The Land of Sunshine and Hell: A Memoir of a ‘60’s Unwed Mother
It is 1964 and the Vietnam War is heating up, drafting young men into battle. This is an era in which sex is not discussed at home or at school and children are left in the dark to fend for themselves. It is an era of high morality, anti-war protests, and music that reflected the coming rebellion.
Maxene is seventeen and in love with Romolo, a first-generation Italian American. She discovers she is pregnant; her world comes crashing down around her. She is a good student and has been accepted into college. She is excited about a bright future, fantasizing about marriage and a career as a teacher.
Instead, Maxene will live alone in a town where she knows no one, waiting until the baby is born. Romolo, who is in college, visits clandestinely on occasion.
She gives birth to her daughter. Four days later the lawyer takes the baby from her on the steps of the hospital. Maxene returns home, empty and numb. Without counseling or discussion about the impact of her loss, her parents never broaching the subject, she bides her time before beginning college. When people ask why she is home from school, they are told she has mononucleosis.
Months later, before adoption papers are finalized, her mother visits with Mr. B to receive a final payment and sees a photo on his credenza of a toddler who looks just like Maxene. There is a growing suspicion that Mr. B is making the adoption arrangements for someone in his own family.
The expectation at the time was “good girls” went to college and didn’t get pregnant. Maxene discovers that both of her roommates have also given up babies prior to starting their school year. How could they wind up together? These young women are simply expected to show a brave face and move on. She is the only one able to hang on and graduate, and soon after she lands a job teaching ninth-grade English.
Maxene eventually marries Romolo after he is drafted and joins him in Germany. The memoir describes their experience as part of a group of draftees who quietly rebel against giving up two years of their lives. They spend their evenings smoking marijuana, listening to the music of the times, and pulling pranks on the officers. Meanwhile, their relationship — a mixture of love, guilt, and immaturity — is falling apart.
The memoir follows her path across three continents, applying herself professionally while longing to know her daughter. It recounts the hell Maxene experiences, being lured into a relationship with Simon, a controlling, abusive, brilliant artist. She tells herself she just needs to work harder to make things right. As she turns thirty, she is convinced by Simon to become pregnant, which strikes an emotional chord. After her son is born, she gathers strength to escape Simon’s control.
A blind date leads to meeting her soulmate, Lee. The final chapters of the memoir recount how despite all the heartache, through persistence and an optimistic outlook, a truly positive outcome is possible, letting the sun shine in on her life.
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