There is one image that always springs to mind when I think of my mom. It is from a photo that hung on a wall in my childhood bedroom. In it, she is perched, naked, on a wicker chest. Her waning belly spills onto her thighs. Her nipples are large and dark; her hair the longest it has ever been. I am two years old, draped over her, one hand disappearing behind her shoulder and the other resting on her stomach. My head tilts up to meet her gaze. She is saying something to me, and I am listening. Not long after my dad took this photo, my mom’s midwife slid a knitting needle between her legs to break her water. Her due date had long since passed. The needle’s puncture prompted my mom’s body to labor and coaxed my brother out of her womb.
I looked up at that photo every morning as I got dressed, occasionally aware that my own body, like hers, had changed, and would change again. I just want you to know that you can always talk to me, she would say. When I was older, I pulled the photo from the wall and traced the outline of our heads, transfixed by our soft but intent focus on each other.
This wasn’t the only wall that told a story about my foremothers. Every room in the house was adorned with images of them. In one, my grandmother sits cross-legged in a leotard, her arms reaching up to the sky. I called her Peachy, but everyone who knew her as a dancer called her Mary. A nearby frame held two side-by-side portraits of Peachy and her sister, Bette, as young children. A hazy daguerreotype revealed my great-great-grandmother, Dama, wearing a heavy dress and a stoic expression. There was Janie Bell, who wore two braids wrapped tightly around her head like a silver crown. My mom called her Laloo.
Looming over all of us was an illustration of my great-great-great-grandmother, Cordelia. Her eyes smile faintly, as if she has a secret of her own. Or maybe many.
Cordelia was born in 1841. I don’t know anything about her birth other than that it deepened her father’s pockets. Richard was a white banker with a wife and two children. In 1830, he bought an enslaved girl named Sarah. She was fifteen. Two years later, Sarah gave birth to their first child together. Cordelia was among the nine others that followed. Five, or maybe six, lived. Shortly after learning of Sarah’s first pregnancy, Richard’s wife left with the children they shared. Nobody seems to have the language to describe what Sarah and Richard were to one another once his wife left. For now, I won’t attempt to find it.
My family has no image of Sarah to hang on the wall. I cannot hold anything in my hands that she held in hers. We are lucky, I suppose, to have a copy of her bill of sale. Aside from that, the only physical evidence of Sarah’s existence is us—the children of the children of the children she carried. Did she sing to them, I wonder? Did she cherish their tender little parts—teeth, locks of hair—as they grew? Did she long for her own mother, from whom she had been sold away, when she became one herself?
Her life, like the lives of so many Black women, is shrouded in silence. Only my family’s memories, passed down like fragile heirlooms, fill the void.
Sarah died in 1850, just two days after birthing her tenth child. She was thirty-five. She spent the latter half of her life in a continuous cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant loss. She was buried in the same grave as two of her daughters—mothering carried over into death. Her uterus held the future of the slave economy, and also of our family. Before she died, Sarah urged Richard to move their surviving children north. He did as she asked, shuttling their family from Charleston to Philadelphia in 1858. Richard lived long enough to see his children free but not yet citizens. When he died, what remained of his slaveholding wealth was left in his Black children’s hands. And those children made sure the generations that followed knew from whence they came—so that one day I would know, too.
Cordelia was nine when Sarah died. I wonder if Cordelia ever looked up at her mother’s face with the wonder and attention I would later give to mine.
On the eve of my parents’ wedding, two years before my conception and five years before my brother’s, my mom visited Dr. Z for a routine gynecological exam. He reached inside of her and felt a mass.
What my mom most remembers about this appointment is how scared she was. Dr. Z had used the word tumor to describe what he felt. She stepped out of the stirrups in a daze, drifting from his office in SoHo to Pace University, where she was finishing her Bachelor’s degree. She ran into a classmate, told her the news, and fell into the woman’s arms.
My grandmother wrote about the appointment and those that followed in her journal. “Jenny was advised by Dr. Z to have a sonogram because he felt an unidentified mass,” she wrote. “Needless to say the ceiling fell in on both of us. That was a Wednesday. The sonogram was Friday. The radiologist felt certain it was a fibroid tumor.”
Though the radiologist’s certainty may have offered my mom some comfort in the moment, this is not how she remembers it. She recalls the radiologist saying, “I don’t understand why you’re here” as she prodded her uterus with the transducer.
A few days later, my mom had a third exam; my grandmother went with her, bracing for bad news. “This time Dr. Z said ‘she is fine,’” my grandmother wrote. “Whew!!!!!!!! What a relief. Wonderful wonderful news!!”
The radiologist had been right: My mom had uterine fibroids.
Fibroids are benign tumors of the uterine muscle. They can grow inside the uterus (submucosal), in the uterine wall (intramural), or outside of the uterus (subserosal). Sometimes they are connected to the uterus by a big stalk, dangling off the uterus like lollipops (pedunculated). They range in size from jelly beans to watermelons.
Experts are not sure what causes fibroids. Heredity appears to be one risk factor. Race is another. Though fibroids are common across women of all races, Black women are two to three times more likely than white women to be diagnosed with uterine fibroids. Black women tend to develop fibroids at a younger age, are more likely to develop multiple fibroids, and report more severe symptoms. There are also racial differences in the growth rate of fibroids: For white women, growth tends to slow as they approach menopause, whereas for Black women fibroids continue to grow as they age.
Because fibroids are benign, there is often no immediate need to do anything about them. But in some cases, fibroids cause a great deal of discomfort. They can cause heavy and prolonged periods, painful cramping, pelvic pain, frequent urination, lower-back pain, and pain during intercourse. Fibroids can make it difficult to conceive depending on their placement, and they can also cause complications during pregnancy.
Until fairly recently, the primary treatment for uterine fibroids was hysterectomy—an operation that removes the uterus altogether.
When I was in college, I took a class called Biology of Women. I titled my final paper, “Hysterectomy: The History of an Abusive Operation.” In red ink, my professor scribbled “the operation is not abusive, but perhaps the over-performance is.” Indeed, hysterectomy can be lifesaving in the case of uterine and ovarian cancer, and it can relieve the pain and discomfort that accompany noncancerous gynecological conditions. But hysterectomy is an extreme response to uterine fibroids, akin to cutting down a tree simply because it is overgrown with mushrooms. And, too often, patients feel they do not have a choice.
There is a surgical alternative to hysterectomy. Myomectomy removes the individual fibroids from the uterus. Whereas a doctor can perform a hysterectomy on their lunch hour, myomectomy is a slow, meticulous operation that requires additional training. Hysterectomy is covered by most health insurance companies; myomectomy is not.
In essence, doctors have the power to dictate which uteruses are useful and which are not, and insurance companies ensure that only some can afford to keep them.
Two of my mom’s aunts had uterine fibroids. Their diagnoses cost each her uterus.
My mom’s Aunt Gene was the first to be diagnosed with fibroids. Nobody in my family is quite sure when she was diagnosed, whether she had symptoms or how severe they were, and why she decided to have a hysterectomy. My mom always believed it was the reason Gene never had kids.
Nobody I asked could remember much about Gene’s operation. Everyone wanted to talk about Gene’s husband, who went by his last name, Willis. Two people told me the same story about him: One day, he and Gene were riding the train in New York. The kids sitting across from them waved at Gene, and she waved back. Willis was irate. “He hated kids and never wanted them,” I heard again and again.
I became obsessed with figuring out when, exactly, the operation was. Could she have had kids had it not been for her hysterectomy? Would she have? My mom recalled that Gene’s hysterectomy came shortly after she and Willis married, in 1946, at which point she would have been in her late twenties. “But call your Auntie Bev.” Bev barely remembered the operation at all.
I made other calls, widening the circle of outreach, until I found myself on the phone with Gene’s husband’s cousin’s husband, who turned out to be the first person with any specific memory of the operation. “Do you know anything about Gene’s hysterectomy?” Though I had posed the same question to many women in my family, the question felt strange and inappropriate directed toward this man, like I was telling a secret. “Yes, I do,” he replied. He proudly reported that he picked Gene up from the hospital after the operation, as Willis didn’t drive. But that was really all he could tell me. He couldn’t recall when the operation was.
This part of Gene’s life seemed to have been forgotten from my family’s well of oral history. Her husband overpowered Gene in my relatives’ memories, just as he had seemingly overpowered her in life.
I began to craft a narrative of my own. In one of my imaginations, the villain was Gene’s doctor: white, middle-aged, scissors for hands, eager to render an unsuspecting Black woman barren. In another it was Willis, encouraging or perhaps forcing her to extract her uterus to foreclose any possibility of pregnancy. Perhaps Willis and the scissor-handed doctor had colluded. Maybe Gene didn’t want to have kids at all. Or maybe her fibroids had simply overtaken her uterus and she wanted to be rid of all of it.
I plotted the sparse pieces of information I gathered on a timeline. As best I can tell, Gene had the hysterectomy in New York sometime between 1961 and 1964—nearly two decades later than my mom believed. Gene would have been in her early forties; around fifteen years into a marriage that has become more mysterious to me the more I have learned about it.
Bette, my mom’s only surviving aunt, also had a hysterectomy. “My fibroid was pressing into my spine,” she recalled. At one hundred years old, Bette is the keeper of our family’s history. She likes to say she talks in footnotes. When I asked her if she remembered anything about her operation, or Gene’s, she was quiet. “It may come to me in a few minutes,” she said, but it never did.
My mother opted not to do anything about her fibroids in the years immediately following her diagnosis. She mostly stopped thinking about the ordeal.
But as the years passed, her fibroids grew in size and quantity. “My clothes were all too tight,” my mother later wrote. Strangers on the bus began offering her their seats, smiling warmly at her swollen belly. As the fibroids amassed, her period became heavier. On the second and third days of her cycle, she wore two super tampons and two super pads simultaneously. As a classroom teacher, she struggled to find time for bathroom breaks, but she learned to sneak away every two hours. If she waited any longer, she risked leaking through her clothes and leaving a trail of blood in her wake. She was perpetually fatigued—a result of the undiagnosed anemia she developed from her monthly blood loss.
Eventually, she had had enough. “My fibroids, which I could feel with my hands, should have shrunk to the size of walnuts. They felt more like California avocados.”
She made an appointment with Dr. M, the Black doctor my mom had selected to work alongside a midwife to deliver my brother. Dr. M lived in our neighborhood. When we were kids, my mom would always point out his house with fondness in her voice, as if reminded of the rush of gratitude she felt when the doctor placed my brother safely in her arms.
Dr. M recommended hysterectomy. “Why would you want to look like that?” he asked flatly. My mom crossed her arms to shield her stomach from his gaze. “At your age, what do you need your uterus for, anyway?” “As if striking a deal, he offered to leave my ovaries.” The fondness she had once felt toward him was replaced with confusion, shame, dismay.
But as my mom drove home from Dr. M’s office, her hesitation turned to indignance. This man does not get to decide what happens to my body. She scheduled a follow-up with Dr. S, a gynecologist who had been recommended by a friend.
She sat in the waiting room for two hours.
“Hysterectomy,” the doctor said matter-of-factly when she was finally called in to see him. My mom recalls that he issued this recommendation without touching or examining her. “You are past childbearing age. What is the point of keeping your uterus?” He used the word cancer a lot. My mom struggled to find the language to respond. Unaware of or indifferent to his patient’s hesitation, the doctor counseled her to book an immediate follow-up appointment for pre-surgery exams. She did: “He scared me into consent.”
But she called the next morning to cancel it. It felt safer to face the receptionist than the doctor. “It seemed so easy for all of these other people to be comfortable with my organ removal. I couldn’t articulate for myself why such a drastic, irreversible procedure was required. I just couldn’t get myself on board. I felt alone and unsupported.”
On the drive home it occurred to her: Maybe this is how my aunts felt, too.
Gynecology is a field with sinister origins. Until the nineteenth century, women’s health was in the hands of women healers. According to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Midwives and nurses mediated the mysteries of birth, procreation, illness, and death.” Neighbors, friends, and relatives pitched in. But in the mid-nineteenth century, gynecology emerged as an exclusively male-led profession. Pioneering doctors like John Peter Mettauer, Nathan Bozeman, and James Marion Sims insisted that women’s health should be included among the growing list of medical specialties.
The professionalization of gynecology came at great cost to Black women. In the late 1830s, around the time Sarah began having babies, in South Carolina, where Sarah lived, Sims began operating on enslaved women. Two women died under his knife. His professional reputation in shambles, Sims relocated to Mount Meigs, Alabama. There, on a small slave farm, Sims operated the first women’s hospital in the United States.
From 1844 to 1849, Sims enlisted enslaved women to serve as both nurses and patients. The historical record reveals the names of three—Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey—but there were at least six others. Sims operated on them without anesthesia or consent, again, and again, and again as other enslaved women aided him in coerced silence. Perhaps he, like many, believed that Black people do not feel pain. Sims used these women’s bodies and labor to develop a treatment for vesicovaginal fistulas—a condition that causes an opening between the bladder and the vagina, sometimes following childbirth. In 1850, the same year Sarah died, Sims returned to New York. There, he applied what he had learned in Alabama, operating on white women afflicted with fistulas. To them, he administered anesthesia, and from them he solicited consent.
Sims is credited with other gynecological innovations, including the first successful gallbladder surgery and the first successful artificial insemination. He is also responsible for inventing the speculum—the beak-shaped metal device that Dr. Z likely used to open my mother for examination the day he first discovered her fibroids.
Sims is the father of American gynecology as much as Richard is the father of my family.
The gynecological profession and the institution of slavery had a symbiotic relationship. On the one hand, gynecology was only able to advance as a field as quickly as it did because practitioners were able to experiment on enslaved women’s bodies. On the other, the slave economy depended on enslaved people’s productive labor, which was only made possible by enslaved women’s reproductive labor. Slaveholders relied on the insights and services of gynecologists to keep enslaved women healthy during childbearing years. In the words of historian Jennifer Morgan, “Black women’s bodies are inseparable from the landscape of colonial slavery.”
Gynecologists also equipped slaveholders with the knowledge to assess the reproductive capacities of enslaved women they sought to acquire. Historian Walter Johnson describes that traders stripped Black women of their clothes at auctions. Their prying white hands “palpated breasts and abdomens…trying to massage bodies into revealing their reproductive history and capacity.”
If this unwelcome prodding revealed growths on the uterus, women were deemed unsound. Slave owners and traders believed that tumors, even if benign, prevented the uterus from expanding during pregnancy. If her uterus could not expand, a woman could not carry a child to term. Her womb held no value, and thus neither did she.
I don’t know if Sarah was ever examined by a doctor. I don’t know what such an examination would have revealed. I don’t know if fibroids adorned her uterus. Maybe they were tucked inside her womb, out of reach of prodding white fingers, a secret unknown to even her. I don’t know if she struggled to get pregnant, or if she suffered miscarriage. I don’t know how her body endured nine pregnancies before the tenth one killed her. I can only imagine the pains she felt, the relief she craved, the comfort she found.
My great-grandfather De was a gynecologist. His was one of many dreams made possible by Sarah’s sacrifices. He graduated from medical school in 1915 but he struggled to find a residency willing to train a Black student. In the end, Albert Barnes, a prominent businessman in Philadelphia, funded the rest of De’s education at the University of Paris.
I have a photograph of De aboard the S.S. Bremen on March 28, 1932. He is with his wife, Cordelia, named after Sarah’s daughter. Everyone called her Dede. They are huddled with their daughters: my grandmother Peachy and her little sister, Bette, whose birth name is also Cordelia. A mother and her daughter, each carrying the name of their once-enslaved foremother, heading east across the middle passage.
De’s practice was in their family home in Philadelphia, down the street from the one Richard bought for his and Sarah’s children. I have a photo. The back reads daddy’s examination table. There is a white curtain isolating the table from the rest of the room. Someone crafted this table with their hands. They added drawers and doors with delicate carvings, ornate pillars at each corner. If it weren’t for the metal stirrups sticking out like antennae, the table would look more like household furniture than a medical tool.
What made him want to specialize in gynecology, I wonder? What did it mean for him to hold Sims’s speculum in his hands? What kind of doctor was he? How did he think about the Black women who laid their bodies atop his examination table? How did they feel peering over their knees and into his brown bespectacled face?
“I was drowning in an ocean,” my mom later told me, “and I found a way to fight the current.”
She read about holistic treatments for fibroids. She bought progesterone cream at a health-food store. The cream lived in the kitchen, on the shelf that held our hair supplies. In the mornings, she would brush and braid my hair, and then gently rub the cream onto her belly, pressing her fingertips into the knotty masses to see if they were shrinking.
She bought books about diet and hormone imbalance. In one, I found a weathered piece of loose-leaf paper on which she categorized food according to the nutrient it would provide. Mackerel for Omega-3 fatty acids, to be consumed three times per week. Black currant and borage oils for Omega-6 fatty acids. Must also take a blend of magnesium, vitamin B6, and Zinc. Two to four tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily. Turnips; yams; collard greens.
She learned about a book called The Hysterectomy Hoax authored by a Black surgeon named Stanley West.
In 1966, at the beginning of West’s medical career, he saw a nineteen-year-old patient who was concerned that her period hadn’t returned after a procedure to remove an ovarian cyst. West sent her for imaging and was horrified to discover that she had been subjected to a complete hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. He realized over the years that his patients had myriad reasons for wanting to preserve their uteruses, regardless of their age or reproductive plans. And he resolved to honor them.
“More than 90 percent of hysterectomies are unnecessary,” West wrote. “In this book I will give you ammunition to defend yourself against hysterectomy.”
Finally, my mom thought, I have the language to defend myself.
Reading West’s book, my mom discovered that her uterus, polyped as it may have been, regulated the hormones in her body. Without it, she’d be thrust into early menopause. She learned that these hormonal changes carried significant side effects. “Depression, fatigue, urinary disorders, joint aches and pains, and unwelcome changes in sexual desire and response are the most common complaints.”
You will not take my pleasure, she insisted.
“As long as a woman has her uterus, she can develop problems that her insurance must cover,” West wrote. “Preserving her uterus continues that potential liability.” He explained why hysterectomies are performed as often as they are. “Compared to some of the alternatives, hysterectomy is a relatively easy operation. It does not require the surgical finesse needed to perform a myomectomy.”
I will not sacrifice my flesh to make your job easier.
“Why have major surgery to remove an organ… that define[s] you as a woman?” he posed.
My uterus does not make me a woman.
“Prevailing medical wisdom holds that the uterus is a disposable organ that serves no useful purpose once a woman has all the children she wants.” West observed. “What’s more, it is regarded as something of a nuisance.”
My uterus is more to me than a vessel to grow a baby. I am the only arbiter of its usefulness.
West was still practicing, and he happened to be based at St. Vincent’s—the same hospital where my brother and I were born.
My mom reported to his office for her first appointment. She felt connected to him right away. “He could have been my father,” she later wrote. He examined her “quickly and gently. I told him my ‘story’ and he smiled.” He assured her that there was no medical need for a hysterectomy in her case and agreed to perform a myomectomy. When a slot opened up on July 24, 2007, my mom took it. “I signed a contract promising to pay the fee in full, and in which Dr. West promised that I would not have a hysterectomy.”
My mom’s health insurance would have covered the full cost of a hysterectomy. But it covered only a third of the myomectomy, leaving her to pay the remainder out of pocket. She turned to Peachy for help, and Peachy agreed. Another dream made possible by Sarah. How many women, my mom wondered, do not have the means to make this choice?
Twelve years to the day from my brother’s birth, my parents made the same early-morning drive from Brooklyn to St. Vincent’s. My mom had packed a blanket and wool sweater to fend off the air conditioning, and a basket of nonperishable foods. She also brought a disposable camera. She handed it to the surgical nurse and asked her to snap a few pictures. When it was time for surgery, she walked barefoot to the operating room with a blue hairnet on her head. She looked around. She wrote, “OR # 2 was a bright, cold room with a thin metal table in the center and lots of equipment and big machines all around.” She lifted herself onto the table. “I felt like an astronaut getting into a rocket. A nurse was careful to keep as much of me as possible covered by the gown. Someone put a mask on me and told me to breathe.”
Over the course of seven and a half hours, West removed 117 fibroids from my mom’s uterus.
My mom slowly regained consciousness. She heard a woman’s voice compliment her freshly waxed eyebrows and she asked groggily if they also liked her pedicure. “Everyone was amazed by how many fibroids I had and how long the surgery had lasted.” Seven and a half hours. One hundred and seventeen fibroids tenderly unrooted from their soil. “I kept apologizing.” She thought of his comfort, and then her own. “I was worried that Dr. West had had to work too hard. All I could think was that he must have missed his lunch. Then I realized I had missed lunch as well.” She felt “grateful, so grateful, to be alive.”
My mom made a friend in the hospital, a Black woman named Lily. “I remember hearing Lily’s voice before surgery.” Lily was also recovering from a myomectomy. “She was my roommate in Room 931. We did everything together. We encouraged each other to sit up in bed or to get up and sit in a chair. We compared our urine output and competed for the lowest blood pressure.” Once, they both woke in the middle of the night and shuttled down the hall to look at the newborns in the nursery. They held each other tightly at discharge, but they never talked again.
Some time after the operation, she wrote a blog post titled “My Myomectomy: A Woman’s Personal Quest to Save Her Uterus.” She wrote it for other women struggling with fibroids. A community emerged from the comments section. One reader had a similar experience with Dr. M, only he was more direct with her than he had been with my mom. She recalled that he said to her, “I wouldn’t do a myomectomy on you for a MILLION BUCKS.” Another reader had discovered West’s book and, like my mom, had been able to schedule surgery with him. For a woman in Dallas, West’s services were out of reach. Still, my mom’s story was encouraging to her. “I really liked reading your story and knowing I am not completely alone.”
She wrote it for Sarah, and for her aunts, whose own wombs were each, in their own way, a contested site of domination. She wrote it for herself, a celebration of her years of research and self-advocacy. I am here, she called out, and my body matters. And she wrote it for me, long before she knew I would need it.
I was twenty-four when I woke up one day with a fullness in my belly. I pulled the sheets back and there it was: a mass my surgeon would later liken to a small watermelon, protruding awkwardly from the right side of my abdomen. I cupped my hands around it and pressed lightly. My bladder ached. I peed, and the lump retreated beneath the surface of my skin.
Once, when I was in middle school, my biology teacher tucked her fingers beneath her corduroy pants and said, “This is where my ovaries are.” It was magical to me that she knew her own insides. I followed her example, pressing into the skin beneath my hip bones until my fingers met resistance. I learned to recognize the feeling of my ovary releasing an egg each month. A friend once described cramps as “scraping the inside of your uterus with a rusty spoon.” As uncomfortable as they were, I reveled in them: my body’s way of talking to me.
The next morning the fullness was back. I called my gynecologist and left a message. A nurse called me back. “Sounds like a kidney issue,” she said impatiently. “Call your primary care doctor.” “I don’t have one yet. I just moved here,” I told her. “I suggest you find one.” I thanked her, though she hadn’t been helpful, and started calling around in search of an appointment.
A week later, I found myself in radiology. The ultrasounds—pelvic and abdominal—were as cold and wet as they looked in the movies. I heard the technicians relaying numbers to each other and wondered what they were quantifying. I worried about how much work I was missing, and felt grateful to have good health insurance for the first time in my life.
I called my mom as soon as the results came in. “I have fibroids.” Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. “Well of course you do.” I smiled. “One is really big.” By then, it had grown to nearly twice the size of my uterus and took up most of the space between my spine and belly button. “Everything will be okay.”
I recalled that, years ago, a doctor had pressed her cold fingers into my abdomen and said, “Wow, I wish I had these abs!” At the time I wondered what abs she could have been referring to. Now I knew that she had been feeling my growing fibroids.
I saw one gynecologist, and then another. Neither uttered the word hysterectomy. My uterus, it seemed, was one worth preserving.
My mom flew in the day before my myomectomy. Together we made the same early-morning journey to the hospital as she had a decade prior, and as my great-aunts had long before that. My mom knitted nervously in the fluorescent waiting room for seven hours. When I opened my eyes, she was sitting next to me smiling. She kissed my face, wetting my cheeks with her tears.
Because my operation was laparoscopic, I didn’t have to spend days in the hospital as she had; I only had to stay until I peed. My mom held my hand as the nurse removed my catheter. She read aloud to me as I came more fully into consciousness. When it was time to prove my continence, my mom gently guided me to the bathroom and helped me lower to the toilet. We sat there together for a long time.
I spent the next week in a daze with my mom sitting beside me. I took a bunch of selfies so I would remember the vacant, drug-fueled look on my face. I couldn’t find comfort. We interrupted marathons of The Great British Bakeoff to go on belabored neighborhood walks. We changed my bandages. She made me bowls and bowls of “sick pasta”: noodles with butter, parsley, and feta cheese.
She stayed until I could drive again. I hated saying goodbye. Surgery had made me feel unimaginably weak, like my body might dissolve at any moment. I couldn’t imagine how I would carry on without her.
I monitor my uterus every six months. I’ve grown accustomed to the cold jelly and the wand that glides along my insides, prying my body to reveal itself in ways it doesn’t want to. New fibroids have sprouted in place of the old ones. “You have a lot of fibroids for someone your age,” the technician said to me earlier this year. Her eyes darted across the screen as if trying to hold all of them in her gaze.
My mom’s have grown back, too—or so she thinks. She hasn’t had an ultrasound since before her operation in 2007. My body will tell me when it’s time.
When my bladder is full, I feel a familiar tightness in my abdomen. I trace my fingers over the scar tissue marking my incision sites. My surgeon once apologized for the scarring, as if it made my body less beautiful. It is the same scar tissue that adorns the wombs of my mom and great-aunts. It is my body’s gentle reminder that while we will do this dance again, I am never dancing alone.
One of the most powerful and revelatory artifacts in Black women’s history is a cloth sack. Everything I know about it I learned from historian Tiya Miles’s book All That She Carried. According to Miles, the sack originally belonged to an enslaved woman named Rose who lived on a plantation in South Carolina. Rose filled the sack with a tattered dress, a braid of hair, handfuls of pecans, and a note that read, “my Love always.”
Miles recounts that when Rose learned that her daughter Ashley had been sold, she handed her the sack and looked into her eyes for the last time. Ashley carried the sack with her throughout her life. She passed it on to her daughter Ruth, who stitched the story of the heirloom into the fabric. At some point, Ashley’s sack left her family’s hands. The sack now sits in a display case in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is a tangible reminder of the realities of human bondage—and of a mother’s radical love and care—that are otherwise hard to hold. “It is a cautionary tale,” Miles writes, “about the personal pain and collective price exacted when a society devalues what is precious.”
The anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes that “history begins with bodies and artifacts.” My family has no artifacts of Sarah’s, but we have our bodies.
After my mom’s operation, she developed the photos the nurse had taken with the disposable camera. In one of the photos, Stanley West held my mother’s uterus in his hands. Meaty white fibroids sprout in every direction. It is her own Ashley’s sack, full of pecans and my Love always, an ancestral gift. This is our inheritance. Our wombs hold an archive.
“I have never been a person with moxie. I don’t know where it came from,” my mom said to me recently.
Yes, you do.