It Was a Teenage Wedding and the Old Folks Wished them Well

Elnora and Richie were married first, because Elnora was older and turned 16 first. It wasn’t a big fancy wedding; her family couldn’t afford that. They got married in the chapel on base and Elnora’s wedding dress was a smart new suit in blue to match her eyes. Richie wore his dress uniform. Juanita and Jesse stood with them. The honeymoon was a week at a little cabin on the shores of Blackwater Bay and Elnora returned pregnant with her first child. When Richie had asked her to marry him she told him she was not at all interested in being a military wife. She had no interest in leaving her home town, and didn’t want to travel. So Richie agreed to serve out his current enlistment and then get out.

Richie was unable to find a decent job in Holt. He’d been trained as an electrician by the army, and Holt just didn’t offer that kind of work. But he did find work in Pensacola, at a new company that took care of all the traffic lights in the city. Elnora relented and said Pensacola was close enough. And that’s where they lived until Richie retired and they moved back to Holt.

Juanita and Jesse married as soon as she turned 16 too. Elnora and Richie stood for the couple in their courthouse wedding. Nita didn’t have a fancy wedding dress or ceremony either. She chose  a sweet floral day dress with a peplum–something easy to travel in. She encouraged Jesse to stay in the Navy because she was ready to see the world. The first place they were sent was NAS Oceana in Virginia. It wasn’t Florida, but it wasn’t even out of the South! Well, you have to start somewhere, so Nita started setting up house.

The problem Nita hadn’t considered is that sailors ship out for extended periods. She had a hard time making friends with the other wives, women older than she was. She found herself lonely and homesick. Jesse wasn’t making a lot of money; there was only so much setting up house Nita could do on a small budget. It’s hard to become pregnant when you aren’t with your husband; there were no children to occupy her, not even a pregnancy to be fascinated by. The cost of calls home was out of her reach. 

Nita began spending a lot of time on the beach, the place that felt most like home to her.  She would fish, collect seashells, catch crabs and shrimp. The more she was alone, the more she came to love the ocean. The ocean was her friend and she became immersed in its rhythms, fascinated by the life it protected and the secrets it held.

Jesse could see how lonesome and withdrawn Nita was becoming. He’d married an extroverted, laughing, energetic girl who was never without a snappy comeback or funny story. But his wife was quiet and spent her days alone, folding into herself a little more every day. When it was time to re-enlist, Jesse chose not to. He chose to stay with his wife. They moved to Durham and Nita was pregnant before they even settled in. Overjoyed, the couple decided to move back home so their child could be raised with the help of family and so Nita wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Nora had never wanted to leave her hometown, but moved for the good of her family. Nita wanted to leave her hometown, but returned for the good of her own family.

The two couples didn’t live next door to each other, but they were the best of friends. The women spent days at each other’s houses, cooking, cleaning and watching their children play and grow. Nora’s first child was a son they named Larry, born nine months after she and Richie wed. Nita’s first child was a daughter they named Joyce Faye, born two years after she and Jesse married. Five years after Larry was born, Cheryl Fay joined the family. Nita was pregnant at the same time, due just a month after Nora.

Giving birth in the 1940s and 50s United States was a far cry from what it is today. Today women have fought to be in charge of their labor and delivery, to be awake and aware and heard, to be consulted in decisions. Don’t get me wrong; we are still fighting that fight and women are still being ignored and moreover, encouraged to ignore their own bodies. They used to say women’s work is never done. I would amend it: Women’s fight for their rights is never done.

In our midcentury hospitals, men were in charge and they expected obedience without question. Men were doctors, birthing women were not, and the doctors knew best. Men and science (which was full of men) were not at all concerned about how women’s bodies worked or how they differed from male bodies. All testing of drugs and medical procedures was done on males and if female bodies reacted poorly, well, that just proved they were the weaker sex. I encourage you to research the history of medicine for females if you don’t already know this. Or talk to my daughter; this is one of her specific areas of feminist research and knowledge.

When Nora and Nita were having babies, the men were in charge and babies were delivered at the doctor’s convenience. It was easier for doctors to deliver babies without the help of the uninformed mothers who weren’t taught to expect or deal with the pain. It was easier for doctors to put these supposedly hysterical women into what was called ‘Twilight Sleep’: dose them with a combination of morphine and scopolamine and place them in restraints. Mind you, Twilight Sleep didn’t actually reduce or dispose of the pain–thus the restraints. It simply swept the pain from the memory of the mother, along with any memory of the birth. Mothers were put to sleep and when they woke up, they were handed a baby. Maybe that’s why the Boomers are crazy–they were all traumatized at birth. 

My point is, the birth was on the time table of the doctor. If he was impatient and wanted to leave, he took a forceps and yanked the baby out. Sometimes he even bothered to manually dilate the mother first–and yes, that is as excruciating as it sounds. But it didn’t matter, because the women couldn’t feel the pain. Except that they could, they were just too drugged up to do anything.

However, if you were ready to deliver before the doctor was–say he was playing golf or dining at a fancy restaurant–then the delivery was halted until the doctor arrived. You may be thinking, “ew, they gave women in full-term labor medication to stop the contractions?” Oh, you sweet summer child. Have you NOT been reading up to this point?  Oh, no no. Delivery was prevented by pushing back on the baby’s head so it couldn’t exit the birth canal. If the baby’s head wasn’t visible yet–and sometimes  even if it was– the mother’s legs were held together to close the exit. Often, the legs were tied together so the attending nurses could be free to tend to other patients. (Probably tying their legs shut, too.) And if you aren’t already writhing in empathetic agony consider this: Nurses, only female after all, were not allowed to order or administer “Twilight Sleep” unless a doctor gave his permission. And remember the reason we are tying a laboring mother’s legs together is that the doctor hasn’t graced us with his presence yet. So women whose legs were tied together to prevent birth were wide awake and unmedicated when it was happening. 

So this is the situation Nita found herself in when it was time to deliver her second child. The doctor wasn’t present and the nurses had to stall the labor until he arrived. They weren’t too busy that day, so Nita’s legs weren’t tied together. Instead, two nurses held her legs together between them and chastised her for screaming. When the doctor finally arrived  and her legs were released, the baby boy almost immediately slid out into the world. Dead. 

The doctor and nurses told Nita her son had died before labor began and that was the official report. Nita didn’t believe it. For the rest of her life she said the nurses killed her baby boy before he was born by preventing his birth. Frankly, I believe she was correct.

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