MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 8 – No More Secrets
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 8– No More Secrets
Our brief honeymoon was over all too quickly. However, a new me, thoroughly indoctrinated to my new husband’s needs and talents, emerged from that tiny room late Sunday afternoon.
Billy had been willing to pay for an extra night so we could delay our check-out as long as possible, but the manager, obviously aware we were newlyweds, allowed us to stay as long as we wanted since he had no other occupants for the room. With the stereo and my tiny overnight bag, we checked out just before 3 pm, which would allow plenty of time for us to get back to campus and prepare for our classes on Monday.
I was bursting with energy, filled with love, and so proud of my handsome husband I just HAD to tell someone we were married. We headed to Sandy Springs so I could introduce Billy to my best friend, Janet, who I trusted to keep our secret just as she had kept so many others while we were having fun in high school.
A year behind me but just four months younger, Janet was a senior this year and we had made plans that she would work for three years while I finished college, then we would become stewardesses together. It had never dawned on me I was far too short for the standard. Of course that would never happen now since I was a married woman, and I would not have given up Billy for that aspiration or any other since he was the fulfillment of my ultimate dream.
When we pulled up into the driveway, I got out of the car, easily ran up the three steps I had one night found impossible to climb, and knocked on the door. Just two knocks and Janet was hugging me, obviously surprised but happy to see me. When she asked what I was doing home, I told her I had a big surprise for her, and I wanted her to come out the car to meet Billy, my new husband.
Janet shrieked, "MARRIED! Oh, my God I can’t believe it! I am so happy for both of you."
Billy got out of the car and I could see Janet’s jaw drop when I introduced him. Later she told me he was the best-looking boy I had ever dated, or even wanted to date, and I had hit the jackpot! I knew that, of course, but I felt a bit smug since like almost everyone else, she liked my handsome husband on sight, and seemed to hit it off right away. Billy was his usual gregarious, out-going Southern gentleman self, and spending just a few minutes talking together he charmed Janet too, just as he had my other friends and my family. Where had he been hiding that first quarter, I wondered again, as getting back in the car, I waved to Janet and told her I would see her soon – and that was closer to the truth than even I imagined.
Later that night while she was talking to Karen, another friend who I told she could tell, Janet’s younger brother Wendell was snooping and overheard her tell Karen I was married. Unfortunately, Wendell was a friend and classmate of my younger brother, Buell.
In the meantime, Innocently riding back to North Georgia with my husband’s arm around my shoulders while I ran my fingers up and down his leg, a trick I had learned to keep him awake and aroused, little did we know our secret was about to become public information, at least in my family.
Monday morning while Billy and I sat in the canteen playing bridge and holding hands, at Hammond Elementary School in Sandy Springs, Wendell lost very little time telling my brother about the conversation he had been privy to the night before, or actually had eavesdropped and overheard. Of course, with his usual enthusiasm for getting me into trouble, Buell could hardly wait for the school day to end so he could rush home and tell my father.
He had always derived pleasure from getting me in trouble, like finding my cigarette butts under the hedge outside my bedroom window, or reporting any obscene slip of my tongue. In fact, I had made it a game and would goad him into saying the word since he thought to utter profanity would send one immediately to hell. Regardless, I loved my younger brothers, particularly Steve, the youngest, and I had been protecting them both for almost as long as I could remember from the sound of drunken brawls by taking them into my room, turning up the radio, and playing board games with them.
However, that day, sober for a change, my father called me at the dorm that evening. Since I had just left Billy, I could not imagine who would be calling me since it was all over campus that Billy and I were very much a couple. Without a moment’s hesitation, my father got straight to the point and asked me if I was married, and of course, all I could do was reply in the affirmative. He then asked if I was pregnant and again I replied in the affirmative, with almost a haughty retort as if daring him to say anything. After all, I had not done anything my parents had not done. All of my life my mother had told me I was ‘premature’, but when I needed my birth certificate in order to obtain a driver’s permit, the block marked next to weight, length, etc., was ‘full-term’, NOT ‘premature’! It was then I realized they had not been married when I was conceived; therefore, they had no right to criticize my actions. After all, I was only proving the apple does not fall far from the tree!
Continuing our conversation he asked what our plans were, and I told him I hoped to stay in school for as long as possible, at least until the end of the year. I then assured him we would find an apartment nearby and I would find a job in Gainesville until Billy graduated and received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. This would take place in December of 1962 if he did not fail too many more courses. Not questioning how I thought I could find a job and work while expecting a baby, he seemed satisfied with my answers, but told me he thought I should call my grandmother before she heard it from someone else, meaning my mother. Since it was my grandmother and my uncle who had shared the expense of my school tuition, I agreed, mostly just to get him off the phone. For a change, we hung up without harsh words passing from one to the other. Now I realize he was just grateful to have me off his hands.
Slowly I walked up the stairs to my room and decided not to call my grandmother until the next night since I hesitated to call her collect and knew she would be unhappy enough with my news that I should at least pay for the phone call. No point in further upsetting her I thought, and she would be not only be upset but hurt – first my mother and now me – both of us would have broken her heart, so I needed some time to get my thoughts together. I wanted her to be happy for us, and to understand with only one year of school promised, I had come to NGC knowing I would be looking for a husband, and the last thing I wanted was to have to go back to live in my parent’s house.
Although never discussed, I feel sure she knew I had left in the first place because it had become intolerable for me. I would ask for her blessing, and ask her to try to love Billy as my husband, and the father of her great grandchildren, but I knew that was stretching it a bit. She would come around in time when she saw that Billy really loved me and treated me with gentleness and esteem, I hoped, but I knew it would not be instantaneous. He would have to ‘prove’ himself to her. Certain that Billy had enough money left from the weekend so I could call her and pay for it, I knew it would not cost much since this initial notification was bound be a short one-sided conversation.
The next morning when I met Billy in the canteen and told him the bad news about my parents finding out we were married, he had little to say, and his silence worried me. After all, what could he say? What was done was done.
Now that I think about it, I imagine he was worried my parents might call his parents and share the news with them, and this was something we planned to do ourselves. All we needed was for my father to get drunk and decide Gene should know about that ‘his son’ had ‘knocked up’ his daughter, and that was a real possibility. Understanding I would not want to call my grandmother collect, he went to the bookstore and had a five-dollar bill changed into quarters, dimes, and nickels so I could call her that evening after supper. We then decided there was no point in worrying about what was now reality and perhaps we should think about telling his parents sooner rather than later.
Acting as if nothing was unusual between us, we sat down in the canteen and played bridge until the bell rang for classes, and while we played, he held my hand tightly under the table.
"Don’t worry little girl," he said gently as we parted to go to our separate classes, "everything will work itself out." With a wink, he was off to his class, but I did not feel the same confidence – I felt as if our problems were just beginning, and I was so right.
That night as I dialed my grandmother’s telephone number, almost hoping the line would be busy, or she would not answer, I went over in my head one more time what I would say. Billy had met me in the library that afternoon and we had worked it all out, so I even had ‘notes’ to refer to if my courage lagged. Certainly, her response was exactly as I thought, and I was right on the money about not calling her collect. Obviously happy to hear from me since I had written and called less frequently ever since meeting Billy, she told me how nice it was for me to take the time to call, a bit facetiously I thought. Still she seemed happy to hear my voice.
Would she still be happy when she heard what I had to say?
Finally summoning courage from somewhere deep within me, I began, "Mama Bond, I have something to tell you that probably will make you very unhappy, but first I want you to know this has made me very happy, so I hope someday you will share my happiness with me."
Checking my notes for the umpteenth time, I took a deep breath, "You remember Billy, don’t you? The boy I brought home last month?"
She replied that she remembered him and he was a nice looking boy with manners to match. So far – so good I thought. "Well, we really do love each other, and it became harder and harder for us to be apart, I am sure you understand, so I hope you will give us your blessing because we were married last week."
There was dead silence on the other end of the telephone and I thought for a moment perhaps the connection had been broken, but true to her nature, the next thing she said was, "I hope you didn’t call me collect to tell me this!"
Not surprised by her reaction I assured her I had not, and that Billy had paid for the call, but I wanted her to hear the news from me and not from anyone else. Explaining that I would try to finish the school year, I could not bring myself to tell her I was pregnant. There would be time enough for that and I thought she had heard all she wanted to hear for one night. If there was any one adult that I had ever tried to please my entire life, it had been her, and I knew my news had broken her heart. Seemingly quite calm and accepting, she hung up with my promise that Billy and I would come to see her as soon as we could manage. What I did not know, at that time, was that my days as a co-ed living in the dorm were just about over, and everyone would have to know everything.
As I have explained, North Georgia College, like any small institution, was not a campus to keep secrets. Gossip was rampant and every story blown out of proportion with each telling, just like what happened the afternoon when Billy confronted Don in the latrine. All it took was for one person to find out we were married and they would tell their roommate and their boyfriend would tell his roommate – that was four. Then those four would tell four more, and so on down the line, and at that rate, it was not long before the entire campus was abuzz with the news, and this time the stories were pretty much close to the truth. Like dominoes tumbling rapidly one on top of the other, unknown to us, our careful plans for me to finish this year began tumbling too.
The first fright happened one afternoon when I was rushing to my English class. Coming down the stairs, I saw the English professor whose class I had been in the first quarter. In fact, I had met Don in that class and often the instructor had to clear his throat and stare at us in order to get our attention since Don sat directly behind me. We sat in the far row next to the windows, and reaching behind me, Don and I could hold hands in class, and of course, there were those inevitable ‘love notes’ sometimes passed between us.
Once, the professor ‘caught us’ passing a note and took it from me and I remember my terror thinking he would read it to the entire class. Much to our relief, he did not, but when the bell rang to end the class, he motioned for both Don and I to stay behind, so we remained in our seats while the rest of the students filed out into the halls. With our note in hand, he stood in front of our desks and reviewed the grammatical errors within the note, and noted since I seemed to have far more creative writing talent than my ‘boyfriend’, I should assist him to pass this class since he seemed bound to fail again. He then commented if Don paid as much attention to his English grade as he did to me, then he might stand a chance. Anyway, I did not have this same professor the next quarter, and the incident had passed from my mind – until that day on the stairs.
As I approached, he seemed to block my path. When I was just a step below him, with a big grin, he said, "Well, Miss Stark, who are you going to marry this quarter"?
Shocked by his comment, I could not move for a moment, but finally regaining my composure, although I was sure my present status was written all over my face, I steadied my voice and said, "Well, you never can tell, can you with all these single men on campus?"
At that point, he chuckled and allowed me to pass, but he could not allow me the last word, "Well I am sure that whoever he is, he must be pretty special."
Stunned by this statement, I remained silent since I knew if I replied to his last words, I might find myself deeper involved in the conversation than I wanted, so as I continued on to the next step, he moved aside, and allowed me to pass. I have always wondered if my face was as beet red as it felt, and was this his way of warning me the news was already all over campus, even among the staff.
I could scarcely pay attention in class that afternoon as the warm sun pouring thorough the open window spotlighted the text I was following, and the sounds and smells of spring made their way into the room blocking out the stale odor of old books and chalk. Birds were singing, grass was being mowed somewhere on campus, co-eds were playing softball, and all this and the warmth of the slight breeze that ruffled the papers in my notebook made me long to be with Billy in our secret place at the copper mine.
Like the old saying, in spring a young man’s fancies turn to love, well my fancies had turned to love as winter still held the campus in a firm grip. Now, with spring forcing old man winter back into the deep recesses of the mountains, I could only think about being with my Billy, my husband, my lover, the father of my child, and the man I would love forever. I simply replaced my apprehension with longing, and that seemed to work, at least for a short while.
It was less than four weeks since we married when over the intercom, I was summoned to the office of the Dean of Women, and I knew even before I got there what she wanted to talk to me about.
Without any chitchat, she came right out and asked me if I was married. There was no opportunity or any advantage to try to talk around the truth, so I too addressed her plainly and answered, "Yes," knowing that a lie would show on my face. Without hesitation, and a bit abruptly, she then informed me that dormitory rules stated married co-eds could not live in the dorm and I had 24 hours to remove my belongings and to vacate my room. Trying to sound a bit less harsh, she said she hoped I could find a way to stay in school, but as she had done this duty many times before, and would have to do so many times more, she knew it would be practically impossible.
Most parents back then thought if their children were old enough to be married, they were old enough to support themselves, although many of the married students received at least some support from their families. I knew I could not count on any from my family, and Billy was sure his father would cut off his tuition just as soon as we broke the news. He had already picked up the necessary papers for a ‘National Defense Student Teacher Loan’ in order to borrow the money for his next year, summer school, and probably another quarter since this quarter’s tuition had already been paid. Since his father’s income was far beyond the minimum required for the loan, he only needed to sign a paper declaring Billy no longer his ‘dependent’ and the loan would go through with no problem.
I decided not to call Billy that night to tell him I had to move out of the dorm, since I knew there was nothing we could do now, rather I would just tell him when I saw him in the morning. At last, though, I slept well since there were no more secrets, well, almost no more secrets.
Lucia took the news as I had thought she would, saying she just knew we were married, that we ‘acted’ married, but I think now she also was a bit disappointed. Who would curl her hair?
The next morning when I met Billy, he could tell from the look on my face it was all over, and when he asked, I told him what happened. He assured me everything would be OK, and he would get my footlocker for me, but he did not say where I would go or how I would live. We both decided though that now that our secret was ‘out’, it was time to tell his parents.
Since the college discouraged marriage for cadets there was no married student housing available, and as the old saying goes, ‘If the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would issue you one’, just about sums up the attitude at NGC. I had no choice but to go back to my family’s house until we could find an apartment, or one of the tiny hovels became vacant in Fertile Valley. Although Billy was not too happy at the prospect of living there, I did not care where we lived. I just wanted to be with him and out of my parent’s house as quickly as possible.
I knew my mother would use me for her ‘slave’ or send me to work, depending on whether my father was around or not, and I was almost positive my ‘news’ had thrown him into another of his infamous binges. Now she would be doubly unhappy with me, first for getting married and pregnant, not necessarily in that order, but also for providing my father an excuse to binge, although he never seemed to need an excuse, so I certainly was not going to take the blame. That crowded little house on Hammond Drive where so many dreadful nights had driven me away more than once, was the last place I wanted to live, particularly with my mother.
I had walked out on her after graduating from high school when she wanted the entire paycheck from my first job. She offered to pay me an ‘allowance’, the rest going to my ‘room and board’, but her ‘offer’ consisted of just enough money to get back and forth to work on the bus, and not even enough to buy lunch. She was furious when I left and moved into a boarding house for young people within walking distance of my job. Now she would have another mouth to feed, and a pregnant one at that.
I knew whenever my father finished his bingeing he would once again be living with his mother in Dalton, and although I was not privy to their personal affairs, nor did I want to be, I knew my mother was either beginning divorce procedures or they had already divorced without allowing it to become final. I am not sure either of them even knew their status. Hopefully, I would find him gone when I got back since I did not think I could handle the drinking and the fighting, and Billy made me promise to call him the minute it started and he would come get me although neither of us had a clue where I would go from there.
Mother wasted no time in letting us know she wanted either Billy’s father to pay her for my room and board, or I had to find a job, again not realizing how difficult that would be since not only was I pregnant but I would not be living in the area any longer than possible. Billy and I planned that I would move back to Dahlonega as soon as school was out, or so we hoped. To complicate matters even further there was only one car at the house, so working was going to be difficult without one of my own, and any commute would be a long one. My mother was not working, and my father was gone, this time for good, I hoped, but I was not holding my breath on that one since he had been in and out so many times I would not even hesitate a guess. I knew I had to bring in some income since no one else was working, although I was not sure what she was living on unless she somehow had managed to get his Navy retirement checks.
Never had I been so miserable! Far away from my husband, pregnant and feeling abandoned, and right back in the same mess I thought myself rid of when I moved out the previous June. How had something so wonderful turned into something so horrible? To this day, I have nightmares about trying to call Billy in his dorm with the phone either continuously ringing busy all night long, or ringing and ringing with no answer at the other end. I felt like I had lost a limb, cut off from my beloved, although he vowed he would come and get me every weekend even though we had no idea where we could go to be alone together. My anchor had slipped its moorings and I was drifting in a sea filled with sharks.
Billy was about to have his source of unlimited funds cut short because we knew we had to tell his parents immediately since my mother was making so much fuss. We finally decided that the next weekend we would have to go to Griffin and get it over with, and if we did not, then I knew my mother would call Gene. We both thought it would be better he hear the news from us rather than some irate parent, which I am sure had been Gene’s nightmare for years. At least we were already married, thus eliminating one step, and his parents attempt to keep us from doing so, but Billy knew it would not be pleasant, married or not. He knew his father well and one of the first things Gene would do would be to close all of Billy’s charge accounts.
Knowing this, when we arrived in Griffin that Saturday afternoon, Billy went straight to the men’s clothing shop where his father kept an account. Insisting that I choose his outfits for him since I had often told him he was color-blind when matching shirts to pants, he charged three pair of slacks, three shirts, and a dozen sets of underwear and socks. Next, he stopped at the drugstore where he stocked up on toothpaste, razors, soap, shaving cream, and other necessities, including anything I might need, and even added a bottle of the cologne that was a particular favorite of his.
"That’s my Billy," I thought as I watched him race from one store to the other, and then fill up his tank with gasoline, again on his father’s account.
"Have I left anything out?" he asked, although the rear of the car was riding low with his ‘purchases’. He had taken full advantage of this last day as his father’s dependent, and he did not want to miss a thing.
"On the way back to Atlanta," he said, "we’ll stop by the store to see what else we may need." Although, I thought the store was about the last place I wanted to be after we shared our news.
Previously we discussed whether to tell his father first, at the store, or to wait until both of his parents were home and tell them together, thinking his mother would take it far worse than his father would. In fact, she was not going to like it one little bit that I had ‘stolen’ her favorite son, and I knew I was in for a rough time from her. I was just relieved she had very little hold on Billy’s loyalty or love, and in that battle, I felt secure I would win.
We finally decided on the latter plan. Billy would call his father as soon as we got to the house and tell him we needed to talk to him and to come straight home from work, and we knew Gene would be more than prepared for our ‘news’. If his mother remained true to her normal schedule, by the time his father arrived, she would have not had time to drink herself into oblivion and could still understand what we had to say, but she would be just drunk enough to be about as mellow as she ever was and that was almost a joke. However, it was most important she understand exactly what we said. As for Billy and me, we just wanted to accomplish our mission with a minimum of pain and distress on all parts, especially ours, and to get it over with and get on with our lives. At this point, we were not sure how my pregnancy would allow us to accomplish our goals, and that would be the hardest part to work out. There were still many decisions yet to make, and a few where I felt my opinion would not play a factor in the ultimate outcome.
From the outside, like most dysfunctional homes, everything looked perfectly normal with a nicely manicured lawn and dozens of azaleas forming the front border. Bicycles and other items in the driveway indicated children lived here. What it did not say was the children walked on eggshells and never knew what would anger their mother, so mostly they played outside in the backyard where not a blade of grass grew, and the doghouse had been empty for a long time.
The house itself was a lovely white brick ranch that seemed to stretch on forever, a home any boy or girl would be proud to have their friends visit, and many did, but only before Helen got home from work. Sitting in the center of at least an acre of land on a quiet, tree lined street in an upper middleclass neighborhood, it was a very typical looking home, or so it seemed.
When we pulled into the drive, Billy’s younger brothers had just gotten home from their various ball games, but as usual, the arrival of their adored big brother was an occasion to celebrate. Now that they had met me on the weekend when Billy first brought me to meet his parents, they treated me like an older sister and pushed each other aside anxious for hugs. Their little faces reflected the sorrow that existed within, and they looked so ‘love starved’ it almost broke my heart. I had seen the same look on my own brothers’ faces when I brought Billy to my parent’s house, and Billy played with them as he did his own brothers. Finally, we got in the door where all the boys raced for the couch and begged me to sit by them, but since there were three of them and only one of me; they would have to take turns. Billy tossed a coin and proclaimed himself the winner! Perplexed that Billy would even get a ‘turn’ since we had obviously been together for the trip, they begged and begged, so Billy, acting as if he was hurt that no one wanted to sit by him, had them draw straws that he pulled from a broom the maid had left in the nearby laundry room. I was too nervous to remember who even ‘won’ that day.
Once we all settled down and he had his brothers full attention, Billy told them that when their parents arrived home, he would like them to do him a big favor and go outside to play, for just about half an hour. He further explained that we needed to talk grownup business, without going into any detail that his brothers would not understand. Anxious to please him, all agreed to their big brother’s request. We still had some time with them alone, so while waiting for his parents I was initiated into the traditional ‘wrestling and tickling’ match that always occurred on the occasion they were alone with their big brother, although he insisted I was only a ‘spectator’ since girls did not like to play rough. Since when, I thought, but I knew he was thinking about the baby. They were all handsome, affectionate boys, and they worshiped Billy since he had been the only stability they had known in their chaotic lives before he left for college.
Their mother was a rude, demanding alcoholic, who never dispensed hugs as far as I had seen, nor had I ever heard her ask about their day at school or play, and goodnight kisses were not a tradition in their sad lives. The first thing she would do upon arriving home from work was head straight for a cabinet in the corner of the kitchen, where she kept her multitude of medications. She would grab the first bottle her hand reached for and swallow a handful of pills, then wash them down with Four Roses bourbon!
It was a wonder she had not killed herself long before she finally did. I knew she would be a challenge, and a most difficult foe, and although I had learned how to use my father’s alcoholism to my advantage, I did not know her well enough yet to know what I could do or say to please her, if I could please her at all. Highly doubtful there was anything I could do to make her like me I decided to ignore her verbal jabs just as I had my own mother since this was the safest path to take for all of us. My own justified disgust for alcoholics was the first obstacle, but the fact I had married her ‘favorite’, her precious Billy, was not going to go over well at all. She had not liked me that first visit and she certainly was not going to change her mind once we confessed we were married and I was pregnant. At least I never had any expectations of having any kind of decent relationship with her, for if I had, I would have been sorely disappointed. In a way it was sad, because by alienating me, she alienated Billy, and by the time she died she had lost him completely, his love and his respect.
We had been visiting with the boys for about an hour when Helen arrived home, and as usual, she headed straight for the alcohol and pills, even before she acknowledged our presence. Perhaps I should have taken more pity on her, and I would have, if she had been just a little bit pleasant, but she was not.
Like her son, she too had been in a severe accident when struck by a car not long before she married Gene at fifteen. She had almost died and had suffered a severe depressed skull fracture. The surgeons had removed a large part of her skull over her left brow and replaced it with a plate. Although they made the plate twice in order to achieve as normal a look as possible, it was noticeable in that she could not move that eyebrow and her forehead was perceptibly flatter on that side too. I am sure she suffered greatly with headaches, but she just went about using the wrong kind of medicine to treat them, and in fact made the headaches worse. She had been a beautiful girl, but was now a woman with a noticeable deformity, and I thought about my own mother’s vanity, and doubted if she could have handled it any better.
She never smiled; she never said anything pleasant, she was simply a woman so completely soured on life she had driven her husband to find comfort in other women and bury himself in his work, her oldest son to abhorrence, and her younger sons to apathy.
That fateful afternoon, after she attended to her immediate needs, she finally, but just barely, acknowledged our presence, and then went back to her bedroom to change her clothes. When she returned to the kitchen in her housecoat, this time she made herself a full drink in a large glass, and just about that time Billy’s father walked in the side door. At least he seemed glad to see us, but I doubted if this would last for long, and we both were almost visibly shaking, as Gene seemed to be in a rather foul humor himself, as if he anticipated our request to come home early.
The boys had gone outside to greet their father, and as Billy asked, they stayed outside to play. Gene immediately acknowledged our presence and asked if we were down for the weekend. Billy said he did not know, we had to talk, and the outcome would decide whether we were even welcome. With that, I was sure by the look on Gene’s face; he knew for sure what we had come to tell them, although I knew he would be stunned to find out we were already married. I felt he was hoping to avoid that little scenario, and perhaps ‘pay’ me off, but we had circumvented whatever plans he had made for just such an occasion.
Without hesitation, Gene then made himself a drink while Billy fixed us both a glass of coke, then Gene, Helen, Billy and I, with the boys safely outside, sat down in the seldom-used living room to have our talk. I have never been sure why we had to sit in there, perhaps Gene thought the boys might come inside to watch T.V., or did he think the cold formality of the unused room would make me even more uncomfortable? Regardless, we now found ourselves in the part of the house reserved for guests.
Billy, who was usually so steady and in control, spoke first, his voice, obviously quivering in his attempt to find the right words to break our news as painlessly as possible. Holding my hand firmly in his, our wedding bands obvious, he told his parents we were married, and we had been for almost a month. Seemingly, without taking a breath, like the night we met, he then told them about the baby.
Instantly I could see the blood drain from his mother’s face, and Gene who looked like he lost a big sale, and always the businessperson, just calmly said, "Well it looks like we had better talk finances."
Gene definitely had never counted on Billy being married when he broke the news about an impending grandchild, although I thought, surely, he had known at any time, with as many girls as Billy dated, this might happen. We had definitely surprised him, which is exactly what we intended. Now it was back to square one for Gene, who had to start all over again with whatever plans he had carefully thought about for just such an occasion.
Aware for the moment, he had the upper hand; Billy was not quite ready to allow his father the floor, not before he told him about our plans. He began by explaining due to the circumstances that forced by my early dismissal from the dorm we had to rethink the immediate future. Continuing, he explained there would not be an apartment available until graduation, and I needed a place to stay until then, but as soon as a vacancy occurred, he would move me back to Dahlonega and I would look for a job in Gainesville.
Of course, he continued, he would look for work too, although his would have to be part-time and temporary. He reminded his father he would be at summer camp for six weeks at Ft. Benning. He then told him he had also signed up for a make-up class for the last session of summer school, but that he planned to stay in school and to find another part-time job. Then of course, there was the matter of who would hire me when, by then, I would be so obviously pregnant. Surprisingly, since we had not even discussed the next plan, Billy told him he thought about dropping out of school until the baby was born and I could go to work. Of course, then we had the concern of not being able to afford a babysitter on what small salary I might make, plus the draft, which would destroy all of Billy’s plans to become an officer.
Unexpectedly Helen suddenly said the only answer was for me to have an abortion, and she would not ask me to do anything she had not done, at which Gene abruptly stood up and shouted, "Helen, shut up!"
We never did find out what that was all about, although we both suspected that Helen had one or more abortions herself, perhaps when she was so sick after the corrective surgeries before, and after, Billy was born. That might have been the explanation for the many years between her firstborn and the younger boys, but now no one will ever know for sure.
I felt Gene wanted to talk to Billy alone; thinking without me around to distract him, Billy would be able to think ‘more clearly’. Since that was not feasible now, with nothing left to discuss, he unexpectedly said, "Well, what’s done is done, we might as well go out to the club for supper and celebrate."
Looking at each other like we had both been lambs saved from the slaughter, we knew this conversation was far from over, but we went along with his father and hoped an evening out would pacify his mother, at least for the time being. We had no such hopes for the long-range future.
Helen never cooked very much for the family except perhaps for Sunday dinner, so this night she fixed some hotdogs for the boys, served with their customary applesauce as a side dish, and then went to her bedroom to change out of her housecoat. I had not brought anything very dressy, and truthfully, I did not own anything suitable for a country club, but then again I was imagining the exclusive clubs around Atlanta. Most had at their center an older home with polished dark wood paneling, ornate carvings, marble or gleaming wood flooring, and heavy, rich furnishings. All were elegant, exclusive, and very expensive. The only time my world merged with these private clubs was during my junior and senior years in high school when some of the mothers organized a ‘Cotillion’, open to all the female students from their sophomore year until graduation. Naturally, I expected the Griffin Country Club to be as elegant as the Atlanta clubs, and I certainly did not expect that Gene would want to celebrate, rather that would be about the last thing he would suggest. I so wanted to make a good impression on Billy’s parents when I was introduced as their new daughter-in-law that I had worn the same aqua skirt with plaid vest I had worn when Billy and I were married. This also was about the nicest outfit I owned, so at least I was presentable, and when Billy, holding me close, said I looked beautiful that was all it took for me feel that way.
Gene drove in stony silence to the Griffin Country Club while Billy and I clung to each other in the back seat as if being driven to our execution. Helen sat in the front passenger seat holding onto her drink with one hand and a cigarette with the other and staring straight ahead as if she could not bear to see her son with his arms around me.
Every once in awhile Billy would whisper in my ear to tell me how much he loved me and again how pretty I looked. He even dared several kisses, since neither of his parents seemed able to turn their heads, but nothing more since he was afraid he would not be able to get out of the car if he became too stimulated. As I looked at my handsome husband that night in the dark of the car, I saw in him the answer to all of my dreams, and I just prayed I could be the answer to his, and that his father, once he had him alone, could not convince him otherwise. Certainly not, as much as Billy said he loved me, but I was not sure yet just how much of a hold Gene and his thick billfold had on him, but soon, too soon, I would find out. My doubts, substantiated by Billy’s reaction when I had first told him I was pregnant, were always prevalent, and his armor still did not shine quite as brightly as I had once thought.
Although the drive was not long, it seemed both endless and too short all at the same time. When we finally arrived, Billy would have to let go of me, and if we kept on riding in stony silence, I thought I would scream. It could not have been more than fifteen minutes until we pulled into the parking lot at the side of the old house that was now the basis for the club, still young and still building. Since there was no valet parking as of yet, Gene parked in the unlit gravel parking lot, and walked around the car to open the door for Helen, although she had already opened it for herself. I slid out the door on Billy’s side, and was pleased to feel his reassuring hand take mine as he slid his arm tightly around my waist.
Suddenly, as she stood up, Helen stumbled. She almost fell to her knees, and might have had Gene not caught her. We both knew instantly she had far more to drink than we had actually witnessed, and Billy looked at me with disgust written all over his face. At least he had found a kindred spirit in me, and had no fear his mother could do anything my father had not done before, and then some. Later we were to discover, like my father, she had bottles hidden all over the house so she could sneak a ‘swig’ or two, or three, whichever room she might be in.
Normally I would have been thrilled to be eating out, especially at a country club where the food was usually superb, but I just hoped I could get through this meal without choking!
Sensing my discomfort, Billy leaned over and said quietly, "Don’t worry, little girl, I will be right here, always."
I glanced up at him with a smile, and although his expression was not very reassuring, I sensed he knew he could count on me to understand; and we both realized this was going to be a long, long weekend.
As we were walking up the stairs to the club, Helen suddenly turned to me, almost stumbling again had Gene not had a firm grip on her arm, and viciously spat, "Diane, take off your wedding band"!
I was shocked and did not know what to do, but at that moment, I knew if she could, she would do anything to have our marriage annulled, anything to get back her precious son.
Fortunately, Gene and Billy also heard her and Gene retorted, "Helen, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to lock you in the trunk!"
Now that would have been a neat trick since they drove a large station wagon! She got the message though, and did not mention my wedding band again. In fact, Billy made a point of holding up his hand and showing his own ring to her. Yes, this was going to be an even longer weekend than we had anticipated, and we had no alternative but to stay, for now.
The dining room, while not elegant like the Atlanta clubs, held about thirty tables, all covered with white linen cloths and glowing candles, and there were perhaps thirty-five, or more, diners. I have no idea what I ordered that night, but I do remember our meal was pleasant and well cooked, although the menu choices were few. Gene spoke to several other couples, and when two came over to the table, he introduced me as Billy’s wife, much to Helen’s disgust. She threw a look at Gene as if he had stripped naked, but she remained silent, drinking more than she ate, which was par for the course. Actually since she kept quiet, and Gene was more thoughtful than talkative, Billy and I both managed to relax a bit and eat most of our meal without choking. It was my first public outing as Mrs. William McConnell, and I felt as if everyone in the dining room of the charming, but not overly sophisticated, Griffin Country Club was looking me over, and that their impressions would soon be the newsflash of the week and talked about all over town.
During the early 60’s Griffin was still very much a sleepy little town where everyone knew everyone, and Eugene McConnell was one of the more popular and successful merchants. His store carried major appliances, televisions, stereos, etc. Moreover, he had just purchased the large building next door to his own and he was in the process of adding furniture to his already vast inventory. Business was good, and on a friend’s urging, I had looked his name up in Dun and Bradstreet, and according to the financial ‘Bible’, he had a million dollar business, and that was a lot of money back then.
Small town merchants still had all of the local trade since there was no K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, etc., Griffin Sales and Service was the only major appliance store of any size in the town, and it carried the respected Westinghouse franchise. I knew Gene had won many cruises and other trips as bonus awards for his volume of sales, so business was booming, and Gene was getting rich. There was nothing more he wanted than to have his oldest, and favorite son come into business with him, but much to his dismay, Billy wanted nothing to do with the store. Aware that their personalities would constantly clash, Billy knew they could never work together successfully.
This was further obvious since they rarely could stay in the same room for more than an hour, and usually less, before arguing about something. Even trivial matters as insignificant as football games, could bring on a McConnell shouting match, which often accelerated into one or the other simply walking out of the room. Billy had decided, long before he met me, the Army would be his career. He wanted more than anything to become an Infantry officer; he wanted to go to the Airborne and Ranger schools, and most of all he wanted to do something his father had never done. His secret shame was that his father had not been in the service during WWII, instead worked at the shipyard in Savannah. Billy even had a faint respect for my father, in spite of the alcoholism, because he had served as a Navy officer on minesweepers during the war. He also knew I could be the perfect officer’s wife, and an asset to his career, since I had already lived the life of an officer’s daughter and was familiar with military etiquette and accustomed to frequent relocation.
After we got back to the house, Gene, Billy, and I sat in the den and watched television while Helen, without a word, went to her bedroom and never reappeared. Shortly, Billy began yawning as if he were about to fall asleep on the couch, but I knew this was the signal that he was ready for some ‘fun’, Billy McConnell style, and we excused ourselves saying we had had a long day and were really tired. It felt strange to be walking with him down to his room where we both would sleep together in his boyhood bed, and this time there was nothing his father could say or do.
Although the room was the former garage, on the far end of the house from the other bedrooms, I was still quite self-conscious about being under his parent’s roof, and I hoped Billy would, and could, be a little less vocal than usual. Instead, he had a better idea and pulling a stereo out from under the bed he took out duplicates of our favorite albums and played them just loud enough to cover any amorous moans.
Next, he wanted to shower together as we had on our ‘honeymoon’, and this night he was more playful than usual and had me squirming with yearning while the hot water ran over both of us. He played with my ‘rosebuds’ while he bathed me, taking them in his mouth one at a time, and as he did they became hard as rocks, but it felt, oh so good. I reciprocated by playing with his most tender areas, running my finger up and down the scars on his tummy until the hair on his arms was standing almost straight up. We must have stayed in the shower for over half an hour, and when we got out, he insisted that we dry each other, taking great care with those areas that created such delight.
We then fell naked onto the clean sheets that covered the bed, and made love until both of us could not possibly do it again. This time all was legal, and somehow I had the idea Billy was enjoying this moment of making love with his parents aware, and in the house. Although I would have been quite embarrassed if either of his parents had walked into the room there was nothing they could say or do. After all, I was now Mrs. McConnell and I knew Helen hated sharing that name with anyone, but especially since I was Billy’s wife!
Sunday morning we all went out for breakfast and then to church, except for Helen. She always slept late on the weekends, complaining of a headache, but the family knew it was more hangover than headache. I loved sitting in that comfortable church with Billy, his father and his brothers, being the only female surrounded by the handsome McConnell men, and all during the service Billy would write in my hand or whisper a shared secret. I actually felt as if I belonged there. We both had worn our wedding bands and we saw a few stares in our direction, but Billy, with his usual mischievous style, turned around and waved while my face turned beet red. At least he was in an excellent mood this fine Sunday morning, but I had a feeling it would not last long – not after he and Gene had their private talk.
That sun-drenched afternoon on a perfect spring day, after a fried chicken dinner served with LeSeuer peas and melt-in-the-mouth silver dollar sized biscuits that were Helen’s specialty, Billy and Gene decided to go to the store to discuss our future. I certainly was not comfortable under the same roof alone with his mother and I almost asked if I could go and wait in the car, but I bit my tongue and remained silent. I knew he and his father needed the time alone to work out any details.
Billy was so positive he had all the answers, and optimistic that his father would assist us in attaining our goal. There was no doubt he wanted Billy to finish college.
I was nervous and apprehensive while they were gone. I played cards with the little boys, and watched some television, rather stared at the screen wondering what Billy and his father were talking about now. I don’t think Helen said more than half a dozen words to any of us. She was obviously drinking again since I had a natural sensitivity to the smell of bourbon given that it was my father’s drink of choice too.
When Billy returned from the store alone, the look on his face was one I had never seen before, and I was filled with dread. Soon, we said our goodbyes to the boys and headed back to Atlanta and my parent’s house where, reluctantly and unhappily I knew that soon Billy would have to say goodbye to me too. He was quiet, too quiet, which was very unusual, and he did not seem to want to talk about his conversation with his father. He did tell me his father cut off his tuition, which we expected, and he had signed the paper declaring Billy financially ‘independent’ so that he could qualify for a student loan. Then for miles, there was more silence, although Billy kept his arm firmly around me while I rested my head against his broad shoulder.
Taking a deep breath, he finally told me his father wanted to pay for an abortion, and said it would be impossible for me to work and to have the baby. Gene was also concerned, just as Billy anticipated, that since Griffin was such a small town there would be a lot of gossip if we had an ‘early’ birth, and thought it might affect his business, and even the boys at their school. Gene knew just which strings to pull to make Billy jump. He had continued his blackmail by saying there was already enough gossip about his mother to hurt his business and to affect the boys without us adding to it, so Billy wanted me to think about it, for him – for us. Silently I wondered where Gene put his own unfaithfulness in this scenario.
Abortions were illegal and dangerous, and neither of us had a clue how to go about arranging such a thing. I detested the idea. I cried and asked him how he could kill his own child, and he cried too saying if he thought we could do it any other way then he would not even consider it. He did know of one friend from high school, living in Atlanta, who had some experience in this type of venture. Now he was married to the girl he had gotten pregnant, and they had a child. Billy suggested we stop by their house on the way to my parent’s and ask how, where, etc.
I couldn’t even think about killing my unborn child. However, my love for Billy was so strong I knew if I had to do this to keep him in school and out of the draft, then I would do it. I also knew it would not be easy or painless because I remembered when I was in high school my mother had an illegal abortion and it almost killed her! Visiting her at my aunt’s house where she was recuperating after she got out of the hospital, her pallor, and weakness frightened me, and I never forgot how she had looked lying in the bed. Without a doubt, I had been worried about the future of my brothers and myself with no father around and my mother looking as if she was at death’s door. I had visions of having to quit school to take care of my brothers, and had not even realized the county would take over and put all of us in separate foster homes, which often I had thought might not be such a bad idea when times were chaotic.
These thoughts continued to swirl through my head until we arrived at the small house where Billy’s friend and his wife lived with their infant son. While Billy talked to his old high school friend, I visited with his wife, and she tried to reassure me that an abortion was not nearly as bad as I anticipated and it had not affected her having another child. In spite of her confidence, she did not make me feel any better, but Billy left feeling just the opposite, that we could do this, and it was the only solution to all of our problems.
Back on the road again after our short visit, dusk was descending and Billy asked me if I knew a safe place where we could park and not be bothered by the police or anyone else so that we could ‘be together’ at least once more before we had to part for an entire week! It was then I realized my young husband’s sexual appetite was insatiable, and I hoped I could learn to keep up with him, but I truly was not in the mood after all the abortion talk. Billy persisted, and I gave in, like I knew I would, and the only place I could think of on the way to my parent’s house was the huge parking lot for the amphitheatre at Chastain Memorial Park. There, a hill blocked most of the lot from view of the road, and it was unlit except when there was an event at the open-air theatre. I knew the theater intimately since my grandmother always bought two season tickets for the musical summer Broadway shows, and I missed very few of them. She had always called me her ‘best little companion’, and I had reveled in her partiality, but no more, now I was Billy’s ‘companion’, for life.
With the prospect of spending more time with him before we parted for the week, my mood gradually lightened as I eagerly gave him the directions. We pulled into the empty lot, parked right next to the tall embankment that blocked the view from the road and turned the car so it would face the entrance and we could see any other vehicle enter before they saw us. I thought we would be perfectly safe here since the park was quiet and empty. It was far too early in the season for families to be using the picnic shelters and even they were a distance away; the pool was not yet open; and the theatre would not begin its season until June.
Now, once again we were back to resorting to the complex manipulations we had mastered when it was too cold or wet to put our blanket on the ground at the copper mine. While Billy moved out from behind the steering wheel, I sat on his lap facing him while we kissed and, with some complexity, made love. I have to admit I was rarely satisfied when we had to resort to this arrangement, but he was, and if Billy was happy, then I was happy too. After all, I certainly could not get any more pregnant!
He moved slowly, savoring every moment as always. His kisses were no less sweet than they had been before the abortion talk, if anything, they were more loving than ever. We kissed with our tongues thrust deep into the other’s mouth, and our passion knew no limits. My heart raced 90 miles an hour just to be in his arms, and when he caressed my already tender breasts, the nipples once again ached with their hardness. He kissed my neck and nibbled it gently leaving the small marks that identified me as his property. He kissed my forehead, my cheeks, and my breasts, and whispering over, and over again how much he loved me he made wonderful promises of what he would do to me when we had a home of our own. I could only close my eyes and let him take me with him as he climaxed time after time. My heart ached as if it was going to burst right out of my chest, so filled with love it was for my precious Billy.
We obviously must have been too involved, and on about our third round of lovemaking, when all of a sudden from behind us red lights lit up the interior of the car! So totally occupied with each other, we had not even seen the police enter the parking lot!
We were certainly in no position, nor did we have the time, for me to turn around and face forward before the inevitable knock on the driver’s window. Grinning as if he realized our predicament, the officer shined his light inside and around the car, checking out all corners of both seats. Secure that we were not hiding anyone in the backseat, he asked Billy for his license and registration, and Billy handed him our marriage certificate with the requested papers. The officer shined his light into our blinded eyes and once again into the back seat of the car before he turned the flashlight on the papers. Mercifully, or sympathetically, he did not shine it below our waists where firmly locked in a rather awkward arrangement, Billy and I could not even move! He cleared his throat, and it was obvious he could barely contain a smile, as he told us he thought we could find a safer place to be together than a public park. Billy explained he was on his way back to school and we would not be able to see each other for a week, and added that we would leave right away.
The officer smiled once again and then said, "Kids you don’t have to rush off, just be more careful, lock your doors, and every once in awhile look up and see if anyone is entering the parking lot. And for goodness sakes, use a motel next time; it’s safer!"
Relieved, Billy and I resumed our love making when the taillights of the police car were out of view, until the time came for him to head back to Dahlonega, leaving a very sad wife behind. Later, as we talked about that night, both of us would laugh so hard we could not catch our breaths wondering what we would have done if the officer had asked us to step out of the car!
Reluctantly and sadly, I kissed Billy good-bye that evening, and I knew the week would be even longer because I could not see him and we could not afford to call long distance too often. Now too I had a job, since, amazingly, when I went for my very first interview, the manager hired me on the spot. Mother was actually allowing me to drive her car. As long as I was bringing in money, that was Ok with her.
I hated that job. It was boring and demeaning since I was the only female in a small plastics plant, and I felt stared at constantly which angered Billy, but it was a paycheck, at least for the time being - not that we saw any of it. The agreement was that my mother would take all of my salary for allowing me to stay at the house. Certainly not a pleasant situation but the only option we had for the moment.
During the long, lonely nights, I continuously dreamed about my handsome husband. It was my practiced ability to take myself mentally away from the stress and turmoil of an alcoholic home that allowed me to keep any peace of mind. I could not wait to go to bed each night, write Billy a long letter, then, wearing his shirt, and smelling his aftershave, I fantasized myself to sleep as if I were truly in his arms. Later, as the Army often kept us apart, this practice became a nightly routine, and I all but felt his arms around me as I drifted off to sleep.