My mother was 12 years old the first time she got married, her husband 18.
This is how she told it anyway, over and over again, how she was married when she was 12, and her husband’s name was John Stephens, and they ran off together to Columbiana, Alabama, where they found a judge who would marry them. Her maiden name was Joan Rangeley Pedigo. She was born in 1931, so this would have made it the summer of 1943, right in the middle of World War II. My mother was living with her parents, of course — she was, after all, 12 years old — but they weren’t told about the engagement, which occurred at about 11 a.m., or the ceremony, which was around 3.
The journey to Columbiana began in Edgewood, Alabama, about 30 miles away. That summer my mother went to the community swimming pool — a vast rectangular tub of water, cloudy with chlorine — almost every day. Swimming pools were the only escape from the weather. Very few homes had air conditioners, and Alabama summers are cruelly hot and muggy. To have a pool full of tepid water, as chemically repellent as it must have been by July, was a godsend. My grandmother, Eva Pedigo, would drop Joan off in the morning with a sack lunch and a towel and not have to pick her up until later that afternoon. The lifeguard was the babysitter of hundreds of young children. But they weren’t all children: John Stephens was there, too, and he was 18 years old.
“We’d been going out for some time by then,” my mother always said when she told this story. I never followed up with her about this, nor did I take the time to really think about what “going out” could possibly mean to a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old, or how long “some time” could have been. “Going out” was clearly impossible. They could see each other only in public spaces like the pool, and at school. Another question I could have asked her, but didn’t: How did they see each other at school, since she was in middle school and he was in high school — if, in fact, at 18, he had not already graduated? At any rate, she said she’d hang out by his car in the parking lot. She’d get in the car with him. They wouldn’t do anything, she said, not then, but John, she said, was intent upon it. And eventually, so was she.
And yet the relationship was kept a secret from everybody, from her friends and from his, and from their parents. Edgewood, where my mother grew up, was — as it is to this day — a quiet, solidly middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Birmingham. And, in every way, practically idyllic. Many neighborhoods like this surround Birmingham – Edgewood, Homewood, Mountain Brook, Crestline. They are beautiful, clean, and safe. Great places to raise your kids. Her father was a food distributor; her mother worked part-time for him as secretary and bookkeeper. One day, he would become wealthy enough to buy a 20-acre farm, with cows and horses on it. He later installed his own par-3 golf course, but that was a disaster: The cows trampled the greens. He also built a tiny chapel, a bit bigger than an outhouse. There was a miniature organ inside, a cross, and a beechwood kneeler covered in velvet. My grandparents were serious Presbyterians.
As my mother told it, nobody knew she and John were anything other than friends. But a friendship between a girl and a boy with that age difference doesn't seem right. They were just two people who swam in the same community pool, along with a lot of other kids.
Thinking about it now, her story doesn't really make sense. But I believed her, every word. She seemed credible at the time; she provided all the right details. And the way she told it with such passion and joy, there was no reason not to believe her. She sure knew how to tell a story.
My grandfather adored my mother. When she was a child, they would go on walks together down Edgewood’s sun-dappled streets, and when cars stopped at a sign or a light, he would tell her they were stopping to look at her, because she was the prettiest girl in the world.
My grandmother, Eva, took a different tack. She sensed in my mother her burgeoning womanhood — and it scared her. My mother was maturing much too quickly. And not just her body, but her way of being in the world, and how the world saw her in it. Like Eula Varner in Faulkner’s “The Hamlet”: “Soon as she passes anything in long pants she begins to give off something. You can smell it!” Her mother could smell it, too.
This is how, inadvertently, my grandmother encouraged my mother to marry John Stephens.
“I would rather stand over your grave,” she told her, “than to learn you had sex out of wedlock.”
I imagine my mother in bed, covers pulled up to her chin, wheels turning, my grandmother glowering above her in the shadowed light.
So this, she said, is how it happened.
They were at the Edgewood Community Pool, John and Joan. It was a Tuesday. And let’s say, with the crazy logic of two kids who were in love and in the grip of some uncontrollable hormones – trying to find any way to be together, to have sex with each other and make it right, make it OK somehow – they decided to get married. And they decided to get married that very day. Still in their bathing suits, they drove to the Shelby County Courthouse in Columbiana, where they stood before a probate (or whoever you stand before when an 18-year-old is marrying a 12-year-old girl), and they took their vows, my mother still dripping in her suit: a small pool of chlorinated water puddled at her feet.
So, barefoot and newly married, Joan set out — not to live as man and wife with John, because that wasn’t going to happen — but to have sex as a newly married couple might: with a feral eagerness. But legally, and with the unintentional blessing of her mother. Where they had sex is unclear to me — my mother just said, “everywhere we could” — and they continued thusly until somehow my grandparents found out about it and had the marriage annulled.
“It was a summer marriage,” she said.
This isn’t classified information, or a dark family secret I’m sharing with the world because I’m a writer and it makes a good story (though I am, and it does). If my mother were alive today (she died in 2009), she would tell you. She told just about anybody. She told my younger sister on her 21st birthday, because, she said, “we’re friends now, not mother and daughter.” Within hours of meeting Laura — my girlfriend at the time, now my wife — she told her this story. Laura thought it was alarming, first impressions being what they are, that this was what my mother would want to lead with. On the other hand, it was the perfect story, because it cut to the chase of the kind of woman my mother was, and who she always had been: defiant, sexual, shocking, a woman who bridled when the spotlight was on anyone other than her.
So, everyone knew about it. It was her great tale of youthful misadventure. She was an open book like this. She would tell you about anything, the more outrageous the better. If you had a scandalous story to tell, she would love to hear it, but she would have a better one, like this one, and yours would pale in comparison.
Married when I was 12 years old: Beat that.
But what I came to learn, 40 years after hearing the story for the first time, is that it wasn’t really true. It didn’t happen like this at all.
It’s something you hear a lot when you start digging into the past, even the relatively recent past. There is always someone who knows what you want to know, but they’re dead, alas, and now no one knows what really happened. Without a witness it’s all hearsay, a story.
Joanie S. was one of my mother’s best friends, and probably her last friend, too. She and my mother knew each other for decades. They became Buddhists together, and went to northern Alabama and to Florida on Buddhist retreats. Even though they were best friends, my mother had “broken up” with Joanie not long before she died. In her last years, my mother took umbrage easily. She could be your pal on Wednesday and freeze you out on Thursday, a loving mother this week and a dragon lady the next, and it might be some time before you realized what she thought you had done. Eventually, she’d come around, everyone would be friends again, but she never had a chance to make up with Joanie because my mother fell, broke her neck, and died before she could. But other than Joanie, there was no one else for me to talk to about my mother’s first marriage.
Luckily, Joanie said she knew what happened. She knew because one day she was hanging out with my mother while she was cleaning out some drawers in a side table in her living room. This was when my mother was 48 years old, and her second marriage (to my father) was almost over. In a drawer were old photographs, and one of them caught Joanie’s eye. A small black-and-white photo of a young, handsome man.
“That’s John Stephens,” Joanie said. “Why do you have a picture of John Stephens? I didn't know you knew him.” Apparently, Joanie and John had gone to high school together as well, a different high school than the one my mother attended. At some point, John’s family had moved, and he had started attending the same high school my mother did.
“Oh, I knew him,” my mother said offhandedly. “He was my first husband.”
And so, she told Joanie the story, the story she told me and everyone else, how when she was 12 and he was 18 they left the pool and drove down to Columbiana in their bathing suits and got married.
“But there was no way she could have been 12 years old,” Joanie said. “I’m guessing she was 13 at least and he was at most 17, because John was two years behind me in school, I think. Or not. But maybe I’m wrong; she said it was true. She said it was in the law books as the earliest marriage ever performed in Alabama.”
Then, Joanie told me something I didn’t know: “When Weir [her father] found out about her getting hitched, he was not happy about it, as you can imagine. But even so, he wanted her to be happy, so he built a cottage for them in the backyard, and she and John lived there until they went to Auburn, in 1950 I think, and that’s where they broke up and got divorced. And then of course she met your father, so...”
“Wait. What? He built a house for them?”
“In the backyard.” She shrugged. “A cottage. That’s what she told me.”
“I don’t know, Joanie,” I said. “I don’t know how that could have worked.”
Because that would mean a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old — or a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, as Joanie said, high school students, or actually, in the case of my mother, one just leaving middle school — lived in my grandparents' backyard as husband and wife. Having sex with each other. The idea of her having sex even once with this adult man is chilling; the possibility that sex was sanctioned by her parents is ludicrous and, obviously, child abuse. And how could she not have become pregnant?
My grandfather would never have built a house in his backyard for my mother and her husband: He would have shot him and built him a casket. Joanie shrugged again; she was just repeating what she’d been told.
“John Stephens was gorgeous,” she said. “I will say that. His father was a tree man, though, and looked like a monkey.”
I’d never heard about this house in the backyard. My mother never told this part of the story to me or my sisters (there were no offspring from her first marriage, thank God). We are all from her second, and last, marriage, to my father. She was relatively ancient by the time she met and married him — 18 years of age. And for the second time in her life, she eloped. There is a photo of the two of them “chained” (tied by a string) to a pole outside Toomer’s Drug Store in Auburn, with a sign that says “Just Married. G.I. Bill won’t pay for hotel room. Need $10 for night.”
They are both heartbreakingly young. My father is smiling like a guy who just bluffed his way to a win in a high-stakes poker game. My mother’s face is so sweet, seraphic, unblemished, like a girl who has only heard stories about what it might be like to be married, to be with a man. I don’t know if my father ever knew about her first marriage, although I’m assuming that he must have. But if he did, he never brought it up.
I’m beginning to understand that I don’t even know what I know. The backyard-home story is impossible. But Joanie was one of my mother’s best friends: Why would she tell her this?
Now, I don’t know what else was made up, or if all of it was, or why my mother needed this fictional creation of self, of a controversial and even tragic past that never happened. Maybe she just loved how the story, like a car wreck, got your attention and made it impossible to look away. The sex part, of course, she loved. And the fact that it was against the law, even in Alabama, only made it better. She lied about her age to the judge and got away with it, and she loved that. The judge never even asked to see proof. She loved that, too. Apparently no one asked to see proof of anything, ever. Until I did.
One reason I write fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, is the freedom the form allows me, which is almost total. I’m free to write the story I want to write, the way I want to write it, and if something displeases me or doesn't work, I can delete it — a word, a paragraph, or much, much more — all from the comfort of my office, couch, or king-sized bed. The only conflict I experience is on the page. I’ve never been much for research or being investigative, asking people questions, insinuating myself into their real lives.
After Joanie, though, I knew I needed to talk to at least one other person, and that person was John Stephens. If he was still alive, the events in question happened more than 60 years ago, and he may well have forgotten them, the bones of that memory covered by the sands of time. Or maybe, he would remember all too well, and to hear from me, the son of the girl he once loved, could be, to say the least, jarring.
But there he was — his telephone number, online where anyone could see it. His address was there as well. He still lived in Edgewood! This was all too wonderful, and yet a little unnerving. How would he react when I told him who I was? Would he hang up on me, or have a heart attack and die mid-sentence?
Or would he just tell me the story I’d been hoping to hear?
So, I dialed him up, and it rang two or three times. He didn't answer, though: A woman did. It was, I assumed, his wife — his second wife. I asked for Mr. Stephens in my brightest voice.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. Mr. Stephens died three years ago. This is Estelle Stephens, his widow. Is there anything I can help you with?”
She had a sweet, deeply Southern voice. And an old one: She had to have been at least 80.
“Well,” I said. “Yes. Possibly you can.” I had not thought this through. I had no plan for a Mrs. Stephens — what to ask her, to ask her anything at all. But I had to make a plan, and I had to make it right now.
“My name is Daniel Wallace,” I said. “But my mother’s maiden name was Joan Pedigo. I don't know if you ever knew her.”
There was a short pause, or maybe not even a pause at all. Maybe I misinterpreted it, or my fictional inclinations were adding it for effect. Maybe she was taking a sip of water, or was distracted by a cardinal on the red berry bush outside her window.
“Of course, I remember Joan Pedigo,” she said. “She and John were ... an item. In high school.”
An item. An item! I should say so.
I soldiered on.
“Well, that’s what my mother told me,” I said. I was trying to sound as breezy as possible about it all, but she must have been wondering why Joan Pedigo’s son was calling her. “She’s passed on as well.”
“She lived right down the street from where my house is now,” she said. “My best friend lives in the house next door, so I see her old house all the time.”
And the cottage out back where she lived with your husband?
“Oh,” I said. “Well, the reason I’m calling” — and here was where I began to stutter, not really knowing what the next words out of my mouth would be. “There was a story I’d heard, and maybe not even a story, but I don’t know what you would call it, something that had come up at some point or another, and I was wondering, and I was going to ask him, your husband, because what I might have heard was something about how he and my mother got married. In high school. Just briefly. Really, just for the summer.”
And this time there was a long, thoughtful silence until she spoke again.
“That’s odd,” she said. “Well. They were an item.” And she laughed a little laugh. “But married? Nothing like that ever happened. I can tell you that. I can tell you that for certain. John and I were married for nearly 60 years. In all that time I think something would have come up about it once or twice, don’t you?”
She was so good-natured about this, and so sure of things.
“Yes!” I said, as quickly as I possibly could. “Of course. I didn't think it happened. It sounded so farfetched. But I didn't know who else to call. I’m sorry I bothered you, but it was something I just needed to clear up. For myself.”
“I understand,” she said.
I was ready to hang up, but she went on.
“The timing doesn't work out,” she said. “Because we were married soon after high school. And I definitely think someone would have brought it to my attention.”
“Exactly. Clearly, it never happened. And I’m sorry —”
“And when did you hear this?”
“I don’t even know,” I said. I felt as if I were chipping away at her life, little by little, as if I might be forever changing the way she thought about her husband. “At some point, my mother brought it up. But my mother said a lot of things about a lot of things, and a lot of them weren't necessarily true.”
“Joan Pedigo was a firecracker,” she said. “That’s for sure.”
That’s for sure. Firecracker or not, though, my mother had never been married to John Stephens. I believed Estelle completely in that moment. I had brought my mother’s lies into an old widow’s life, a good woman, probably, and I felt as if I’d done something terribly wrong.
Yet, in the days after the phone call, I couldn't stop thinking about it: Maybe Estelle didn't know. Maybe they’d been crafty enough to hide it from everybody.
Within a week, I found someone to do some digging, a sort of private investigator.
And it turned out, yes, she did get married, she was a child bride, but not to a man named John Stephens, and not when she was 12.
The man she married was named John Sorsby, a man I’d never heard of in my life, and she was 15 years old at the time.
Ric Dice — that is his real name — is a writer living in Alabama, and though he’s not a professional private investigator, he knows how to solve mysteries. We’ve never met or even spoken on the phone. Jeanie Thompson, who runs the Alabama Writers’ Forum, is a mutual friend, and she heard me telling this story about my mother, the one I just told you, and she mentioned Ric, how he’d learned some investigative tricks researching a mystery in his own family. How he knows how to find the paper trail.
Being a writer myself, I might have known this, or hoped for it at the very least, that it would all come down to paper. After all, has anything happened in the last few hundred years that hasn’t left a paper trail behind? And paper gets the last word. Contracts, electric and telephone bills, notes, diaries, these are the things that tell our stories. Memories are faulty, people die, and the living ones are often averse to the truth, but at the end of the day if you can hold up an official piece of paper and say This is true, this is what happened, this is where he was on the day in question, and this is who he was with, the mystery will be a mystery no more. This story I’m telling you now, for instance, though it’s full of inaccuracies and conjecture, will end up being the last word on the subject. No one is coming after me to adjust or correct it. What you don’t know could fill a book, my father used to tell me. But he underestimated me: I have actually filled six books so far with what I don’t know, and I am working on the seventh.
Ric said he would be happy to help me. All I had to do was give him a name and a birthdate. So I told him: Joan Pedigo, December 1, 1931 — and he did it. This man I’d never met found the paper I needed. The facts.
Joan Pedigo, he told me, married my father on October 27, 1950, when they were both students at Auburn. This I knew.
“But a Joan Pedigo also married on July 29, 1947. She would've been 15. And the man she married,” he told me, “wasn’t named John Stephens: His name was John R. Sorsby. I'm guessing the marriage was annulled, because she's back in high school and her name is Joan Pedigo, and not Joan Sorsby.”
Not 12 years old, 15; and not John Stephens, but John Sorsby.
Well, this didn’t make sense at all.
Why would my mother have lied about how old she was when she first got married? Or, if there was going to be a lie, wouldn’t she have lied in the other direction? If you were married at the indecently young age of 12, wouldn’t you want to bump it up a little and say, possibly, 15? Fifteen is really young to be married, but not really that rare a thing in Alabama in the 1940s. She may have known other girls who were married at 15. But 12? Who gets married when they’re 12? No one. No one but Joan Pedigo. The earliest marriage ever performed in Alabama. Not one of the earliest – the earliest. She had distinguished herself early on, maybe that’s what she was trying to get at: that among the wild, she was the wildest.
But who was this Sorsby? Ric promised to find out for me.
It took only two days.
“You were asking about Sorsby and if he might be alive,” Ric wrote. “The John Sorbsy who appears to have married your mother was born April or May, 1929, the son of a woman named Vernelle Pilkington. Then, he seems to disappear — until he marries your mom. Then he seems to disappear again. He doesn’t appear in any city directory, doesn’t pay a power bill or a phone bill, doesn’t register to vote or serve in the military. He’s off the grid.
“But Pilkington. Vernelle Pilkington. I realized I’d seen that name before.”
And so, Ric proceeded to unravel the story of my mother’s first husband’s name. Vernelle Pilkington’s husband was John Sorsby, and they had a son together, also named John. But then, they were divorced, and she later married a man named Aubry Beck Stephens; he became John Sorsby’s stepdad. And so, John changed his name to Stephens. John Stephens.
“See? John Stephens and John Sorsby are one and the same,” Ric wrote. “John Sorsby was born April 1929, and so was John Stephens. And they both died on April 25, 2010. So.” I could almost hear him smiling on the other end of this email, having figured all this stuff out, from top to bottom.
My mother did marry John Stephens, but on that summer day they married in the small courthouse in the middle of Alabama, he must have still been John Sorsby. Not important really, in the scheme of things. It’s just another story my mother told.
And so, just like that, in a matter of days, the mystery of a lifetime was solved. I have it all on paper now: the original marriage license, and the annulment. Every historical date, every indisputable fact. For instance: John Sorsby was a tree surgeon, just like his dad.
But it’s more than paper. Nestled within what is supposed to be a bloodless legal document, there’s a hidden narrative.
The marriage wasn’t discovered (I don’t know how it finally was) until an entire year had passed, a year when my mother lived at home and appeared to be dating John, while he was in fact her husband. Once the marriage was discovered, though, my grandfather moved quickly to have it annulled, which means that, legally at least, the marriage almost never happened at all.
The annulment document contains three testimonies: one from my mother, one from John Sorsby, and one from my grandfather. In his testimony, my grandfather says, “John has called on my daughter since the alleged marriage ... and I have seen no difference in their relation. They have acted toward each other during the whole time like kid sweethearts usually do. There has been nothing intimate in their relation.”
And John Sorsby: “Last July, the idea occurred to me that if we would go through with a marriage ceremony that it would prevent her from going with other boys. ... Neither of us had any intention of considering this any more than an extra binding engagement ... and our relations have been nothing other than that of fiancé and fiancée.”
Finally, it’s my mother’s turn. She says she and John “have been friends for quite a while and we had discussed getting married in the future for some time. Last July … he suggested that we could go to a county seat and get married, and that it would have the effect of an engagement, and that we could later remarry. ... [Neither] he or I in any way treated our relation as that of husband and wife.”
They acted toward each other the whole time like kid sweethearts usually do, my grandfather said. Kid sweethearts. An item. There was nothing intimate in their relation at all.
Nothing intimate in their relation at all? Well, I doubt that, because I believe my mother when she said they “did it” everywhere they could; she did it everywhere she could for the rest of her life.
And you might well ask, why do I even care? But that’s not the question. The question is, why did she care? Why did she lie about it the way she did? That’s the most intriguing part of it all to me. Because what really happened is important only to the degree it differs from the story she told, and the story she told is the more important one. Was it for the attention, her love of scandal — or did she just like a good yarn? All three, I think.
We learn more about people through the lies they tell than we do from the truths they share. This is why I became a fiction writer in the first place. It’s how I was raised.
Daniel Wallace is author of six novels, including “Big Fish” (1998), “Ray in Reverse” (2000), “The Watermelon King” (2003), “Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician” (2007), “The Kings and Queens of Roam” (2013), and most recently “Extraordinary Adventures” (May 2017). This is his second nonfiction contribution to The Bitter Southerner; his first, “Killings,” was about the death of a chicken.