Jimmy and Darla were one of the stories mother told when my father was not at home. I don’t remember when she first told me about them. Like fairy tales, mother’s secrets happened once upon a time, far, far away, in a world where someone was always lost. In mother’s stories, she was the one who got lost, always in a place full of impossible loss and danger that she escaped by running away. Jimmy and Darla appeared together in the same tale, like Hansel and Gretel; but in their story, their mother, my mother, fled to the forest without any breadcrumbs and never found her way back.
Mother trained my sister, Kathy, and me to carry her secrets carefully. Don’t tell your father, she said, when we visited our oldest sister who lived a married life on the other side of town. Do not lie, but do not speak the truth. Just place one foot in front of the other, balance, shift your weight slowly, and do not look down. Whatever you do, do not look down: there isn’t any net.
Mother whispered her stories to us one by one. Jimmy and Darla lived in one of the stories that happened years ago, never to be seen or heard of again.
That is, until my father died.
When mother married her first husband, Ketz, she was 16 and the mother of a six-month-old girl. Older by six years, Ketz was not only notoriously forgetful but also impossible to divorce. When he got her pregnant just a few months after she turned 15, he forgot that the age of consent in Pennsylvania was 16. Then he forgot to divorce his first wife before he married mother, which explains why he took her across the state line to West Virginia for the ceremony. His memory lapses proved contagious: mother forgot she was 16 and listed her age on the marriage certificate as 21. After the birth of their second child, mother left him. What little money he made working in the coal mines, he spent on gambling and other women. Mother went back home, neither married nor divorced.
The United States economy had been slogging through the Great Depression since 1929, looking for higher ground, and in 1937, the year mother’s second child was born, it stumbled into another recession, leaving almost 20% of workers without jobs. Mother tried to find work in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania where her mother and father lived, but few jobs were available. Eventually she left the children, Connie and Clyde, in care of her mother and moved to New York to find work. She spent her days waiting tables and her nights waiting at tables in clubs with a drink in her hand, hoping a good-looking man would ask her to dance. For the first time since she was 15, she had the freedom to do whatever she pleased. So she did. Somewhere along the eastern seaboard, she met Grady, a dark-haired officer in the Merchant Marines.
Mother often told me she could get pregnant if a man just looked at her in a certain way. Well, Grady looked at her that way and she got pregnant with Jimmy.
Jimmy enters the story
When mother told Grady she was pregnant, he laughed, denied that it was his baby, and then told her he was shipping out. In Europe, the Allies were bombing Hitler’s dreams into rubble; in the Pacific, Generals MacArthur and Nimitiz were securing island after island, nearing Okinawa and moving the war closer to the Japanese mainland. American soldiers needed the troops and supplies the Merchant Marines carried; mother would have to fend for herself.
She worked until almost full-term, then for the second time, returned home, pregnant and almost penniless. Soon after Jimmy’s birth, her father died from black lung disease, leaving mother, grandmother, and the three children on their own.
Grandmother cared for the three children, Connie, Clyde, and Jimmy, while mother moved to Chester, Pennsylvania to find work. Once mother got an apartment, grandmother and the children joined her. Although Grady denied Jimmy as his, he kept in touch with mother and showed up at the beginning of 1945, a few months before World War II ended in Europe. The resemblance must have been undeniable because Grady accepted Jimmy as his own and convinced mother to marry him. And not just marry him but move to Mobile, Alabama.
Grady’s family may have forgiven mother for having children out of wedlock, but they never forgave her for being a Yankee. Mother, Grady, and the three children stayed at Grady’s sister’s house, sleeping on the floor, until she asked the five of them to leave. They moved in with Grady’s mother, Virgie, whose house, little more than a cabin, lacked indoor plumbing. The only floor covering was a carpet of Alabama dirt that seeped through the gaping floorboards. The garbage tossed out the back door provided the neighborhood rats plenty to eat, and even with the door closed, they squeezed through the floorboards to explore the house. Mother refused to let Jimmy play on the floor at all.
Grady looked for work and after failing to find any, employed himself by drinking, gambling, and slapping mother around. She couldn’t contribute much because Grady looked at her that way again and she got pregnant.
Darla enters the story
When mother grew tired of living like poor, white trash and getting beat up by Grady, she wrote her mother and asked for the third time to come home. By then her mother had no home of her own and was living with one of her other daughters, Peg. Like mother, Peg married at 16 ; by 19 she had three children. Although Peg’s husband had allowed his mother-in-law to move in, he wanted nothing to do with a pregnant sister-in-law and her three children. Aunt Peg did, so mother and her brood moved in, filling up every room in the house.
Mother was alone in the house with Connie, her oldest child, when Darla struggled into the world. Connie called the doctor, hollered, “Momma’s having the baby,” and slammed down the receiver. The doctor figured out who it was but arrived too late. Mother delivered Darla by herself, breaking the bed in the process.
In this hopeful part of the story, mother escaped her life of abuse and rat-infested poverty and kept all four children together. Of course, it didn’t stay hopeful for long, mother’s stories rarely did. The past came in fast pursuit and hunted her down, rattling its chains.
Next: Part 2
29 thoughts on “Whispers of Jimmy and Darla: part 1”
Ok, now I’m hooked.
My mother never talked about her younger days…and she died way too soon. I don’t have her stories. Her only sibling passed on, and anyone who knew her then is gone, as well. What a treasure you have in your mother’s stories – especially the secret one.
That is sad, k8edid. I wish I had started writing all the stories down when she was alive and when her siblings were alive. Before she died I had her write a few things down and make a tape. I have to call my older sister sometimes to fill in some gaps, but there are still so many. It’s a reminder to us to write things down for our children. They may not appreciate it now, but later they will.
The comment of yours is an affirmation for me…to continue my searching and turning over of stones. I appreciate your honest writing in the whispers. We all carried these secrets.
Your stories are a gift to your children and grandchildren.
Can’t wait for part 2….
Thank you so much for reading.
I’m waiting for Part 2. You tell a good tale. True tales are the hardest to tell.
Thank you, Myra. You know about wrestling with facts to get a story down; you do it well.
Nothing is so fascinating as an honest tale. Thank you, and am looking forward to the rest.
I am glad you are reading. Thank you.
I am looking forward to part two: part one was engrossing – the truth as the cliche says is often stranger than fiction.
Mother lived a life stranger than fiction.
How few of us actually know our own mother’s deepest secrets, no matter how close we may feel. You tell your mother’s story so well. No embroidery, laying the facts out in an almost emotionless way, which makes the story so much more powerful. I am awaiting the second part … and more and more.
Thanks, nikkitytom. I can’t explain many of my mother’s choices; I just don’t know. The woman she was in her old age was different from her young self. Just writing the stories down helps me sort my own feelings out.
I didn’t comment yesterday, because I wasn’t sure what to say. I love reading these posts about your family, but at the same time, I feel sad about them. Still, I devour them. I love how straightforward you are, just telling us in clean, clear language. I don’t think this is a story that needs any fanciness or embellishment. It is very moving and poignant on it’s own.
On my way home from work last night, I was thinking about how I wish I didn’t know some of the “family secrets”. I know too much, about children born out of adultery and who used drugs and who walked in on their wife in bed with another man. These are things I wish I could erase from my mind. They serve me no good purpose. Secrets are interesting that way, in that some need to be let out for the healing to take place, and some need to just remain secrets.
I have family secrets, too, that I will never be able to write about. So much of life is hidden and must remain so.
This story touched my heart so powerfully, that I kept on thinking about it for a long time after reading it… and after a while, I felt a very warm and good feeling spread in my chest. I’m one of those people who find it very hard to talk about the hell I went through in my childhood… and though our worlds are different, and the experiences were different, the way you relate to the hard parts of life brings me happiness and consolation. Aside from the fact that I love the way you write. When I was a kid in the library, I used to look for the very large books… so it wouldn’t end too quickly. I had a little of that long ago feeling, realizing that there was more to come, because this was titled part 1.
It cheers my heart to hear you say so, Shimon. Thank you. I wonder if we ever learn much of value to the heart outside of stories. Facts about the world – the distance of the sun, the number of the continents – feed our mind, but the truth about our hearts and soul always come through stories.
Thank you for sharing your history.
Thank you for reading.
I like the simplicity of your storytelling. I understand more of your mothers story than I’d like to, so I’m capable of filling in some of the whys….. Hope, the desire to believe we can make a difference, that they will love you enough Not to do that ……
Like you, I can guess any number of reasons. And there’s something odd about it even to me, but when I write her stories I can’t attribute reasons why mother did the things she did. It’s as if I must merely tell her stories, unadorned and without explanations, just as I remember her telling me.
I love the way you write.
It makes me happy to hear that. Thank you.
YS, I love your humorous pieces, and I adore your writings about history and language, but I revere your personal essays most of all. I think what has amazed me for nearly a year now is that you write about the intricacies of family in a way that feels fresh to me. All of your skills come to play here— the tight sentences, the inward, thoughtful rumination, the precise use of language, and so much more. Thank you for writing this series. I hope there’s more on the way.
Thanks for your encouragement, Courtenay. My mother’s stories are the stories that have formed me the most, and they are the ones I want to put down on paper.
And you’re doing it with such a sure hand. I love watching these stories emerge from your pen. So pleasurable!