I got married when I was thirteen years old. People are understandably shocked when they hear this and always ask “Why in the world did you get married at thirteen?” And I always answer, “I don’t know, I guess the right guy just hadn’t come along till then.”
The year was 1962. It was a small affair; just the groom, myself and my mother. The wedding was held in the absolute very best corrugated aluminum structure in all of Ensenada, Mexico. The ceremony, and I use the word loosely, lasted a little over eight minutes and we were all back home in Los Angeles the same night.
Throughout my life, I’ve usually been the one to deliver the news that I was pregnant and married only a few short months after formally entering my teens. People always have a hard time believing I’m from a big city like Los Angeles, California. The assumption is that I must have been raised in a polygamous sect hidden in the wilds of Utah or, barring that, misspent my youth somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line. I’ve heard myself referred to as the “Loretta Lynn of Sherman Oaks” on more than one occasion. These days it’s not quite as shocking to hear about a thirteen year old getting “in the family way,” but in 1962? Trust me; I was the first on my block.
Because it was such a shameful and embarrassing story, and I’d had so many horrible reactions to it over the years, I learned to tell it on myself right away in order to give people a chance to retreat if they couldn’t handle it. I suppose it was a little like quitting before you’re fired. These days I’ve found a much happier balance, I don’t feel I have to confess my life story to every person I come in contact with. But for many years, if anyone asked how I was doing, whether it was the check-out clerk at the market or the ticket taker at the movies, I would feel compelled to joke that I was “doing okay for someone who got married in the eighth grade.”
And if we got past the first question, the next question was invariably “Why on earth would your parents allow you to get married that young?” The answer to that one always gets ‘em.
It was my mother’s idea.
By late December, 1962, I was thirteen and a half years old and had been sick with the stomach flu for a few weeks. I would throw up in the morning and then I’d feel okay the rest of the day. One morning as I was coming out of the bathroom after a particularly vocal “concert at the bowl,” as my mother phrased it, she called me into the living room and told me to sit down. That instantly made me nervous; my mother wasn’t the kind of woman to initiate a heart to heart with me. We didn’t even like each other much at this point. In fact I had run away for over two weeks with my eighteen year old boyfriend, Don; but that had been almost three months earlier.
My mother lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. I took one of her cigarettes from the pack and lit up along with her. I had been smoking with her permission for about a year at this point. How could that be? Well, when I was eleven she had caught me with a cigarette, but instead of promising never to do it again, I made a passionate case for why I should be allowed to indulge in the habit.
“You know, Mom, I don’t even really like cigarettes,” I told her. “I think the biggest reason that I want to smoke is that it’s forbidden. If I were allowed to smoke I bet I’d lose interest in the whole idea. After all,” I went on, “you allow me to swear and say ‘fuck’ whenever I want, but I hardly ever do.” It was true. I’d realized at about age eight that from the first time I tried swearing I got no reaction from my mother or my father and it had soon lost its appeal.
Mom was very impressed with my logic and even more impressed that I had the guts to try to run a scam on her. It was a dangerous game with few survivors. But at age twelve I had gotten into the ring with her and she had agreed to let me smoke; her only rule was that I had to buy my own. But here I was a year later, still smoking, and smoking one of her cigarettes. And she wasn’t mad. Clearly something was very wrong. After a few awkward moments of each of us puffing away she broke the news.
“Pregnant?” She might as well be telling me that I was the Empress of China, that’s how unbelievable this was for me to hear. “How could I be pregnant?”
Mom sighed and took another drag on her cigarette. “Oh please, we don’t have to have that conversation, too, do we?”
Not that we had ever had that conversation. Never once had my mother sat me down and, awkwardly or otherwise, spoken a word about what it meant to be a teen-aged girl on her way to becoming a woman. Not that she was shy about such things. My mother, Eve Whitney, did not have a shy bone in her body. In her entire life I don’t think she ever experienced a moment of hesitation when it came to doing or saying whatever came into her mind. I never once saw my mother have what most people would call feelings of guilt. And as for maternal instincts — well, the truth is that my mother didn’t like children, and I happened to be one at the time.
Occasionally I’ll catch a documentary on PBS that shows a female tiger in the jungles of wherever, nursing a baby monkey, orphaned by the tiger just hours earlier. The tiger’s maternal instinct is so strong that she is willing to nurture what would ordinarily be dinner. My mother somehow skipped that evolutionary link in the chain. And the truth is, everything in my life has been affected by that fact, whether I realized it at the time or not.
“I’ll take you to a doctor to make sure, but it sure looks to me like you’re knocked up.” Not an ounce of concern; not a whisper of compassion.
Not even anger or frustration; that would have at least been a sign that the two of us were connected somehow. No, this was simply information that I, at thirteen years old, was somehow supposed to process and then come to a decision. No discussion about what that decision might mean to the rest of my life.
And while such behavior might be understandable if my mother had been severely lacking in intelligence or education, such was not the case. Extremely smart, very well read, politically active and up on all the latest news stories, my mother could hold her own in a conversation with anybody about anything. She simply didn’t give a rat’s ass about her daughters.
Of course, I loved her madly. I didn’t know I could do anything else. She was the only mother I had and I longed for her approval, yearned for a kind word, dreamt of the day when she realized what a good little girl I was and got down to the business of loving me back.
Having found none of the above in the first thirteen years of my life, I had turned to the first nice boy who had shown an interest in me. He was eighteen years old, his name was Don, he bought me a hot dog and – this was the clincher – he actually smiled and asked me how I was doing. Maybe it wasn’t love at first sight, but it was more attention than I had received in years; and so, about two weeks later, I managed to convince my new best friend, Don, that the best possible idea in the whole wide world was for the two of us to run away together. Just get in his car and go. Whatever happened, I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the life I was living. And besides, maybe if I just disappeared, then even my mother would have to take notice, right?
“If you are pregnant,” my mother said, lighting a new Winston with the remains of the one she was smoking, “then you basically have three choices; you can give it up for adoption, you can get an abortion, or you can get married.”
I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the word “surreal” at the time, but “surreal” is absolutely the best word to describe the conversation I was having with my mother. The manner in which she listed my three options didn’t imply that one choice was any better than another. True to form, her voice very clearly conveyed the message that it really didn’t matter much to her which option I choose. She had better things to do than to be stuck having this conversation in the first place.
In stunned silence, I looked around my mother’s apartment. The water in the kitchen sink had a thick layer of grease riding atop the week’s dirty dishes. Open containers of food were scattered along the counters. Cat droppings decorated the carpet. A half dozen or so ashtrays were overflowing with spent butts. My mother’s face glared at me with a familiar mix of impatience and annoyance and all of a sudden the idea of marriage landed on my newly adolescent brain like a butterfly; all bright colors and flights of freedom. Not that I had any real idea of what marriage meant, but if it would get me out of this apartment, away from the icy glare of my mother, then it sounded pretty good to me. My sister, Chris, had made her getaway the year before, spending most of her time ditching school and looking for trouble with a group of neighborhood bad boys, spending only the occasional night at the apartment when she needed a place to crash.
And Chris was my younger sister, by fifteen months.
“I’m going to take you to a doctor to be sure,” said my mother again in her gravelly baritone from behind a cloud of smoke, “but I’m sure.”
How could she be sure? I wasn’t even sure that what Don and I had had was real sex, so the idea of my being pregnant hadn’t even entered my mind. But if I knew precious little about such matters, I knew that my mother was well versed. Many was the night she had entertained a “friend” in her bedroom, one thin wall away from mine. I knew the sounds, the rhythms of sex, but none of the particulars. But mom was saying I was pregnant, so what was I going to do?
One more look around the apartment, my eyes coming to rest on my mother’s look of impatience.
“I want to get married,” I said meekly.
“Fine,” she said. And then, nonchalantly, “Are you sure that what’s-his-name is the father?”
Could this be any more humiliating? “Don’s the only one,” I managed to answer.
“Good, that makes it easier,” she replied.
Mom took me to the doctor that day and he confirmed that I was three months pregnant. She wanted to meet with Don’s parents right away. Don and I hadn’t talked much since we’d returned from our two weeks on the run and he didn’t yet know that I was pregnant.
Here’s the sad truth; I didn’t even know where the father of my baby lived. After we had met at North Hollywood Park, Don would come over and keep me company during those many days and nights that my mother was either working or out on a date. And keeping me company is pretty much how I got pregnant.
Mom threatened to call Don if I didn’t so I made the call and a short time later we were sitting in Don’s spotless, perfectly ordered living room facing his folks. His mother, Elsie, was a thin, tense, hand-wringing ball of anxiety; his father, Don Sr., a quiet and stoic man. It was a weekend and yet his dad was wearing a tie with a cardigan sweater buttoned up, just like Ozzie Nelson on The Ozzie and Harriet Show. My mother got right to the point. She told them that I was pregnant and that Don was the father and that we needed to get married right away. Don went pale. His father cleared his throat. His mother let out an involuntary shriek and then called my mother crazy. She said I was trying to ruin Don’s life. Don Sr. tried to remain calm and reason with my mother; his son had just graduated from high school and was supposed to be starting classes at USC very soon. He couldn’t just let his son get married and destroy his life. Surely, there must be another alternative.
Mom shrugged and we stood to leave. “I can think of one,” she said. “I could have your precious little son arrested for statutory rape. He was an eighteen year old taking a thirteen year old across state lines. How’s that for ruining his life?” And just like that they saw things her way.