Generational Echoes

Themes often appear in families, generation after generation. Speculations. Whispered secrets. Common threads. My maternal legacy — grandmother, mother, and me — we three have a leitmotif running through our lives. As teenagers, we all three got pregnant outside of marriage.

Nellie Clapper Worley
b. 1889 d. 1921
Marie Worley Unkefer
b. 1915 d. 2003
Susan Unkefer Knox
b. 1941

It was July 1953, and I was twelve years old. My mother and I were admiring our recently remodeled bathroom in our Ohio farmhouse when she went to the vanity, newly painted bubblegum pink, and opened the center drawer. She pulled out a yellowed white box with the name, O’Neill Department Store, Alliance, Ohio, stamped in silver on the lid. She lifted the lid to reveal three envelopes postmarked June 1917. “My grandmother saved these letters for me. They were written by my mother, Nellie, when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved back to her parents’ home to be nursed. Now that you’re almost a teenager, I think you’re old enough to hear and understand her story.”

She spoke in a soft tone new to me — as though I was one of her grownup friends. I didn’t know what to say, but I realized this moment was important to my mother, so I was quiet and waited for her to go on. She sat on the vanity bench with the box in her lap, and I stood beside her as she told me about her mother, Nellie Jane Clapper Worley.


Nellie was nineteen in 1909 and she had a problem — her monthlies had stopped. Nellie went to her mother and confessed that she had been seduced by a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman. She was pregnant. The Clappers lived in Louisville, a small town in northeastern Ohio, where gossip was the main source of entertainment and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was as gossip-worthy as a deranged relative locked in the attic.

In the early 1900s, parents with an unmarried pregnant daughter typically insisted the father marry her, but if that was not possible, they tried to find a willing bachelor, or sent her to relatives in another town until she gave birth or confined her to their house and kept her out of sight until the baby was born and then concocted a story to explain the infant. Or they banished her from their home and family forever. Their daughter a leaf floating on water. Adrift and alone.

Nellie’s parents did none of these things. They stood by their daughter and acknowledged her baby boy, Rex. Even so, it wasn’t easy for Nellie or her son. Rex’s bright red hair was thought to be a sign of his bastardy, and when he was out in public, adults often whispered and pointed at him. My mother told me she witnessed this firsthand during the summers she spent with her half-brother, Rex, and her Clapper grandparents. Nellie endured a hotbed of snubs and slurs. Her parents didn’t escape community criticism either, but they staunchly stood behind her and their grandson.

While researching social mores during the early twentieth century, I found Albert Leffingwell’s 1892 Illegitimacy: A Study in Morals, which he called the first treatise in the English language upon the subject of illegitimacy.

Against the background of history, too prominent to escape the observation from which it shrinks, stands a figure, mute, mournful, and indescribably sad. It is a girl holding in her arms the blessing and burden of motherhood, but in whose face one finds no trace of maternal joy or pride… Who is this woman, so pitiable, yet so scorned? It is the mother of the illegitimate child. By forbidden paths she has obtained the grace of maternity, but its glory is for her transfigured into a badge of unutterable shame.

Consider Nellie’s parents and their acceptance of her baby as their grandson. I never knew my great-grandparents, but I admire their open-hearted acceptance and the courage it took to stand by their daughter and support her illegitimate child. My mother always spoke fondly of Rex and named her younger son Thomas Rex. Rex moved to southern California in 1930, when he was twenty-five, to work in the Douglas aircraft factory. I met him once in the early fifties. Barrel-chested with dark red hair, full of energy, sunny and sociable, he moved like a man in a hurry.

Samuel Worley Sr. m. Susannah Hall Worley
b. 1868 d. 1942        b. 1868 d, 1948
Samuel Worley Jr. m. Nellie Clapper Worley
b. 1889 d. 1921        b. 1889 d. 1921
Marie Worley
b. 1915 d. 2003

In 1913, Nellie Clapper met Sam Worley Jr. She and Sam were twenty-four. My mother showed me the one photo she had of Nellie and Sam. Nellie was a tall comely blonde. Her hair was in a topknot like a Gibson Girl and she was wearing a light-colored linen suit with a skirt that ended at her ankles. Sam was almost as tall as Nellie and wore a white dress shirt with a carelessly knotted tie and a rakishly angled fedora on his raven-black hair. Leaning forward, Nellie was laughing into the camera lens, teasing the photographer while Sam gazed at Nellie with a besotted look on his face. Her personality shimmered through the image.

Sam proposed marriage. Nellie said no. She was afraid his parents wouldn’t approve of her and her three-year-old illegitimate son, Rex. Sam talked with his parents, Samuel and Susannah Worley. After they met Nellie and got to know her, they blessed the marriage but suggested that Rex stay with Nellie’s parents. So, he did. Nellie and Sam married on June 20, 1914, and had their own child, Marie, my mother, in 1915.

In 1917, Nellie fell ill with a bad cough and exhaustion. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Nellie returned to her parents’ home to be tended by her mother and left Marie with Sam’s mother, Susannah.

It was during this time that Nellie wrote the letters that my mother had taken out of the white box in the vanity — one to Susannah Worley and two to Sam Worley.

Nellie Clapper Worley, died on February 1, 1921. She was thirty-one.

Three weeks later, Sam Worley Jr. was sitting next to his brother who was driving a Maxwell open-air touring car when the vehicle careened into a ditch, hurling him out of the car to the rocky ground.

Susannah wrote in her diary, the gray buckram notebook my mother took from the white box and now held in her hand: Sam met with accident on Tuesday night — lived until 3 in the morning, February 23, 1921. Left Marie with me.


In 1953, I was twelve. I was cast as Aunt Becky in our seventh-grade production of Tom Sawyer. I had brown hair and brown eyes, pink-framed glasses, and buck teeth. I guess I looked the part. Donald Stafford, a slight, red-haired boy, played Tom. At one point in the play, the script called for me to put him across my lap and spank him. I had young brothers. I knew boys had a penis and I knew it had something to do with pregnancy. Because of the proximity of Donald’s penis to my body when I had to paddle him, I was afraid I might get pregnant. I tried to calm my anxiety by telling myself that Mrs. Frey would never let me do this if there was any chance I’d get pregnant. Still, I worried and waited for my period.

I told no one of my fears, but I did go to my mother and ask how a woman got pregnant. She smiled as though she’d been waiting for this question and proceeded to describe the change in a man’s penis. I got the enlargement picture, but I still didn’t understand the woman’s role. I was too embarrassed to ask further questions. I didn’t ask if she had to take off her clothes; I didn’t ask if a man’s penis can get a woman pregnant if she’s too close to him; I didn’t ask if Donald Stafford could make me pregnant when I put him over my knees to spank him.

Seven years later, when I was eighteen, I knew more about sex but nothing about contraception. I don’t think I even knew the word. I’d never heard of condoms, the rhythm method, pulling out, diaphragms. Sex education was not part of my high school curriculum. I was an unsophisticated country girl with a strong sex drive.

I was a freshman at Ohio State University finishing up my first year of college. My boyfriend, John, an athletic, handsome guy with black hair and green eyes, and I dated in high school and decided to attend the same university. We were sexually active, but I never worried about getting pregnant. Looking back, I’m amazed at how unaware I was about the pregnancy potential. I never gave it a thought until my period stopped.

It was May, almost the end of the quarter. I took long hot showers hoping that would start the flow. I stood under the scalding water and prayed over and over, “Please don’t let me be pregnant.” Nothing happened. I consulted a doctor at the student health center. A serious young physician who listened to my concern with a grim look on his face asked if I was sick in the morning (I was not). He reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out a small tan envelope containing two oblong tablets. “This is Primodos. Take these,” he said. “If your period doesn’t start in three days, you’re pregnant.”

I didn’t believe him, there had to be more to identifying the problem than two little pills, but in those days, a patient didn’t question the doctor. I swallowed the tablets and I waited. No period. I went home for the summer to my job as a telephone operator and tried to put a possible pregnancy out of my mind. I’m still mystified at how completely I denied my condition. It was as though I’d pulled an impenetrable curtain around my fears.

I didn’t have any other signs that I was pregnant, but I experienced discomfort in my side when I twisted my body to get out of a car or out of bed. I mentioned these pains to my mother as they occurred, but I never told her my period had stopped. Finally, Mom insisted I go to a doctor.

I scheduled an appointment at the Minerva Clinic. A nurse took me to an examination room where I undressed and lay on the table. The nurse positioned my feet in the table stirrups for my first pelvic exam. The doctor entered the room but neither greeted me nor introduced himself. He forced my knees apart and inserted a cold metal speculum into my vagina. “You’re pregnant,” he said almost immediately.

“How can you tell?” I asked, surprised at the quick pronouncement.

“Your cervix is purple.” The doctor stepped back from the examination table as stern as a jury foreman announcing a guilty verdict. I was embarrassed. He asked about the father. Was he single? How long had we been dating? Was he from the area? He said, “You go home and call him, tell him you’re pregnant and that you must marry immediately.”

I’d been raised to be aware of my family’s good name and to uphold it. My younger siblings and I knew we must not embarrass our parents with intemperate behavior. My mother was especially anxious that we reflect a positive light on our parents. I knew that living in a small town meant that everyone would know when my condition became evident. I would be in a state of disrespect. My parents would be appalled and humiliated. John would escape censure.

A few years later, my cousin told me that my mother was so distressed that she considered disowning me. Mom ranted about this to her sisters-in-law until one took her aside and said, “Listen. This baby is your grandchild, your first grandchild. You need to let go of this anger. People will forget about the circumstances in time.”

My father’s father tried to comfort my mother. Papa lived nearby and usually stopped by on Sunday morning while Mom was preparing dinner. He sat in a sturdy armchair in the kitchen corner, drinking a shot of Seagram’s Seven, and they talked while she bustled around. Months later, my mother told me that she’d revealed my pregnancy to him. Papa replied, “Lizzie and I were hot for each other. She was with child when we married. Don’t worry, it will blow over in time.” This revelation did not appease her.

I was reminded of the times when I was in first and second grades. I was having a hard time adjusting to school and I periodically feigned illness so I could go home. The principal finally called my mother to find out if she and her husband were getting along. She thought marital discord might be the source of my behavior. When my mother repeated this conversation to me, I knew she was mad at me. Even at seven, I recognized that she was upset because someone in the community thought she was not a good mother. I had the same awareness when I heard about her comments to relatives concerning my pregnancy.

That afternoon, I called John and he drove to the farm. We sat in his car for privacy. I told him about the doctor visit and said, “I’ll go to a home for unwed mothers.” I’d learned about these homes when my older cousin, Mary Kay, got pregnant while she was in college. “Then I’ll go back to college.” John didn’t say much, just nodded his head and looked down, his chest deflated.

That evening my mother and I sat at the kitchen table. She was still dressed in the pink polyester uniform she wore to her beauty shop. When I told her I was pregnant and what I planned to do, she burst into tears. I’d rarely seen her cry, and this rattled me, but I stared straight ahead, stoic.

Mom wiped her eyes, fixed me with that no nonsense look of hers and said, “You will marry John. You have a responsibility to the child. Call John now. Tell him to come back out to the farm tonight.”

There was no further discussion. My plan was ignored. John and I hurriedly married. We were naïve. We didn’t know how to resolve our different ways of living. Our marriage was fraught with disagreements, starting with our honeymoon. I was stretched out on the sofa, and I asked, “Do I show yet?” John looked at me with a frown on his face and said, “This baby better not have red hair.” My boyfriend before I started dating John was a redhead. I was startled. Where did that come from? John had evidence I was a virgin when we first had sex. Then I worried. Maybe the baby will have red hair. My paternal grandfather was a redhead.


I birthed my browned-haired baby, Alan, in February 1961 and brought him to my parents’ home while I recuperated. I was changing his diaper as my mother stood beside me when a fountain of urine arced out of his tiny penis. “Isn’t he wonderful!” I exclaimed. I looked at my mother. She had the sweetest look on her face, and I knew in that moment that she’d been concerned about my maternal feelings. She wondered if I would I be a good mother to this child. Had she made the right decision by insisting on marriage? She was relieved. I was in love with my baby.


It was 1985. I was living in Columbus, Ohio. John and I’d divorced in 1973 and Weldon and I married three years later. The phone rang, and it was my mother, now seventy, calling from her apartment in our hometown, Minerva, Ohio. After my dad died in 1980, she sold the farm and moved into town. I settled in for a nice chat. We talked at least once a week.

Mom and I discussed everyday things for a while — the latest book we’d read, new recipes, decorating ideas, a report on her grandchildren — when she said, “I have something to tell you.”

“Okay,” I said. “You sound like it’s serious.”

“It’s about my grandfather, Samuel Worley, Sr., my father’s father.”


“He got me pregnant when I was fifteen.”

I was speechless.

She went on, “You remember that both my parents died in 1921 when I was five and my Worley grandparents took me in and raised me. My grandmother, Susannah, had arthritic knees and climbing stairs was difficult for her, so she and Grandpa Samuel slept on the first floor. I slept alone on the second floor. Every evening Grandpa Samuel brought me a mug of warm milk. He sat at the bottom of my bed while I sipped my drink and told me stories about growing up in Yorkshire, England. I loved hearing his stories. He talked of the massive oak trees on the small farm where he was born and grew up. He talked of the brilliant green hills and how he herded Shropshire sheep and drove in their Ayrshire dairy cows from the pasture for milking. He talked about his mates. He said they all had to work, but he was lucky enough to go to school for a few years and learned to read and write and do his numbers. Grandpa Samuel had a nice low voice, and as I was lulled to sleep, he patted me on the head and kissed my cheek.”

I heard my mother take a deep breath at the other end of the phone line.

“I don’t want to go into details. Let’s just say it got more and more intimate as I grew older. He warned me to keep our secret. I vividly remember the threats that kept me quiet. Grandpa Samuel repeatedly told me, ‘You’re an orphan, Marie. I took you in so you wouldn’t have to go to a children’s home. I can always change my mind. This is our secret. I don’t want you telling your grandmother or anyone, for that matter, about our special time together. No one would believe you.’”

My mother said, “I knew what he was saying, and I obeyed him, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t understand that what he was doing to me was wrong. I felt confused and uncomfortable, but I thought that was my fault. I was fifteen in 1930, and I started throwing up in the morning. I felt fine otherwise, so I ignored it. My Aunt Bea came to visit for the weekend. She slept upstairs with me and noticed the nausea. She took me aside for what she called a ‘little chat.’

“Bea asked me when I’d had my last period. I thought it was several months, but I didn’t keep track. I asked her what she thought was wrong with me. She said, ‘I think you’re pregnant.’ I didn’t know how a woman got pregnant and Bea explained the basics to me. I told her Grandpa did it. Bea looked horrified and said, ‘He got to you too.’”

Bea took Marie to a medical doctor for an abortion. Abortion was illegal in 1930, but in the twenties and early thirties it wasn’t difficult to find someone to do the job. Alfred C. Kinsey’s study of abortion in the United States estimated that from 1890 to 1930, physicians performed about 87 percent of all abortions. My mother described the procedure, “The doctor held it up to me. It didn’t look like a baby.”

I never met my great-grandfather, Samuel Worley, Sr. He died in 1942, when I was a baby. As my mother finished telling me, I blurted out, “What kind of stock do I come from?”

“I was afraid you’d think that.”

“This must have been so difficult for you,” I replied, regretting my comment.

“Afterward with my grandmother Susannah’s help (Bea had told her about the pregnancy), I moved out of his house and lived with a neighbor, Cora, while I finished the last two years of high school. She was widowed and taught school. I helped with her two girls and did the house cleaning. Cora was the one who taught me proper grammar. She said, ‘If you’re going to be the first high school graduate in your family, you need to speak properly.’” Cora was a good teacher. My mother’s grammar was impeccable.

“One day in 1931, Grandpa Samuel stopped by Cora’s house while I was washing the dinner dishes. He tried to kiss me. I grabbed a butcher knife from the sink and pointed it at him. He laughed and said, ‘Come on Marie. You know you liked it.’ I warned him, waving the knife at his chest, ‘If you ever come near me again, I’ll kill you.’ He looked at me as though I was speaking in tongues, but never tried anything after that.”


My mother, Marie, married my father in 1938 and had four children, all healthy babies, but she worried during her first pregnancy in 1941, when she carried me. She was haunted by the aborted mass that didn’t look like a baby. Will this baby be normal? Have I been tainted? Will I be punished for the sins of Grandpa Samuel?

She told me that she labored for twenty-four hours before I was born and when the nurse finally brought me to her hospital room, she unwrapped the blanket, undid the diaper, and checked every inch of my body. She discovered one missing toenail and asked the doctor about it with concern. He laughed and told her it was nothing to worry about. Had he known her true fears, he might not have been so cavalier.

My mother kept her secret for over fifty years. I can only imagine the strength and resolve it took to hold that horror within. She told one person — my father — before they married because she felt he had the right to know.

I don’t know how that conversation about my mother’s rape and pregnancy took place, but I imagine my father was utterly shocked by the unspeakable. My father was a quiet, sensitive man. I can see him horrified by the knowledge, then rallying to support his beloved. From what my mother said, he understood her innocence and he loathed her grandfather’s malevolence.

I witnessed my father’s love for her throughout my childhood and I regret I was not more respectful of him. I wrote to my mother after our conversation to tell her how grateful I was that she shared her story with me, and how impressed I was with my father’s response. I told her I now held him in higher esteem.


My mother died in 2003, eighteen years after the conversation in which she told me her story. It never occurred to me until after she was gone to ask why she didn’t propose the possibility of an abortion for me when I was a pregnant, unwed teenager. My mother owned a beauty shop. Women confided in her. She once said shaking her head, “You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard.” She could have quietly asked one of her clients for the name of a doctor who performed abortions. I think my mother would have helped me, but my father was a fearful man. This was 1960 and abortions were still illegal (and would be until 1973). He would not have been a party to anything illegal. The only choice as far as he was concerned was that my boyfriend make an “honest woman” of me.

The same month my period stopped, May 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved “The Pill,” a new contraceptive that was a major step forward for women to manage their own fertility issues. I learned about the pill from a cover story in Time Magazine after my baby was born. When I went to my doctor with the article and asked him to prescribe the pill for me, he said he’d have to read up on this new development. He eventually wrote a prescription. Some states had laws against selling various forms of contraception; fortunately, Ohio was not one of them. In 1965, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples had the right to use contraceptives.


In September 2021, my grandniece, Hazel Marie, twenty-two years old, sent me a joyful email to announce she was expecting a baby girl on her late grandmother’s birthday. Hazel is unmarried but she and the father, Reed, have been a couple since high school. Hazel’s eighty-year-old widowed grandfather marked the impending birth of his first great-grandchild by remodeling his home to provide a two-bedroom apartment with a separate entrance for the couple and their baby. Hazel happily told me, “We’ll be a multigenerational household!”

Consider the attitudinal changes between my pregnancy in 1960 and Hazel’s sixty-one years later. No compulsion to hurriedly marry, options available on whether to carry the baby to term or not, women referred to as “pregnant,” as opposed to “expecting.” Even maternity clothes have changed from voluminous smocks designed to camouflage a baby bump — as though a woman should be embarrassed to show her pregnancy — to garments that hug the body and proudly announce the coming event. Hazel’s Facebook page attests to this. A single mother is no longer ostracized by society as was Leffingwell’s pitiable and scorned unwed mother — instead, an openness exists to different ways of creating a family and a celebration of motherhood.


On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court decided the Dobbs v. Jackson case and overturned the fifty-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, sending abortion rights back to the individual states to decide. Thirteen states were poised to authorize restrictive abortion laws with more states to follow. My joy at Hazel’s autonomy to choose among options after learning she was pregnant has faded and I fear more losses of freedom of choice will follow. The portents are alarming.

If they have the resources, women are traveling to states that still allow abortions. A ten-year-old Ohio girl, raped and impregnated, was forced to go to another state for an abortion because she had passed the six-week time limit by three days for Ohio’s no-exception law on abortion. Use of doctor-prescribed abortion pills ordered from states that still allow them is rapidly increasing, but a federal judge may soon outlaw this remedy for the entire nation.

Some women who have miscarried and are bleeding and in pain are denied emergency room treatment for fear that the normal procedure, a curette scraping, used to clear tissue left in the uterus that could become septic and exacerbates the bleeding and is the same treatment used for abortions, will expose the hospital and doctors to legal jeopardy. Many state laws outlawing abortion were hastily written and have left the medical profession unsure about how appropriate treatment will be perceived. A doctor in Texas risks life imprisonment if found guilty of providing an abortion.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates that as many as 26% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Women will needlessly die without proper gynecologic care. Some women are contemplating hysterectomies for fear of not getting appropriate medical treatment if they become pregnant. A Seattle gynecologist said that women, facing a move to a state that prohibits abortion, have asked her for a tubal ligation even though it’s irreversible. They don’t want to face the health risks if they get pregnant. It’s hard to fathom how we have gone so far astray on trusting women to make their own childbearing decisions with the help of their physicians.


While I celebrate the progress we’ve made over the last hundred years, history is threatening to repeat itself. My seventh-grade history teacher, Mr. Hudson, always began class with the same question, “Why do we study history?” We yelled back in unison, “Because history repeats itself.”

I thought of Mr. Hudson when I decided to share my family stories — reminders of the archaic, repressive, thoughtless, ill-informed ignorance directed at women over the last century. And this is not about abortion only.

We can interrupt this repetition of history. Activist and historian Howard Zinn once said, “History is instructive. What it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper… anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.”



Image: Photo by Pavel Danilyuk, Ultrasound of Unborn Child, Pexels. Licensed under CC 2.0.

Susan Knox
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