Late on the eve of my mother’s wedding day, in August of 1965, in Springfield, Illinois, a hoot owl on a tree outside her bedroom window called out “Who? Who?” The call echoed in the darkness of her high-ceiled room. It was a loaded question.
Earlier that day, my grandmother (Granny, we kids called her) had taken my mother (whom we call Mama) aside for a private talk. “Now Beth,” she said. “You know that Daddy and I had trouble having you.” In spite of Granny’s midwestern Methodist reserve and impermeable feminine decorum, Mama did know a little about this. When, as an unusually intense and imaginative little girl, she had begged Granny for brothers and sisters, Granny had finally explained that siblings were impossible. She and Grandpa had tried to conceive Mama for five years and sought the assistance of doctors at a Chicago hospital; it was a miracle she had been born at all. Mama would have to content herself with her cousins in Moweaqua—the children of Granny’s little sister. Effusive and highly sociable, Mama bonded with her cousins as if they were her own sisters and brother, and made near-siblings of the kids on her block, herding them to perform dog circuses and theatricals on their quiet street.
On Mama’s wedding eve, Granny anticipated that Mama would want to have a lot of children (she would end up with three—my two brothers and me), and she worried that Mama would try to start a family too soon, out of fear of fertility issues down the line. “Now, don’t you worry about having babies,” Granny told Mama. “You won’t have any trouble. The problem wasn’t with me—it was with Daddy,” she said. Then, pausing, she added emphatically: “But Daddy is your daddy!”—and, blue eyes flashing, concluded quickly, “Now, don’t you ever bring this up again.”