no skill, and no courage.
I still have pictures of that day: my grandmother neat and ladylike in a cardigan and carrying a large beige handbag. We had attended the Lion’s Club pancake breakfast in the morning, and later I was allowed to get a doughnut because the proceeds went to helping children with Down syndrome.
I was at a stage in my life—the summer between second and third grade—when it seemed important to bring all subjects out into the open in the interest of radical honesty. Only a few days prior, I had scandalized the Sunday school day camp she’d put me in by raising my hand and announcing, apropos of nothing, that I was half Jewish. Not to have spoken up would have seemed a lie of omission.
Abortion was particularly on my mind, I don’t know why. I had always known—in the way one knew everything in my immediate family—that my parents had terminated a pregnancy shortly before they conceived me. Lately I’d been dwelling on this fact. “I owe my life to abortion,” I would say urgently when we saw pro-life protesters at a nearby clinic. The phantom sibling was a source of guilt to me, too; in my mind I somehow endowed it with all the virtues (the way one might idealize a partner’s ex) and imagined that I had somehow taken the place of a better, smarter, less weird version of my own mediocre self. I lay in bed thinking about this, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again. I had a small mechanical pencil that I associated with this line of thinking. I carried it with me everywhere and squeezed it in my pocket as a reminder. It had become a morbid obsession.
“Do you know that my mom was a little bit pregnant when my parents got married?” I asked my grandmother as we walked to the garden tent. I had planned my wording carefully so as not to shock her.
“I did, yes,” she said.
“Do you think that was wrong?” I said. “I mean … about the other one.”
I remember she told me about “quickening,” and how long it took before a fetus could live outside the belly of its mother—but also when a sort of spiritual shift took place. Until that time, she believed, a baby was not a baby. I knew she was uncomfortable. She spoke awkwardly. But she also said, “You know … when two people love each other … that … sex … can be a very wonderful thing. I think it is why God created us.”
This gave me a great deal to think about. I clicked my mechanical pencil. And then we were at the fish pond. The old man handed me the makeshift rod, and I dipped it into the hole. The hook failed to catch anything, so the old man waded into the pool and manually attached a prize. I pulled out my prize: a small, maybe-six-inch bear. I remember my grandmother’s expression when the toy emerged from the pool. There was a flicker of—something. But I was so thrilled, so proud, that I guess she couldn’t stand to ruin my pleasure. The old man removed the hook. The bear was wearing a small T-shirt with a slogan: MY PLACE OR YOURS?
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.