Anna Yarrow: The Certificate

My father was an absence, somehow connected to the words – out of wedlock and bastard. Christians shook their heads at the thought of him, and I felt slightly exotic and dangerous – born outside of rules or vows – conceived when God wasn’t looking.


My father says he used a condom.
My mother says he didn’t.

First lust in middle school. Tall geeks. Thick glasses and groping.
After high school, my mother left San Francisco to hitchhike across the country, to play guitar and find somewhere else. Farm. Commune. Train station. Then magnetism pulled her back. A phone call. A yes.

If you ask my father about the time of conception, his eyes will flicker, shoulders hunch, body tremble, and though you can’t quite believe it – you will see him flail and spin, falling, falling into a black hole like those nightmares where you’re untethered and you grip your mattress and wake up at the moment of impact, wondering if you’re dead.

If you ask my mother about the pregnancy, she’ll describe a circle of women, hands outstretched, voices murmuring, sending good vibes to her uterus – granting permission to choose the fate of these cells multiplying – releasing the shock and not-wanting – bean-sized life saying: Here I am.

I remember being born. Near fatal hemorrhage. Emergency. The slice and tug and pull. Three doctors hovering above. Bright light tinged with red.

Click! My own hello-world Kodak moment. I call it – the masks were dancing.

My 40-year-old grandmother peered over the blue curtain saying – she’s here! Then held me aloft like Simba and whispered – You are your own spiritual master.

My birth certificate says – father not stated.

He first saw me at an infant swim class when I was three-months-old. I don’t remember, but it probably smelled like chlorine, and the tiles around the pool were wet and slippery, and a lifeguard yelled, “No running!” And I kicked and bubbled, enjoying this big womb.

My mother taped pages from National Geographic on the wall by my crib. Goat. Whale. Glacier. Bedouin. At bedtime, she stretched her arms wide, saying, “I love you as big as the world!” Child faces and butterflies guiding my dreams.


We accepted Jesus when I was four. This world is an evil place. Ask Jesus into your heart or burn in hell for eternity. The preacher said we were lost. Sinners. So I said the magic words, put on a white robe and climbed into a baptism tank in front of hundreds of smiling believers – organ music and applause, cameras flashing – holding my breath – dunked under water three times – In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – warmth engulfing me, bladder tingling, blond hair rising to the surface. A nice lady gave me a certificate of salvation, and I signed it: Annie.

Soon my mother married a man she met at the church singles group. They changed my name, and told me to call him, “Dad.” But it was a lie. I told my friends, “It’s not my real name. He’s not my real father.” My father was an absence, somehow connected to the words – out of wedlock and bastard. Christians shook their heads at the thought of him, and I felt slightly exotic and dangerous – born outside of rules or vows – conceived when God wasn’t looking.

When I was twelve, my mom gave me the “sex talk” with diagrams of reproductive parts, warnings about STDs and pregnancy and heartbreak. She implied that sperm were vicious connivers, axing their way past all methods of birth control. She said to wait until I got married. She never mentioned the clitoris, pleasure, orgasm.

At youth group, the pastor implored teens to pledge their purity and sign cards that said – My body belongs to Jesus. Some of the boys wore rubber bands on their wrists, to thwack themselves whenever they had sexual thoughts.

I went to Africa as a missionary – my faith slowly unraveling. Apartheid. Colonization. Poverty.


A virgin on my wedding night. As I signed the marriage certificate, in front of a crowd of smiling believers – cameras flashing – God suddenly granted permission for penis to enter vagina. My name changed again. Now my body belonged to my husband. After consummation, my chest caved with anger. That was it? What I’d been waiting for? I’d signed a piece of paper. Till death do us. . .


We planned our daughter. A year and a half of trying. A miscarriage. Dunce sperm swimming in circles. Finally rooting. Vomiting on street corners. Seven months pregnant – we moved from South Africa to the Sultanate of Oman. Appointments at the university hospital – seated next to women in black robes. No men allowed. Watching Arabic TV. Mushrooming belly. Fetal heart monitor. Hiccups in my pelvis.

After birth, my body thought it was time to bleed to death. Pain. Darkness. Doctor hands excavating, stitching me closed. My mother there, holding the baby. In the waiting room, women unfolded prayer rugs and bowed towards Mecca. Grandmother and child waiting – waiting for my eyes to open, my breasts to milk – my self to recognize her self outside of me.


I give my daughter oceans. Pacific. Atlantic. Indian. Gulf of Oman. Naval wombs, where she shouts and jumps and orchestrates the waves. I swim with her on my back, and we giggle-snort-sing, arms and legs flapping to sea or shore, and I say to her – Remember this.

I walk like my father. Tall man stride. We order the same food at restaurants, states apart. Chicken chow fun. Mega bean burrito. He passed on his genius brain to his granddaughter, plus a few freckles and a fondness for snakes.

I signed a divorce certificate, and took my real name back.

At the library this summer, I overheard my daughter asking to use a computer. The librarian gave her a pen and said, “Just sign your name.” My daughter stared at the paper and rocked back and forth a little, then said, “You see . . . I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and sometimes I don’t feel comfortable signing my name. It feels like parts of me are getting lost.”


5th grade. A teacher says, “Her baby face is gone.”

Dresses shrink. She washes her own hair.

“Mom, I can walk home from school by myself.” Are you sure?
She slams the screen door. Triumphant. “I did it! I’m home!” Was it okay?
“It was the same. I felt like you were walking with me.”

She asks questions about sex – and I say: Clitoris, pleasure, orgasm.
“But how will I know if it’s an orgasm?”

And I want to say – touch, rub, hot, burn, breath quickening, heart thumping motion, moan rising – rising to light colors shapes – disintegrating then composite then flesh again – yearning, liquid – Oh God Yes in every language. To tell her about the lovers I’ve learned. About length and buttock and teeth. The parking lot at midnight on my birthday. The surprising innocence of threesomes.
But I don’t.

Instead, I say – It’s your body. You will know.

Anna Yarrow is a writer/photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her next online class for parents of special needs children, Sleeping Ink, starts in January.

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