The Facts of Life According to Nanna

Between 1938 and 1971, a chemical called DES was the go-to women’s fertility drug. The downside, as it later turned out, was that it often caused birth defects and damaged the reproductive systems of the babies it conceived.

My mom found out about this back in the 1980s, and of course she immediately called up my grandmother to ask if she had ever taken this drug. In retrospect, she should have known better.

“Fertility drugs?” asked Nanna. “Hell, no! All four of y’all were accidents.”

Nanna may have begrudged her entry into the world of motherhood, but while she is not especially maternal nor is she a shirker. So she took seriously her responsibility to prevent her daughters from continuing the cycle of unplanned progeny. Nowadays this would have taken the form of sex ed, but this was rural, conservative Alabama in the 1970s, and so it took the form of a series of strange, unhelpful, and vaguely threatening talks held with each of her daughters as they came of age.

“If you ever get pregnant,” Nanna told my teenage aunt Sharon, not bothering to explain how this unfortunate circumstance might come about, “just come tell us and we can handle it. Your father will sell his dental practice and we’ll pack up the family and move to another town where nobody knows us.”

So no pressure.

Aunt Carrie’s experience was similar, although apparently by that point Nanna was no longer willing to move. “If you find yourself in a family way,” Nanna instructed, “you can always come tell me. Don’t worry, I won’t be mad, we’ll just go hold hands and jump off the Pea River Bridge together.”

My mother, poor soul, was the one who got the most technical detail. One day as she was passing through the living room, Nanna glanced up from a magazine article and said, “Did you know there are 10,000 sperm in every drop of semen?”

And then she went back to her magazine and that was that. Mom is still not sure if this was intended as a fun fact or a warning about the pregnancy-inducing potential of that one drop.

Needless to say, I have very few cousins on my mother’s side.


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