|The Conner Girls
Chelsea A. Kerrington
2007 by Chelsea A. Kerrington
Megan, Danielle, Katie . . . we always said the Conners’ names in order from eldest to youngest; I fell about six months behind Katie. Everyone in their family called her K, but never was Danielle “Dani,” and Megan would roll her eyes at “Meg,” because, after all, we were all just babies. Danielle was and still is my favorite. Since my house was the one with a stay-at-home-mom and snacks and Barbies, and I had a cat that let us dress him up in doll’s clothes, Katie was demoted and I became the doted upon baby sister—she took my place as only child. Danielle and I reigned our dead-end street, bossing K around and making fun of Megan behind her back.
Each day I would call and ask if they could come over and play. Though walking next door wasn’t exactly strenuous, I always hesitated to go inside their house. From time to time people from their ward of the Mormon church would come over to help them tidy things, rake up the autumn leaves, fix the washer or dryer or whatever was broken at the time. Yet as a kid there was an odd allure to their home, and secretly I would sneak in through the back door, feeling like a spy as I climbed over the piles of laundry through the unlit hall, past their bedrooms overflowing with toys, papers, and old sandwiches, through the sticky-floored kitchen smelling of sour milk and finally into the living room where we would play hours upon hours of Nintendo in the darkness. Their disheveled house certainly stood out in our neighborhood, but no one could blame the girls. Besides attending church every Sunday, their parents were practically non-existent: they both worked overtime to make ends meet, and back at home their mother holed-up in the bedroom to read romance novels. Perhaps that’s why the girls preferred to come to my house where adults kept things clean and organized, helped with homework, prepared healthy snacks, and tucked the covers in at nighttime. When I would come home a bit woozy, surrounded by a dirt cloud like Pig Pen, my mom would insist we all play outdoors for a week to get some fresh air.
All three of the Conner girls were very athletic: Megan’s sport was volleyball, Danielle’s basketball, and Katie’s soccer, so we never needed much convincing to play outside. Lacking the coordination and patience required for organized sports, I preferred bike rides and dog walks, running through sprinklers and playing tag. Besides a pretty lucrative lemonade stand (at the end of our street was a popular bike trail), our favorite game in the summer was sketching out our dream house in colored chalk all along the street. We would draw in the bedrooms, a kitchen, even cabinets with our favorite foods inside. We weren’t allowed to step outside the lines and had to take the pink hallways to navigate about our mansion. Katie, of course, would be forced to have her own little side-mansion, but usually we’d give in and draw a walkway to ours. However, the short Alaskan summers allotted only so much time for outdoor festivities. Soon we’d be bundling up in snow-clothes, my mom dispensing extra hats and mittens and readying hot chocolate for our return. The long season called for a more hearty imagination, as our Barbies didn’t have the proper outfits for below-zero weather. It was winter when we first founded the secret Rainbow Rocket Club—Danielle was Rainbow, I was Rocket, and Katie was Cloud since she didn’t want to be Club. We held meetings in my playhouse several times a month for years thereafter, discussing duties such as the important task of building a giant ice slide that went over our fence and connected our front yards. Another wintertime mission was pretending the icicles dangling from the roof of my garage were our children in danger of falling off and shattering to their deaths. We rushed back and forth from the garage to our snow hut, nestling our rescued babies in the soft powder. Their house grew messier as the winter progressed, the plastic Christmas tree consumed their small living room and bits of candy canes and fruitcakes hid beneath furniture to be found next summer. They never had many gifts, and even as a little girl I felt guilty that I had more presents for myself than the three girls combined.
The older I got, the more I tried to hide from them the fact that I was “spoiled rotten” as they called it, that my mom continued to baby me while their parents had been letting them do what they wanted for years. I began to focus on what they had that I did not: freedom and a strong dedication to religion. “But the Conners can do it!” became my feeble rebuttal for everything. My mom never tried to explain that the reason they had more freedom was because their parents were oblivious; she just firmly stood her ground demanding I be home before dark, get my homework done before playing, and not ride my bike down the trail without an adult. I was also left out of their three-week summer camp retreat, free for Native Alaskans, although I begged each year to tag along—sure that I would be an exception.
One thing I was allowed to join in on was the weekly youth group activities at the nearby Mormon church. Coming from an agnostic background, I was more interested in the art projects and snacks than the biblical lessons. So far, the only thing I had learned about Mormonism from the Conners was that swearing was very bad, and that when my mom said “Jesus Christ!” in her exasperated tone it meant she did not believe in Jesus because she was taking his name in vain. I cried the first time Danielle explained this to me and promised her I would never do something that horrible. Besides the few youth groups I attended, I was never very interested in religion, let alone Mormonism. My view of the church was just that of a community of friends that helped tidy up their house when their grandma from the South came to visit every couple of years.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much of a say the church had in their lives. Danielle was the first to tell me about sex––I must have been in second grade. We were behind their shed gathering leaves and grass for the potion we were planning to make out of muddy water. “Do you know what sex is?” she asked with a huge grin, anticipating my answer. I shook my head, and she solemnly set down our bucket of foliage and began to explain what she had just learned in her fifth grade human development unit. She also told me that God did not want people to have sex before they were married, or, as www.mormon.org explains, there is a Law of Chastity insisting that “we must not have sexual relations before we are married, and after we are married we should have sexual relations only with our husband or wife.”
As we grew older, we were still there for each other even as imagination gave way to reality and I no longer needed Danielle to explain things. At 13 years old I told the Conner girls something they had heard many times: My parents were getting a divorce. This time though, we sold our house and my mom and I moved to Spokane, Washington. That Christmas, we bought Danielle a ticket to fly down and visit me over the winter break. It was a small but much needed comfort to know that although my own family had fallen apart, everything seemed to be going just fine back at home on our quiet dead-end street. The big news was that she could now drive and had breasts and a boyfriend; in fact, all three girls had boyfriends (and breasts) and Danielle spent the week describing to me every hand-holding, kiss, and touch she had experienced. I traveled home that summer to spend it with my dad, and by that time they all had new boyfriends. I still trailed behind though, longing to do what they were doing.
In between summer and holiday visits, I learned that Danielle had “done it” and if I ever told anyone she would absolutely kill me! His name was Jimmy, and he was a couple years older, a pudgy connoisseur of video games with long manicured fingernails. He bossed Danielle around and groped her shamelessly; I hated him. The next summer I learned that she and Jimmy had broken up, but not before he had gone down on her at a park (the last thing Danielle ever had to explain to me.) During winter break that same year, the year Megan was graduating high school, Danielle told me that Katie was pregnant. Even though she had been spending less and less time with us before I moved and had taken to wearing all black and smelling of cigarettes, I was still shocked. This was K: only fifteen—just a year older than me at the time—and pregnant with a child whose father she could not remember because she had been too drunk. Seen as “pre-mortal life” to members of the church, an abortion would be a direct violation of the sixth commandment: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers the elective termination of pregnancy ‘one of the most . . . sinful practices of this day’” reports the Mormon General Handbook of Instructions. Katie gave up her baby girl to a Native Alaskan Mormon family that lived in Washington, and began to take Prozac for her depression—the church made a special exception to o.k. her taking the medication. I could not understand why these girls I had been so close to growing up were suddenly so different from me. I hadn’t even kissed a boy, and they were having sex and babies! A weight formed in the pit of my stomach as I realized for the first time, I did not want to be like the Conners.
It was my first and Danielle’s senior year of high school when she told me the good news—she had received a full-ride scholarship to Yale University for her academic performance (and certainly for her coveted demographic of a low-income, Alaska Native female.) She would be the first in the family to attend college—let alone an Ivy League school. But that wasn’t all the news: At seventeen, Danielle was now pregnant. She had met Sam—seven years older, Black, non-Mormon, already a father—at McDonald’s where she worked part-time after school. Meanwhile, my mom and I had moved back to Anchorage, and in spite of the decision that Danielle would be declining her scholarship and having the baby, I was still excited to spend a semester of high school together. Although it meant the other students looked at me funny for eating lunch with The Pregnant Girl, an unusual sight at the school, I still saw her as the same person who had made countless mud-pies along the curb of my driveway during summer afternoons. Just before graduation, Olivia was born in March of 2000. Soon after, Sam got arrested for armed robbery and possession of cocaine. Somewhere in the four years Sam spent in prison in Arizona, Danielle confided in me that he had planned all along to get caught so he could sober up in jail and then marry her.
While Katie had met a new boyfriend and Danielle was struggling to raise Olivia at her parents’ house, Megan announced that she was pregnant and getting married. By now I was angry that my surrogate sisters had turned into teen pregnancy statistics; what I thought to be the most important decision a family makes had just become part of the 8 out of 10 unintended pregnancies before the age of twenty. Everything afterward seemed to occur in a rapid-fire succession: Megan’s son was born—followed by another not a year apart. Katie got married after she graduated high school the following spring, also having a son soon after. Megan announced she was pregnant again, with child number three, and Danielle declared that Sam was back and they were getting married. Megan and her husband had another son, and Danielle informed me that she and Sam were “trying.” I had been to the store with Danielle while she bought groceries with food stamps when Sam was in prison; I had watched Olivia eat McDonald’s several times a week since she was a baby. I couldn’t understand how this was fair to Olivia, and Danielle couldn’t understand why I didn’t invite her to my birthday parties anymore. When I went off to college is when they all began to tease me: “You have to leave us and go off to colllllllllege! We’re not good enough for you anymore!” I felt like the black sheep of the bunch because I hadn’t had a child yet, yet I still felt like a kid myself.
Though national teen pregnancy rates had been declining since 1991, the United States still claims the highest rate in the Western industrialized world with about 100 teen pregnancies every hour, and indeed it seemed as if every time I turned around another one of the Conner girls was pregnant. According to Teenpregancy.org, teen mothers who are in contact with the father are extremely likely to have an additional birth, which is associated with “reduced ability to complete education or to attain economic self-sufficiency.” A staggering 80% of teen mothers will rely on welfare at some time in their lives. Children of teen mothers are likely to suffer from behavioral problems––the risk of which increases with additional births––including higher rates of incarceration, lack of nutrition and intellectual stimulation, and an increased risk of abuse and neglect. I was afraid the statistics would continue to prove true, but I refused to blame the girls—my best friends since I was the age of their children.
Growing up in Alaska for eighteen years, I was well aware of the stereotypes that went along with Native Alaskans, one of the most prevalent being that the girls “slept around,” often becoming pregnant. The website for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reported in November 2005 that although teen pregnancy rates for Native American and Alaskan youth are not available (most likely due to a lack of available abortion data), the majority of Native American teen mothers give birth out-of-wedlock. In 2003, 88.1% of Native American teens aged 15 to 19 who gave birth were unmarried compared to 81.3% of all teen mothers. It also stated that only 8.3% of Native American students report using birth control pills before their last sexual intercourse, compared to 18.2% of all high school students. Condom use is equally likely in male Native Americans, and slightly less likely in females compared to general student populations. Like many Native Alaskans, the Conner girls were also more prone to alcohol abuse, as Katie had experienced, as well as poverty rates greater than average percentages. Through the Alaska Native Medical center, the Conners were all eligible for free health care even though the fathers were not of Indian or Native descent, which meant that their children were all eligible, too. I wondered if the Conners had had to pay for hospital costs and prenatal care if they would have had so many children so soon.
I also accused Mormonism as playing a part in cutting their youths short. Gordon B. Hinckley, world leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1995, issued a statement that same year that said “We declare that God's commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” With such an emphasis on reproducing and a 1943 declaration by the church’s ninth leader, David O. McKay, that “When the husband and wife are healthy . . . the use of contraceptives is to be condemned,” the Conner girls had few options to express their sexuality. Contraceptive use between unmarried partners is not even addressed as Mormons do not even consider premarital sex as an option. Their parents rarely discussed anything with the three adolescent girls, let alone love, sex, or birth control. When the girls supposedly found the love they were lacking, at the least a sense of self-worth and validation through the attention of boys, it seemed worth it to disregard the Law of Chastity. Mormon.org comforts that although this is a very serious law, “those who have broken it can gain forgiveness and peace through repentance and obedience.” But none of the Conner girls had much time on their hands for repentance.
Their parents, on the other hand, began to show more signs of involvement in the lives of their grandchildren; perhaps they did not want the cycle to continue. My mom had learned to step back from the whole situation; though she often raised these kids side by side with her own child, they were not her children (and grandchildren) to worry about. She showed little response when the news of another pregnancy came, yet her face fell a bit and she always squirmed out of a chance to get together with their children. My dad was outraged, no doubt displacing fear of his own daughter growing up too soon. “Plenty of smarts, but no common sense,” he would inform me gruffly, “You’ve got to have both!” I assured my parents that I would not be making an announcement of my own anytime soon.
After being away at college for three years now and having had a few serious relationships of my own, I can’t imagine being stuck in Alaska with three toddlers to raise. When the Conners and I manage to all get together over Christmas or summer vacation, they tease me about my carefree relationships, nothing serious in their eyes as I am not struggling to raise a family. As they shuffle children back and forth between them—everything a whirl of sticky fingers, giggles, and cries—they all agree that their next door neighbor from childhood, the spoiled only child, has committed the ultimate betrayal of leaving them behind. I laugh it off, bouncing someone’s kid whose name I can’t recall on my knee as he drools on my leg, but my heart squeezes as I want nothing more than to take them all with me to California, to my pristine college campus and literature classes, the beach and the sun—and show them what could have been.
Back at college now, about to graduate, I stick Olivia’s birthday card in the mail: she is six years old this March. I quickly e-mail Danielle to let her know I sent it to her parent’s house—she and Olivia moved back in with them after Sam began using drugs again. “It’s the neighbor’s fault, he’s a dealer . . . and I think they knew each other from prison too,” Danielle had told me last Christmas as we drove home from a dinner out— my treat, just us two. I tried, for the millionth time, to encourage her to do what was best for her children. “It makes me so angry that sometimes I want to do drugs to show him what it’s like, then he would have to raise our family!” I wince at her confession, and softly tell her that if she ever began using, there would be absolutely no one to raise her little girls; they needed her. “I know, I would never . . . it’s just, I don’t know. But you know,” she leans toward me, her voice growing excited. “I’m not really Mormon anymore.” She suddenly looks relieved, younger and lighter after she utters the words. I nod, wait for the rest. “I don’t really know what I am––but it’s not that.” I see a stark difference in the way Danielle raises her two girls and how her parents raised her; in fact, she reminds me of my mom sometimes, joking with her daughters and smothering them in hugs and kisses. I wonder if this attention will be enough for Olivia to break away, so to speak.
Only in kindergarten, she attends a special school for gifted children where she is learning Spanish, doing yoga, and, as she informs me, likes to do math problems in her free time. I receive an e-mail back from Danielle a few weeks later, telling me that Olivia loved her card and is looking forward to seeing me over the summer. Megan is in the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child, finally a girl, eleven weeks premature—but both are recuperating well. I am not surprised, although I didn’t even know she was pregnant. Sam and Danielle are back together and have found a new house, she writes, in a neighborhood away from drug dealers and bad influences. I can’t help but cringe as I read that she has a surprise to tell me, but she’ll give me hint—it’s due November fifth. I decide that this summer I will spend some time with Olivia, just the two of us, and talk to her about the things her family doesn’t have time to discuss: new friends, boys teasing, school, how she feels about her little sister. I want to be for her who my mom sometimes was for the Conner girls, only I do not have my own child to worry about. I want her to be able to call me up when she’s older and ask me the questions about love or sex she cannot discuss with her parents. I want to attend her college graduation. Girls born to teenage mothers are 22% more likely to become teenage mothers themselves, and I refuse to watch Olivia become another statistic.
Chelsea Kerrington in a recent graduate of Chapman University in California with a degree in creative writing. Having just relocated to Boston, Massachusetts to pursue a career in writing and book publishing, she is currently discovering the joys of efficient public transportation, lobster bisque, and crisp fall days. Chelsea is originally from Anchorage, Alaska and is still trying to come up with a way to incorporate that into her writing. She agrees that “you can never go home again” but also believes you can write about it until your heart’s content.
Alaska Natives Commission. Key Facts and Findings. 2004. 14 May 2006.
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. ANMC Eligibility.
2005. 13 May 2006.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church: Basic Beliefs: Morality: The Law of Chastity. 2005. 2 April 2006.
Healthcommunities.com, Inc. Women’sHealthChannel.com. Teen Pregnancy. 12 May 2006. 15 May 2006.
LDS-Mormon.com. LDS Church Views on Birth Control. 2001. 2 April 2006.
LightPlanet.com. Sexuality. 2006. 2 April 2006.
National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy. National
Teen Pregnancy and Birth Data. 2002. 2 April 2006.
in the subject line of the message.)