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