Maeren Quirke

When I was 14, I determined two things about my future: I was going to be a ballerina, and I was going to marry a Protestant. Both resolutions came about because of my parents. My father had a reliable job working in insurance, and my mother was a housewife. Neither of them encouraged artistic pursuits, at least not as careers. Yet they sat me down in front of the old cathode-ray tube television to watch The Nutcracker every December since I can remember and even bought me a pink tutu at the age of four. Could you blame me? The idea of dancing professionally became a fantastical aspiration of mine. I imagined myself wearing opaque pink tights over a pair of flattering stems (these would come with time), a tulle flower erupting at my hips. But it was the shoes, the pointe shoes, that enamored me most of all. I couldn’t wait to have a pair of my own. I would wear them every day, eager to make my feet mangled and bloody with practice. Already I stood on the knuckles of my toes on the kitchen’s hardwood floors. After years of this, my parents finally caved and enrolled me in dance lessons, trying to alleviate the tension caused by my constant spinning, or maybe in an attempt to wear me down. But in my fourteenth year, 1993, I firmly declared that ballet would be my career path. It was much to their chagrin. 

My upbringing was also a wholly Catholic one, where I learned about the Father at home, the Son at school, and the Holy Spirit at church— but of course, crossover was inevitable. Like how Sister Janet sometimes invoked the Holy Spirit whenever my classmates passed notes during lessons. She’d make them read their notes aloud, which only resulted in Hannah or Ruth asserting how cute Jesus Christ was, causing mass hysteria and encouraging them even more. In my early school years, I never engaged in that sort of delinquency. 

For my First Communion, I received a Bible with my name, Alice Elizabeth Anderson, etched into the leather spine. When I was 10, I tried to read it through cover to cover, but I never got past Exodus. At 12, I joined the church’s small youth group, where we played kickball and volunteered at car washes. At age 14, when they took us to a community fair, I fell in love with Kent, who was a Presbyterian. From the short interaction we had at the cotton candy stand, his faith had seemed much easier to practice. Catholicism paled in comparison. In the days that followed, his words and hobbies and habits swam around in my mind, and he was thus the fundamental instigator of my rebellious phase. He’d shown me another world, one that simply implored me to discard my childhood without a second thought. So I vowed to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish a Protestant, not a Catholic. But certainly not an atheist, because that was going too far. 

For my parents, it was an insolent sentiment. They had a lot of trouble accepting my teenage infatuation with Kent, although I never saw him again. He lived on solely in my mind as the highest standard for Man, my personal religion. At the fair, he was enthralled by my passion for ballet— or so I remember— and he’d conveyed to me his reverence for Nirvana. I was thus introduced to the remarkable world of rock and roll, and when I listened to Nevermind a few months down the line, I was appalled, but in a good way. I’d never felt the adrenaline rush of insurgency so acutely. Lurking in a corner of the Saint Anne library, I looked through multiple dictionaries to figure out what “libido” meant. I even managed to buy a poster of the album cover by convincing my parents that it depicted a baptism. And Kurt Cobain was like a gateway drug to the harder stuff, Alice in Chains and Iron Maiden and Nine Inch Nails. My mother especially hated Nine Inch Nails. 

She was always by the books, my mother. She tried listening to Elvis once as a young teenager and literally cleaned her ears out with rubbing alcohol— the closest she ever got to hard liquor. I never heard her swear or saw her smoke. When she found out that her first boyfriend wasn’t a virgin, she nearly fainted before reporting it back to his parents. They relocated his bed into their room to ensure that he slept there from 10 P.M. to 7 A.M. each night until he graduated from the Saint Thomas Aquinas School for Boys. She told me that he became an obstetrician. 

She married my father at 23 but didn’t have me until 27. She was a perfect Catholic— traditional, honest, patient— and she had taught me how to be one too. When I first tried to read along with the sermons, she showed me how to find each Bible verse, first with the correct testament and then the chapter and then the verse number. She taught me how to pray the rosary, reciting each Our Father and Hail Mary. Before each meal, at home and restaurants alike, we folded our hands and said a prayer: “Thank you, Lord, for this food we are about to receive.” When I got to sixth grade, she demonstrated how to dress modestly for events and activities outside of school, since Saint Anne required a uniform anyways. But by the time I finished eighth grade, I had cut the plaid skirt shorter. Not noticeably so, but enough to fray the raw hem, which I thought looked punk. It was also around that time when I stopped carrying my rosary around. 

My father was more removed from my life. He was quiet and unassuming. I never felt like I fully knew him. But he was good— that I knew for sure. He never went to bars after work to get drunk. He gave my mother thank-you kisses for every meal she cooked. I never once saw him riled up or aggravated. He was passive but kind. He watched every Packers game and episode of Jeopardy, although he never guessed the answers. He gave me money without questioning what I spent it on. As unsatisfied as he was with my hobbies, he was the only reason I could get away with them. Whenever my mother got upset about the constant dancing or the music or Kent, he talked her down and chalked it all up to “It’s just a phase.” 

I didn’t think it was a phase, though. By the time high school started, I had fully embraced my new identity. I wore smudgy eyeliner and dark lipstick but also pastel ballet flats and hair bows. My room was littered with band posters and leotards. My CD collection was expansive, consisting of everything from Chopin to Depeche Mode. I still went to church, but I wore the same black dress to Mass so it looked like there was a death in the family every week. The congregation disapproved of me: “She’s lost” or “She isn’t keeping Jesus at her core.” My parents were evidently ashamed, and I was proud of it. In fact, I loved the attention of their disapproval. It made me feel starlike. The girls at school giggled behind my back, but I knew I’d reached an enlightenment that they would never know or experience. The new Liz Phair album had just been released, and they would never even know it. I was slated to play Clara in my dance studio’s Nutcracker recital, and I had plans to pierce my bellybutton afterwards. The girls around me lived such small lives, while I felt that I had reached the peak of my life.


It was the summer after tenth grade, when I was 16 years old, in 1995, that my mother told me she was pregnant. She was a month and a half along when we had the conversation. By then I was fully content in the state of my life, and the last thing I wanted was a kid sibling. A little girl would especially be a threat. Maybe she’d be perfect. No faults to speak of. The fact that I was an only child meant that I had room for error— an assurance that I desperately needed at this stage. Despite my constant displays of defiance, I was pampered. My allowance was high, my Christmas gifts rather abundant. My parents came to my dance recitals and gave me flowers, even though they didn’t think I’d ever make it professionally. I even loved when they were mad at me, whether for breaking the china or wearing cropped shirts. You know what they say: any press is good press. 

But even more, the pregnancy made me angry because of the age gap. 16 years! I’d be going to college in just two years. It was like my parents were starting over, giving themselves another chance. A kid that might actually turn out to be a devout Catholic this time. And in the meantime, I’d have to swap out my entire life with babysitting. I’d have to stop playing my heavy metal if the child was anywhere in the vicinity. My social life was bust. Every fiber of my being hated the idea of a newborn in the house. 

Thus began my return to God, fraudulent as it may have been. In church I tried to pray the baby away. Dear God, please don’t give me a sibling. I even resumed kneeling before bed, the way I would in elementary school, praying for disastrous things to happen to the child in my mother’s womb. I’d hate to admit or repeat what I wished for. Now, it causes me nothing but shame. But I was so desperate for the pregnancy to end. I thought it would help my chances to repent for my recent sins. I stopped with the eyeliner, I even burned some of the CDs. My twirling around the kitchen came to an abrupt end. I prayed the rosary until my mouth got dry.


Even more horrid than my weeks of praying was the fact that it worked. Two and a half months into the pregnancy, my mother had a miscarriage. It happened in my parents’ bathroom, and I never saw the scene because they prevented me from going in there until everything was cleaned up. I didn’t see my mother for hours, and when I finally did, she was still sweaty and shaking. When we later consulted a doctor, he attributed it to her age. It was a miracle that she even got pregnant at 43. A successful birth would’ve been a triumph. 

I knew the reality, though. I knew that God was punishing me. I knew it was because of the rock and roll and the not listening to my parents and the whole Protestant thing. But I knew it was mostly because of my pleas for awful things to happen to the unborn child. God had listened and shown me how rotten my desires were. I saw how I’d hurt my mother, the best Catholic I knew. My father turned in on himself, even more silent than before. I had abused the power of our sacred religion. I’d turned my back on it, and the only reason I returned was to pray for death. And I was sincere, and it worked. I was a murderer. I tried to fix it, I really did. I repented. I prayed to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Dear Saint Anthony, please come ‘round, something is lost, and it can’t be found. I said it over and over. Of course, it didn’t work for this. 

My mother unraveled. The miscarriage had done to her the opposite of what it did to me: she stepped away from God, the Church, and prayer. I didn’t know why. I told her, “Bad things don’t happen to good people. It’s not your fault.” I did my best to comfort her while tiptoeing around the truth. But it seemed she’d stopped listening. For a while, we ate take-out almost every night because my father didn’t know how to cook. I figured I should step up, learn how to make a thing or two. Spaghetti, meatloaf, the basics. I vacuumed and did the dishes. My mother stayed in bed, often reading something from the library that I’d picked up for her. Mostly it was Austen or Orwell or Dickens. Definitely not the Bible. My father and I attended church alone those days, and when the congregation asked about her, we said she was badly sick. We couldn’t admit to ourselves, let alone to them, that she was depressed and losing her faith. “Hey. You’ll always be my little girl, right?” he said often. I think her silence got to him. 

I became more devout by the day. When I looked at my Nevermind poster and my frayed skirt and my pointe shoes, I could only see the atrocity that my behavior had caused: a discarded life, my mother’s trembling, her ensuing decay. So I tore it all up, threw it all out, started going to more confessionals. I told Father David everything, but I don’t think he believed that it was an act of God. “It was my fault,” I insisted. “I swear, it was.” 

He sighed. “Ten Hail Marys,” he said. I did them with fervor. 


The years went by, and I was a good Catholic. I no longer wanted to be a ballerina— the word tasted sour in my mouth— although I kept listening to Mozart and Beethoven. Once, in my senior year, my parents and I went to see The Nutcracker live, and it was bittersweet to be relegated to an audience member this time. 

I didn’t know how I could even stand listening to rock music. Those few years alone supplied me with enough decibels for a lifetime. I suppose Kent had an undue influence over me. I withdrew my decision to marry a Protestant; now that seemed to be going too far. I applied to Catholic universities only, and I got into Mount Mary, which was small and close to home. I continued to cook and clean and look after my mother, who strayed very far. She never once went back to church after the incident. I pleaded with her often. “He’s the one thing that can bring you solace.” But she stayed home and wept and read. 


It was the summer after senior year, when I was 18 years old, in 1997, that my mother told me something that I never forgave her for. My father was in the car, preparing for the drive to Mount Mary for move-in day, and I went upstairs to tell her goodbye and I love you. She sat on the edge of the bed. She apologized for not making the trip with us. “That’s okay,” I assured her. “I’ll call you all the time.” She asked me if a Catholic university was really what I wanted, and I said, “Of course.” She said that she didn’t believe in God anymore. Her voice when she said that punched me in the gut, but I knew it was true, I’d known it for a while.

“Alice, there’s something I have to tell you,” she said softly. “I haven’t told anyone but I know you think you’re guilty, so I think you should know.” 

It was self-induced. The miscarriage was less of a miscarriage and more of an abortion. She had found a pseudo-doctor who was underground and secular, who would keep her secret. He got the process started for her, with a metal probe that stayed inside her all the time. He even walked her to the train station to make sure she didn’t faint. She didn’t want my father to know that it was all on purpose, she said. 

But she wanted to take the weight of that day off of my shoulders and also remind me that I don’t need to have a child if I don’t want one. That I could get rid of a pregnancy, and that was okay. Slowly, I rose from the bed and ran out of the room. 


At Mount Mary, I didn’t speak to my mother. I accepted calls from my father but hung up on her. I tried not to think about how she had committed such an atrocity. I distracted myself with friends. I told them about my Nirvana and eyeliner phase, and they only believed me when I sang every lyric of “In Bloom” to prove it. I wore my skirts long. I paid attention in school, I studied hard. I met a nice Catholic man named Lucas who I promised to marry. I stopped studying hard. I occasionally went to the ballet. 

In my senior year, a friend of mine named Bethany asked me to attend a protest against Planned Parenthood with her. We lined the sidewalk leading up to the clinic, carrying posters with grainy, blown-up pictures of ultrasounds. Six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks. Sayings like “Life begins at conception” and “Roe must be reversed!” Bethany, who volunteered at the public library every weekend, hounded the patients and doctors who approached the entrance. I stood quite still. Whenever a woman approached the door, all that my eyes seemed to find were my feet. 

My mother had said that it was a pseudo-doctor. Underground. Secular. Those were her words. Bethany hollered at a petite figure with graying hair. Why hadn’t she just come here? To a licensed clinic? I stepped off the path. 

“Alice? Where are you going?” My feet wandered back to the car. “We’re fighting for a just cause over here!” Bethany’s voice trailed off. 

My mind reeled. It felt as if I’d just had three espresso shots at once. She was two and a half months along. Ten weeks. She wasn’t showing, no one would’ve known if she’d just gone to Planned Parenthood and gotten it over with. I didn’t want your father to know that it was all on purpose. 


“Hey, sweetheart, how’re you? Graduation’s just around the corner, huh?” His voice was staticky. 

“Yeah, Dad, right there.” 

“You keeping your grades up?” 

“Sure, Dad.” 

“Well, I bet that Lucas is a happy man.”

“Can I ask you a question?” 

“Anything, honey.” 

“What’s your opinion of abortion?” 

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “Well, uh, why’re you asking, sweetheart?” 

“It’s just… would it be okay with you if I or anyone else got an abortion? If they were pregnant and didn’t want to be?” 

“Couldn’t you just put it up for adoption? Alice, hon, do you have something you wanna tell me? ‘Cause I know you’re not married to that boy, not yet anyways.” 

“No, Dad. I’m not pregnant. I was just wondering.” 

“Y’know, you’ve always been the rebellious type—” 

“That was, like, two years of my life.” 

“Well, still. At the end of the day, Alice, I can’t control you. Never could.”

“Did you want to?” 

“Of course not. Your mother, she was the one you pissed off the most.” 

“She’s not still upset at me, is she?” 

“Oh jeez, Alice. You know what your mother always said? She said that ‘pissed’ and ‘upset’ are two very different things. And she was never upset with you.” 

“Dad?” I paused for a long while. “Was she ever upset with you?” 

“Well, the miscarriage took a toll on her. You know that just as well as I do. After that, she wasn’t always in her right mind.” 

“After the miscarriage.” 

“Yes, Alice, after the miscarriage. Are you sure you’re alright? Not feeling nauseous, are you?” 

“I’m not pregnant. I gotta go, Dad.” 

“Be careful, sweetheart. You’ll always be my little girl, right?” 

“I will.” 

“Okay, bye-bye.” 


The summer after my senior year, I married Lucas the Nice Catholic Man. My father was at the wedding, and my mother, whom I hadn’t seen in four years, was at home.

“She’s very tired, honey. You know how it is.” The wedding invitation, though, was all I had. I didn’t have the guts to call her, I admit. But I thought this would repair everything, and I wanted everything to be repaired, to at least see her again. Instead, I got married and felt lonely doing it. 


A few days later, when I was feeling gutsy, I wrote her a letter. I told her that I was pissed at her. I was pissed that she let me believe for years that the “miscarriage” was my fault. I was pissed that she wasn’t who she purported to be. The woman who had raised me so blessedly, so graciously. I was pissed that she was a liar and, objectively, a sinner. I was very pissed that she didn’t come to my wedding. My pen ran out of ink. I switched to a blue one.

Oh jeez, Mom. “Pissed” and “upset” are two very different things! 


It wasn’t until long after when I received a package. Lucas and I had moved to Michigan. Our brown tabby was staring out the front door window when the mailman placed a small cardboard rectangle on the welcome mat. I didn’t pay it any mind until a few hours later. 

I opened it to find a VHS tape. I slid it into the TV and pressed play. It’s our old kitchen, dated June 11, 1984. I’m five years old. In the video, I’m wearing the little pink tutu and spinning around the kitchen table, my arms high above my head in first position. It looks as though I’m circumnavigating the earth on tippy-toe. 

What are you doing, chickadee? My mother is the one recording the video.

Little Me pauses for a moment to answer. Being a ballerina! I resume twirling, and I keep going for what seems like ages. Just spinning and spinning and spinning. The camera remains steady. 

I’m proud of you, Alice, she says. Her voice rings in my ears.

Maeren Quirke is a sophomore from Pittsburgh studying RTVF and political science. In her free time, you can find her socializing at Colectivo, playing pool at Norris, or DJing in the WNUR studio.