Remembering Watts, 1965: A birthday story

watts-towers-inside-lao.jpgInside Simon Rodia's Watts Towers. LA Observed photo.


Fifty years ago, two baby girls were born on the same August day in a Los Angeles hospital, just a few miles north of where their native city smoldered under the painful violence of racial injustice. One of the babies was black; one was white. One of them was named Ilene, an unusual spelling. I know the details because that baby girl was named after my mother.

Los Angeles, 1965, was a place and a time in which giving birth called for more than an overnight hospital stay, and the mothers of these August-born girls happened to share the same postnatal recovery room over the course of several days. Whatever other benefits this practice of confinement may have provided to American mothers of the era, it gave these two women ample time to change the names on the birth certificates of their daughters. This did nothing to endear them to an already stressed and overtaxed nursing staff, one of whom told my mother she had almost missed her shift because of the violence: I didn't want to lose my job, so my husband drove me, and I ducked down in the back seat.

The doctor who was supposed to be on call showed up well after my own arrival into the world. Hesitant to risk any more trouble than what was already outside the hospital doors, the nurses directed my mother to keep her legs shut tight, but my mother had read a magazine article about brain damage in babies whose deliveries were stymied, and she insisted her baby's birth occur unimpeded. My 26-year-old mother did not know about natural childbirth, she held no diploma or degree. She simply wanted the best chance for her child.

Maybe that desire to affect fortune for one's young is part of the reason the mother of Ilene changed her baby's name from the one first marked on the official document: Julia. When my grandmother heard of the change, she balked. But Julia is such a beautiful name, as if she hadn't settled on Ilene for her own daughter. And my mother concurred: I HAD to be named after my dead Aunt Ida, but you don't have an Aunt Ida. No matter. Ilene's mother adored the name, in all its irregularly spelled beauty.

My own moniker, Marci, had been selected under the shadow of the recently deceased Uncle Murray, so it's understandable that my mother felt the need to exert a certain measure of control over this particular spelling. She had originally settled on a final letter of "y" but when a family friend misspelled the newly-minted name in a card of congratulations, my mother loved the look of that jaunty "i" and insisted it be changed.

Whatever compelled her hospital roommate to follow suit--hope, beauty, resistance--so did two young women in a Los Angeles maternity ward come to exert the kind of fierce, unwavering love that insists on nothing less than the right name--the right letter--no matter the paperwork required.

Around this time of year, I often wonder about the woman who grew up with the same name as the woman who taught me love's determination. I wonder if she still lives, as I do, close to where we were born. If we've driven past each other on a wide boulevard, watched fireworks light up the same Los Angeles sky. Happy birthday, Ilene, I want to say. Thank you for sharing your mother with mine, for at least a short time, in August, 1965.

Marci Vogel is a native of Los Angeles, where she attends the University of Southern California as a Provost's Fellow in the PhD Program in Creative Writing and Literature. Vogel's poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Zócalo Public Square, ZYZZYVA and The Los Angeles Times, among others. Her first full-length collection, "At the Border of Wilshire & Nobody," will be released in September as winner of the 2015 Howling Bird Press Poetry Prize.


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