Almost everyone who skimmed the San Diego Union on May 9, 1964, would have noticed the photo that ran at the top of the front page of the local section.
She was smiling broadly and leaning toward a man with graying temples, who seemed to be whispering in her ear. Eighteen-month-old twins sat on his lap. Around the man and woman, 11 other boys and girls ranging in age from 3 to 17 pressed close. “Mrs. Richard Lovell, 40, is surrounded by her 14 children as she prepares for Mother’s Day at home,” read the caption.
Some of the readers that morning must have wondered what life in the jam-packed household was like. But the story below the photo talked only about upcoming Mother’s Day activities in the city.
It didn’t say why the paper had singled out the Lovells. Connie Lovell DeLonge (caught looking into the camera lens with the direct, bemused gaze of an adult, but in fact only 11 at the time) today remembers that she was responsible for getting the family’s picture in the paper. Connie says the Union had announced a contest to find the biggest family in San Diego. She entered it, and in addition to the photo session, she won tickets to the brand-new “Disney on Ice” show. “We all got to sit in the front row,” she recalls.
A few weeks after Connie told me this, Margaret Lovell Mendenhall (one of the twins in the photo) mentioned that she had written an article about her family (for the El Cajon Californian) when she was nine or ten. The prize was tickets to “Disney on Ice,” she stated. “I got to take the whole family, and I was just overwhelmed. All of us took up the front row. That was a neat experience.”
I’m sure each woman thought she was telling the truth. Somehow one or both of their memories became jumbled. It doesn’t matter. What is worth keeping in mind is that many of our childhood recollections are suspect. Family lore can become indistinguishable from personal experience. Immersed in our childhoods, we’re only children, after all, and no one ever tells us we’ll be tested on the material.
When I asked the Lovells if I might question them about growing up in what was once perhaps the biggest family in San Diego, a few of them were taken aback. Yet all agreed to talk to me. Nellie and Dick had one more baby — their 15th — after that Mother’s Day in 1964. One of the twins died in 1970, when she was seven, and throat cancer claimed Dick at the age of 57. Fourteen children thus survive, as does Nellie, who will turn 78 next week.
Nellie, everyone agrees, is at the heart of why there came to be so many Lovell children. A family irony is that the teenaged Nellie disliked kids, refused to baby-sit. “My grandma used to tease me. She said, ‘You’re the one who’s going to have all the kids because you don’t want children.’ She’s probably laughing now,” Nellie says. That grandmother was a Spanish refugee who had immigrated with her husband to Mexico. Nellie was the first of four girls born to her daughter, Concepcion. In the 1930s, Concepcion and her husband moved to San Diego, where the fish canneries offered employment. Nellie, a quiet girl who loved to play with dolls and read, nurtured a fierce devotion to her Catholic faith, and by the time she met and fell in love with Dick Lovell, a handsome sailor from Maryland, her feelings about motherhood had changed. “I was Catholic. And at the time, I didn’t think about whether [the church’s dictate against birth control] was right or wrong or how hard [having a lot of children] would be on us. I just knew God would take care of us. That’s the way I was brought up.” She warned Dick that if he didn’t want a big family, he should back out. “And he said he could handle it.”
I asked several of Nellie and Dick’s offspring why they thought their parents were drawn to each other. Some think a strong physical attraction must have been at work. Dick was not tall, but his build was solid and muscular, his hair and eyebrows dark, his jawline strong. Petite Nellie had a lush halo of curly dark hair that framed her winged eyebrows, slim nose, and full, sensual lips. But Dick once told Don, his third son, that it was Nellie’s mind, rather than her looks, that had enchanted him; he’d admired her ability to speak other languages. (Besides being fluent in Spanish and English, she had also studied French, German, Italian, and Polish, and she worked upon occasion as a Civil Service interpreter.) Don says he asked his mother what had attracted her to his father, and “she said he was handsome, and he said to her, ‘I’m gonna take care of you.’ ”
They married April 22, 1946, in the St. Rose of Lima Church in Chula Vista. Dick had agreed to convert to Catholicism, and after he and his new bride exchanged vows, they took Communion together. Two months later, when Dick got out of the Navy, the couple moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, his hometown. There he worked as a carpenter and organ builder, while Nellie began her long engagement with pregnancy. The Lovells’ first child, a boy whom they named Richard, was born just nine months and 19 days after the wedding. Larry followed less than 13 months after that. Don arrived 13H months later.
Their success at procreation was counterbalanced by Dick’s difficulties at making a living in Hagerstown, however, and Nellie says her husband finally decided he would find more work back in San Diego. So the family returned to the West, moving into one of two houses on a lot Nellie’s parents owned, on Woodlawn Avenue in Chula Vista.
The front one, in which Nellie and Dick and their growing family settled, was just 700 square feet, divided among two small bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. But “it had a big back yard and a big driveway,” says Larry, the second eldest. “There were places for us to play, and there was a tomato patch right across the street.” He recalls the neighborhood being “very Hispanic.” A couple of relatives lived on the block, which was just around the corner from the Flower Street Elementary (now Feaster-Edison Charter) School. “When we walked down the street,” Larry says, “it was a nice comfortable feeling. Everyone knew each other.”
Whenever the children played in their yard, a large white duck protected them, according to Richard, the oldest child. The bird “would sit in the shade. If any strangers came up to the fence or when the mailman would deliver the mail, he’d get real aggressive and start chasing them.” San Diego’s construction industry provided the family with another form of security, as Dick found steady work. Richard says his father started as a framer but eventually became an accomplished finish carpenter, sought by the builders of expensive custom homes. “He was very meticulous.” Nellie, for her part, continued to provide her maternity wardrobe with almost full-time employment. Cathy, her first girl, was born less than 14 months after Don. Ronnie came 14 months after Cathy.
These older children remember that their parents found time for fun amidst the challenges of providing for their growing clan. Richard says his father at one point built a rocket ship “from scratch out of balsa wood, with no plans or anything. This was when rocket ships were just coming in, back in the ’50s. You’d turn on a switch, and a little red light would come on down at the bottom, so it would look like it was taking off.”
Richard says once in a while, his father would cross the field in front of the house and hunt for squirrels with bow and arrows. “He was heavy into archery.” Nellie, too, learned how to use a bow, her oldest children recall, and the couple joined a Balboa Park archery club. They won trophies.
Larry asks, “Can you imagine this mother with all these kids” going down to Balboa Park to shoot arrows? He remembers those outings as idyllic. “We would sit there and picnic and play.” Later, Dick made bows and arrows for all his oldest children.
In addition to the archery, Nellie and Dick shared a passion for square dancing. Their eldest daughter Cathy recalls that they used to go out on Friday nights, clad in matching outfits created by a friend of Nellie’s. “My mother loved to dance and jitterbug and do all that stuff,” Cathy adds. She says at times when her mother was cleaning the house, “A song would come on and she would stop what she was doing and grab the broom. And all of us girls would come onto the hardwood floors and just start dancing away. She taught us how to do so many dances. It was very fun!”
Other times Nellie was too pregnant to kick up her heels. Her sixth child, Connie, the second girl, arrived less than six and a half years after her wedding day, and three more births ensued over the course of the next five years.
Today Don, the third oldest, remembers resenting the steady influx of additional children. He asked his mother why she had to have so many babies. “I didn’t understand it.” Don says he was an artistic child, more of a loner than any of his siblings. “I used to draw future cities and futuristic trains, spacecraft, and stuff.” When he craved adult attention, he sought the company of his grandfather, who lived in the rear house and drank a lot. “My grandpa was awesome. I’d always go and sit with him and talk.” Cirrhosis finally killed him (in Don’s account), and “I took it the worst of all my brothers and sisters,” he says. He still chokes up at the memory. “It was like I lost my best friend.”
Don’s negative reaction to the ongoing arrival of more brothers and sisters appears to have been the exception, however. “We loved babies!” asserts Connie, who told me she couldn’t remember any sibling ever criticizing their mother for having so many. “I’m not sure if that was because of the Catholicism or the Spanish culture or because we were raised to know it was a blessing,” Connie says. “We just considered ourselves very blessed.”
Terry, who holds the middle position among the siblings, agrees. “They were like live baby dolls. When my mom would come home from the hospital, that was my favorite time!” Jim, one up from Terry, says he was “always in awe of the little fingers,” adding that to this day he will drop everything to interact with an infant. “I’m still enamored with them.”
It nonetheless must have been daunting to think of squeezing any more inhabitants, even small ones, into the family’s crowded quarters. “I remember that house so vividly,” says Connie, who was just short of six in the summer of 1958. She still dreams of the Chula Vista house. “You’d walk in the living room, and to the left was Mom and Dad’s room.” A modest ten-by-ten-foot space, it opened into the sole bathroom, which was also connected to the only other bedroom. Three sets of bunk beds lined the walls of the children’s room, accommodating the four oldest boys and two oldest girls. “I remember that Jimmy, who was four, slept in a playpen in the kitchen,” Connie says. Terry and Tina would have been in a cradle and bassinet in the parents’ bedroom.
The family finally managed to buy a three-bedroom, one-bath stucco house on Grove Street in National City. “When we were growing up, we thought we were kind of poor,” says Connie. But when she thinks back upon that house, she’s struck by how large and comfortable it was. “It was a dual-level property with a double-car garage that accessed the alleyway. And it had what used to be a pigeon coop that we made into a playhouse. It had a grape arbor on the second level and three big fruit trees.” The property covered about three-quarters of an acre, Connie believes.
In time, Dick used his carpentry skills to add a two-story wing that included two more bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a laundry room, and additional storage. “Dad never, never wasted space,” Connie says. Under the stairway and into the walls next to it, “He built cupboards in all different shapes to fill that room. It was really kind of neat, all the nooks and crannies.”
Right after the move, she started the first grade, trotting off to Las Palmas Elementary with her older brothers and sisters. Friends that they made at school were always welcome at the Lovell home. “They always wanted to come to my house,” Cathy attests. “ ’Cause there was always so much to do. There were so many people to play with. So many kids to pick from. I mean, we had our own baseball team. We had our own teams for everything. It was excellent! And my mom would rather have us bring our friends over than us be somewhere where she couldn’t know what was going on.”
When they arrived back home in the afternoon, a distinctive scent greeted the children: Avon’s Cotillion. “We would come home from school. The house was always picked up, like she’d been cleaning all day,” recalls Margaret, adding, “We all knew why she was taking a bath. She was getting freshened up for Dad.” Connie says, “Mom always had her hair set every day. And she wore a dress to greet my dad at the door. Every day!” She “catered to him the minute he got home,” concurs Cathy.
If children were in the living room when their father walked through the door at 4:30 or 5:00, they would be told to “go outside. Run around the neighborhood,” says Margaret. “Give Dad an hour to relax or whatever.” Dinnertime did not reunite the family. “All of us kids would sit in the kitchen and eat there,” says Connie. Nellie and Dick ate separately “so they had their quiet time together.” Sometimes the parents shared the inexpensive, filling fare that Nellie prepared for her offspring: macaroni and cheese, chili, tortilla and tuna casseroles, goulash. But Cathy says, “Sometimes Dad would have his special dinners — whether it was shrimp or steak or whatever he wanted.”
Looking back on their mealtimes, Nellie expresses some regret. Dick had begun drinking, she told me, and he preferred to eat apart from the children. But hearing their laughter, “I was always wishing I was in there.” Nellie told me not to misunderstand. “My husband was fun too. I mean, he was nice. But I was always pricking up my ears, wondering, ‘What are [the kids] saying?’ ”
On their end, some of the children felt bad about the segregation. Ron says he vowed that when he grew up, his family would dine together. But others point out that the children’s table had its advantages. “We were brought up not to waste food,” says Don. “It was very hard to come by.” But he says picky eaters in the group learned they could hide items they disliked under the tablecloth. “Or we would take little Baggies to the table and put stuff that we didn’t like — like peas — in the Baggies.” To bolster her intake of iron, Nellie often cooked liver and onions, a menu choice detested by a solid majority of the younger crowd. One night they all fed their portions to the family dog, who gobbled them down — then threw up.
Don also remembers one night when his parents were going out. “My mom had cooked spaghetti for us, and Cathy was in charge. But we didn’t want to have spaghetti.” After the parents left, the rebellion erupted into a food fight. “We threw it all over the wall, all over each other. Even the youngest ones. There was spaghetti on the baby — just everywhere!” Don says when the hilarity finally subsided, “every one of us pitched in and cleaned up. The girls washed the clothes. The guys cleaned the table, the floor, the walls. There wasn’t a spot when my mom came home.”
These children were well schooled in the skills of housecleaning. “I couldn’t make all the beds, so they had to learn how to make their beds early,” Nellie explains. “I couldn’t empty all the baskets, so they emptied the baskets. My kids were very good kids. The older ones learned to take care of the little ones.”
Richard, the oldest, recalls an even division of many chores among the boys and girls. “We would all help my mom get things ready: like set the table; then when she had the food cooked, we would help her dish it out to the little ones. And we’d all change the poopie diapers.” (Nellie used cloth ones for all her babies.) Richard says he and his siblings took turns washing, drying, and putting away dishes. He remembers endless loads of laundry washed in old tubs, “where you had to feed the clothes through the rollers to wring them out and hang them up on a clothesline because we didn’t have dryers.”
Cathy thinks the boys did the yard work: “Mowing the lawn. Pulling weeds. Sweeping the patio. Things like that.” She says she and her sisters ironed for hours every weekend. “We even ironed pillowcases and handkerchiefs.” Her mother “ran an iron-tight ship.”
That judgment echoes among Nellie’s offspring. “My mom had a full-time job taking care of us, and she was very gifted at it,” Don says. Concurs Jim, “Mom would have made a great sergeant.” Jim doesn’t remember his mother’s writing out a schedule of the children’s various jobs, but she always knew who was supposed to do what. In contrast, “Dad pretty much was numb,” Jim says. “He’d come home and sit in the same place on the couch. He would just be numb to it all.”
But Nellie felt that outsiders would be all too ready to pass harsh judgment if she failed to be fastidious. She knew that some people thought she had too many children. One woman “would cross the street because she was afraid she’d catch whatever I had,” Nellie claims. “It was so stupid!” Another seemed astounded that Nellie’s house was neat. “What did she expect?” Nellie asked me. Chaos? Children running wild?
Her daughter Connie says her mother “vowed that her children would never have torn clothes, dirty clothes, torn underwear. They would always be clean, always fed, hair always combed.” Although the middle and youngest children wore a lot of hand-me-downs, Nellie wanted them to have at least a few new outfits for the start of each school year. She disapproves of the fact that most stores no longer allow their customers to lay items away. “That was a big help for large families.” Nellie never learned to drive, and moreover the family had only one car until the oldest boys began to acquire wheels. Nonetheless, right after summer started, she would take the bus to JCPenney or Lerner or Sears to select the children’s fall outfits and begin making the payments on them.
Supplementing the layaways were items sewn by the girls. “I would get to buy extra clothes if I sewed for all my brothers and sisters,” says Cathy, who recalls “making 20 shirts and 15 pairs of shorts and 15 blouses” at a time. And Connie says her mother organized all the hand-me-downs better than any thrift store. “This woman was incredible. Every summer she’d line us up, and she’d pull out boxes that she’d marked by age and size and season — summer, winter, spring, fall. And she would size us off. ‘Okay, here’s your summer clothes,’ or ‘We’re going to have to take you out and get you some.’ ” Nellie even sorted extra buttons and stored them separately, according to their color.
“We had to share our dresser drawers,” Cathy remembers. “So there would be dividers for our socks and underwear and shirts, and if we got them messed up, she’d empty the whole dresser out, and we’d have to straighten everything out.” Along with order, Nellie enforced small civilities. Margaret says her mother never required the children to wear hand-me-down socks or underwear. “She was really good about that. Those were private.” Each of the children was also allowed to keep personal treasures in a small box that could be locked with a key. “It wasn’t big,” Nellie says. “I told them, this is the best I can afford. But they didn’t mind. It was a private thing.”
Along with such tiny sanctuaries, the family developed rituals. One dreamed up by sensitive Larry attended each new birth. Connie says as soon as a baby was born, the children would start practicing the high-speed recitation of the expanded list of all their names. They would compete to see who could say it fastest. (To this day, most of the Lovells take delight in ripping through the oration at a breathtaking pace.)
Just before Nellie’s homecoming, “We would clean the house until it was spotless,” Connie says. The children would plunder the family’s hydrangea bush, breaking apart the blossoms and sticking them in the ground to create a flower-lined walkway for their mother. “And then we watched for Mom. If we looked out the kitchen window, we could see all the way to Meesee’s Market. That was the only way to come into Grove Street.” When they spotted the gray-and-white Chevy station wagon, they knew how to time its arrival. Larry would put the “The Emperor’s Waltz,” Nellie’s favorite song, on the record player. “As soon as Dad drove up and came around to open the door, we started the music,” Connie recalls. Nellie would walk in to find a makeshift throne, with “kids lined up in order on each side to greet her. We did that every single time,” Connie says. “Every single time.”
Christmas also was magical. “Every year, Mom gave us all three wishes: an expensive wish, a medium wish, and an inexpensive one,” says Connie. At the beginning of December, Nellie would cover a shoebox with Christmas wrapping and make a slit in the top. Then she would instruct the children to write down every good deed and every sacrifice they made for the sake of Jesus. “And she would say, ‘Now how many gifts you get depends on how good you are because it’s up to God,’ ” continues Connie. “So we were always putting slips in and showing God how good we were.”
On Christmas Eve the box would be taken to midnight Mass at St. Mary’s and placed beside the church’s manger scene. And in the weeks leading up to that night, the Lovells’ living room filled with so many presents that neighborhood children came by to gawk at them. “Just stacks of stuff!” remembers Margaret. “All for the immediate family.” She thinks each child would open 10 to 15 gifts on Christmas morning — “everything from pajamas to writing pads to cologne to embroidery stuff.” These came in addition to the wish gifts — which Nellie and Dick locked in the den, unwrapped.
Nellie “always worked to get you your first wish,” Tina, the ninth Lovell child, told me on the afternoon I interviewed her and her sister Terry (number eight). “If it was outrageous — like a TV in your own room — well, you weren’t going to get that, so you’d get the second one.”
“That’s not necessarily so,” Terry contradicted. “One year I wanted a sewing machine so bad.” Terry says her mother later told her how she and Dick had been walking through a mall when he stopped and asked, “Doesn’t Terry want a sewing machine?” Nellie pointed out that they couldn’t afford one. But Dick reportedly told her, “Yes, we can, if that’s what she wants.” Terry, who later in life developed a business as a seamstress, sounds awestruck by the gift, which she still owns. She can’t imagine ever parting with it.
Always, Nellie stressed that the birthday of Jesus was the reason for all the celebration. And throughout the rest of the year, other church-related activities commanded much time and attention. On Saturdays, the children walked to catechism classes at St. Mary’s, and many evenings, Nellie would lead them in reciting the Rosary. On Sunday mornings, Dick drove his flock to church but rarely joined them at the service. (In fact, some of his children have the mistaken impression that their father didn’t become a Catholic until the end of his life.)
The angelic moments had plenty of rowdier counterpoints. “Every time we got into a fight, brothers and sisters would take sides,” recalls Cathy. “It could be an all-out brawl, if my mom wouldn’t intervene. But she would jump right in the middle, no matter what. She would sacrifice her body to stop a fight.”
Pranks, too, abounded, usually engineered by the boys. Don, for example, remembers covering a belt with a sock and secreting it under Larry’s sheets. After the lights were turned off and everyone said goodnight, he pulled out the belt. “Larry thought it was a snake, screamed, and bounced out of bed.” The memory still makes Don guffaw. Far grander was the scheme he concocted for one of Cathy’s frequent slumber parties. She thinks this may have been for her eighth-grade graduation. Nellie had said she could invite 15 girls, but somehow closer to 50 showed up. “We were all out on the patio,” Cathy recalls. “We all had sleeping bags,” and when it came time for the girls to climb into them, they found them crawling with cockroaches and other bugs that the brothers for weeks had been collecting from a field behind the house. A “massive screamfest” ensued, according to Cathy, who later learned that Don had also hidden a tape recorder in a drawer in her bedroom. Don says when his parents found out about this they considered it an invasion of privacy and made him return the tape to his sister. But Don exults that he nonetheless demanded (and got) a bag of candy from Cathy to keep from revealing all that his espionage had unearthed.
For more conventional entertainment, Dick sometimes piled children and folding chairs into the station wagon and headed for the drive-in, where the family would arrange the chairs around their car. Don remembers seeing The Dirty Dozen and some of the early James Bond movies. “We’d go to the snack bar and get all kinds of popcorn and stuff.” Older kids would watch the younger ones at the drive-in’s playground.
Once a year, the family would head to Mt. Laguna for a long weekend of camping (the only vacation they could afford). “In the early years,” says Cathy, “we were all able to go in the same car, same day, same time.” Back then, seat belts weren’t mandatory, she points out, so Nellie would hold the smallest baby, and two or three little ones would squeeze in between her and Dick in the front seat. In the back, Dick would fold down the seats, lay out the sleeping bags to cover them, then cram in the rest of the children, stowing the tent, food, and other gear on a luggage rack on top.
“Later, when we got older, the boys and my dad would go up the night before and set up the tent, like on a Thursday night,” Cathy continues. “The boys would stay there, Dad would go to work on Friday, come home, and pick up Mom and all us girls.”
“Oh, it was fantastic!” Don exclaims. “My mom would make all the plans, and we’d help cook.” The children played hide-and-seek and organized tree-climbing contests and collected nature specimens. Older kids each had a little one to look after, and Nellie made them all count off to avoid losing anyone.
Only once did the system fail, at a picnic outing to Flinn Springs park. Today Nellie grumbles that Lynda, the second youngest, broke a cardinal family rule and wandered off to the bathroom by herself. Nellie also somehow forgot to order the count-off. “I was five years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday,” Lynda told me. “I know my mom says I wasn’t listening, and that’s why I didn’t get in the car. That’s not what happened! I remember all my sisters and brothers running and leaving me in the bathroom. I was saying good-bye to a couple of kids I had met. I was sitting on the rocks. The next thing I know, the station wagon goes off, and all my brothers and sisters are waving to me in the back of the station wagon!”
The little girl burst into tears. Night was falling. She felt terrified, but a ranger eventually found her, asked her phone number, and called to inform Nellie that she had left a child behind. When Nellie, horror-struck, confirmed their daughter’s absence from the house, she and Dick raced back to the park, and Lynda says she’ll never forget the way her parents embraced her. “Dad wasn’t very affectionate. Neither was my mom. They weren’t huggy or kissy, so when they did that, it was special.” They also let her sit between them in the front seat, a rare treat by then. “And so that was like, ‘Oh, man! I’m home! My mom and dad really love me. They didn’t leave me on purpose.’ ”
By the time of Lynda’s misadventure, the Lovells had been forced to move again. Their National City home, situated in the path of what would become Interstate 805, had been claimed by the State of California, and Nellie says with the money she and her husband received for the property, they in 1967 bought a single-story clapboard home near the corner of Naranca and Mollison Avenues in El Cajon. It had five bedrooms, enough space, it turned out, for a family that had finally stopped growing larger and started growing up and apart.
The oldest child, Richard, had graduated from Sweetwater High School in 1965 and started studying computer science at Southwestern College. But early in 1966, just a few months before the birth of his youngest brother, Paul (Nellie’s 15th child), Richard was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Larry, the second eldest, also attended Southwestern College and for a while studied Spanish but then decided to become a Catholic priest. In August 1967, he moved to Los Angeles to enter the seminary of the Claretian Mission Order. (Larry was finally ordained nine years later, having earned two master’s degrees in the course of his studies.) Donald — Dick and Nellie’s quirky, energetic third son — also bade good-bye to the family that summer when, fresh out of high school, he joined the Air Force. Don claims that this decision made him a black sheep in his family’s eyes. “Because I didn’t want to stay around like everybody else. I wanted to move away.”
As her oldest boys began to leave, Nellie learned that no new babies would replace them. Her pregnancy with Paul had been problematic. A few months into it, she’d had a miscarriage. But to her surprise, the doctor informed her that the lost baby had been a twin. “The doctor said, ‘You’re still pregnant.’ So I carried the other one,” she told me, adding that Paul’s birth was “the only one that gave me any trouble.… But other than that, he was a fine baby.” She says her doctor later told her there was “something wrong up there. So they did what they called a partial hysterectomy.” She wasn’t yet tired of having babies, she claims today. “But I couldn’t have any more.”
In their new home, Connie and Ronnie settled into their studies at El Cajon Valley High School. But for Cathy (the oldest girl) and Jim (seventh from the top), the move felt like a nightmare. Cathy was so distraught at being separated from her friends at Sweetwater High that she commuted there for half a year before being required to transfer to the El Cajon school. Jim recalls that he “crashed” in the wake of the move. “I’d been this little goody-two-shoes seventh grader, dialed in and playing a lot of sports and getting ready to go to Granger Junior High with my buddies. And when I got taken away from my environment, it was hard.” He still got good grades; those just came to him. But he says, “I went from good conduct to U’s — unsatisfactory. I immediately got into a bad group, and then all my attention-seeking skills came out in a negative way.” He started smoking cigarettes, hanging out around the handball court.
In high school, a coach finally threw Jim a lifeline by persuading Nellie to let him play football, in exchange for a promise not to ride motorcycles. Jim says his life began to turn around, though in his sophomore year he was staggered by the catastrophe that struck the family: the death of seven-year-old Martha.
Although her identical twin, Margaret, was healthy, Martha’s heart had failed to develop normally. Nellie says that right after birth, her daughter underwent minor surgery in an effort to repair the damage. As a small child, she seemed fine much of the time, though “she couldn’t play like I could play,” Margaret recalls. “I would run and be active, but she couldn’t. Her face would turn beet red.” Lynda, a tall girl who was just two years younger than the petite twins, looked a lot like them, and Nellie sometimes dressed the three in identical clothes, posing them as triplets. Lynda often played with the twins, but Margaret says she and Martha shared a special closeness. Their bond took on an eerie dimension on the day that Martha died.
Nellie had taken her daughter to the hospital for a scheduled surgery that the doctors hoped would repair the remaining holes in Martha’s heart. At the Lovell house, a neighbor was caring for the other children. Margaret recalls that they were all working to get the house in order. “I was cleaning on top of the refrigerator, and I suddenly felt really light-headed, like I was going to pass out. I wanted to get down. I was seven years old. I didn’t know what I was feeling. I felt kind of sick, like I was going to throw up. I had chills. It was really weird. I told the neighbor lady, and she thought I was trying to get out of the cleaning. But I told her, ‘Something’s wrong with my sister!’ And she says, ‘Honey, your mom’s with her. She’s fine. You can go out and play.’ And I said, ‘No, something is wrong.’ ”
When her mother walked in the door late that afternoon and sat down with the assembled children, Margaret says she already knew her sister was dead. At Nellie’s announcement of the news, a sound of great despair filled the living room, recalls Larry, who was home for a visit. “I remember trying to grab the little ones, who were crying all over the place. I remember the neighbor grabbing some and putting them under her arms and hugging them.” It reminded the young seminarian of what he’d read about the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where people gather to give vent to their grief. “It was screaming and hollering,” he says. “It just flowed.”
Margaret says in the weeks that followed some of her siblings expressed concern that she wasn’t crying. “Well, I was,” Margaret recalls. “They just didn’t see me, and basically it was because I knew that they were hurting. If they looked at me, they saw her. And if I cried, they cried. So I tried to be the strong one and not to cry in front of them.”
Years passed before Margaret put her twin’s death behind her. Jim, who was eight years older than the pair, had a similar experience. “It was really hard on the family,” he says. “And the impact on me was amazing. I finally cried it out almost 20 years later.” Jim adds that other forces had begun subjecting the household to stress in those years. In addition to all the little ones, his parents were dealing with several cantankerous teenagers. “There was a lot of tension.”
Cathy, for one, provoked a steady stream of confrontations. “I was the oldest daughter, and I wanted to do everything I wanted to do because it made sense to me,” she says. “I was very logical even then.” If some rule that her mother had grown up with didn’t make sense to Cathy, she would rebel. For example, she says her mother had been chaperoned until the age of 21, so allowing her daughter to date at 18 seemed to Nellie the height of leniency. But this was unacceptable to Cathy “because all my friends were dating at 14!” Cathy says rules and regulations in the Lovell house were very clear. “I lived on restriction, because I kept breaking the rules.” She says that for coming home late she’d be grounded for a week. “Stuff like that. And if I wanted to get off restriction, I had to iron an extra eight hours.” At 18, Cathy broke the ultimate rule and got pregnant. “I felt I had to get married. That was my only choice in 1968.” The marriage “was not a good thing,” she adds. “I left home and thought I could do better on the outside, and I did not.”
Later, as she watched younger sisters turn mutinous, Cathy realized, “Oh man! I set this up.” Connie left home at 17H to move in with a boyfriend. Terry, five years younger than Cathy, also got pregnant and was married by 17. Tina, the next in line after Terry, avoided teenage pregnancy but butted heads with Nellie over other issues and moved in with Cathy on several occasions. Considering the grief that she had caused her mother, Cathy says she felt she owed it to Nellie to help out, and over the years, she took in other siblings too. To them, “It seemed easier than staying at home,” Cathy says. “But I explained, ‘I could kick you out if you don’t abide by my rules. I don’t have to keep you.’ So it was like a halfway house.”
Not all the children were rebellious. Mary, the 11th child and the family’s most pronounced tomboy, was always a peacemaker. “I didn’t like fighting,” she says. That’s still true to this day. She remembers when hotheaded Margaret, her next-youngest sister, would erupt in anger, and “I would try to talk her through it. Once, when she was a kid, she was so mad, she was going to throw this rock. ‘Oh, just throw it at me,’ ” Mary says she told Margaret, who retorted, “Why? I’m not mad at you!” “Do it anyway. It doesn’t matter. You’ll feel better,” Mary urged.
Jim says he was “totally rebellious,” but his insurrection took a different form. After his uneasy start in high school, he performed so well as an athlete, student, and student-body leader that he won a full scholarship to the University of San Diego. He says he steered clear of alcohol. Instead, his rebelliousness took the form of frequent fights and arguments. He distanced himself from his family; he resented the lack of effort Dick seemed to put into fatherhood. “When he was young, his father [Jim’s paternal grandfather] left the family. So Dad’s parenting role model was a dad who left his family,” Jim points out. As a result, “He didn’t have any parenting skills! His [style] was: ‘You’ve just got to do what I say when I say it.’ ” He wasn’t a man to come home and toss a football with his sons.
Those teenage years were “a tough time on my mom and dad. It had to have been totally different than when they were young parents,” Jim allows today. Agrees Larry, “My parents in their early years were probably more family-oriented and more energetic.” They were probably more fun, he says, whereas in the later years, all the work of running the family must have drained them.
Dick’s drinking intensified as the 1970s unfolded, and Margaret remembers “some pretty violent things that happened because my dad was an alcoholic. My older brothers and sisters didn’t see what I saw. But it was really bad toward the end, when he was ready to quit.” Because her mother thought she was an out-of-control teenager, Margaret says Nellie took her along to several AA meetings. “I went a couple of times with her, and it helped me understand where she was coming from. She was dealing with someone who was truly sick. It wasn’t just alcohol anymore. It goes beyond that.”
But Margaret was also angry at her mother. Nellie would go into her bedroom and close the door for long intervals, Margaret says, adding, “I just didn’t think she spent enough time with us. I was kind of mad at the fact that she had so many kids. I know that sounds kind of selfish. But I was near the bottom. By the time I came around, she didn’t want to put up with a teenager anymore. You were not allowed to speak back. You’d say, ‘But —’ and it was, like, ‘Go to your room!’ ” Margaret muses, “We didn’t have a lot in common, my mom and I. She was a nice lady and everything, but we didn’t get to share a lot of experiences with her. Or I didn’t, I should say. I know she’s very close with my sister Mary. But they like the same colors. They like the same music and things like that. That’s just human nature.”
Margaret says one day when she was 15, she and Nellie had a huge fight, and “that was it. I was gone.” She moved in with Cathy, “and basically I started working for her.” By then Cathy had become a real estate agent, and Margaret started doing odd jobs for the company her sister worked for. “Right after school, I’d go there and answer phones. I’d do their door-to-door mailings. Receptionist work.” In addition, “I was working as Cathy’s maid. I was baby-sitter to the kids. All so I could earn money and buy my car and get out.”
Other leave-takings were less traumatic. Michael, the tenth child, graduated from high school, tried working at one job, didn’t like it, and “just couldn’t figure out what to do with his life,” his sister Connie remembers. “He had an identity problem.” She says she finally persuaded him to go with her to the Air Force recruiting office. “At that time, marijuana was big, and the guy said, ‘When’s the last time you had marijuana?’ and he said, ‘Last week.’ He was trying to be honest!” When the recruiter rejected the boy, Connie says she retorted, “Screw you,” and marched Michael over to a Navy recruiter. There they found “a totally different reception.” Back at home, when Michael announced what he had done, Connie says Nellie was appalled. “But Michael said, ‘I did this because Dad was in the Navy.’ ”
Nellie and Dick’s easygoing 11th child, Mary, was hired by the Cajon Valley school district as a teacher’s aide right after her high school graduation. She continued to live in the house on Naranca for a while. Then she moved to Monterey County and lived with an aunt while she worked toward a teaching credential.
So there came a time when only Paul and Lynda were left. “They were spoiled rotten!” Tina jokes. “They had their own bathroom. They had their own rooms! They could play their music as loud as they wanted. Oh, my goodness!”
Terry, a more gentle and conciliatory spirit, demurs. It wasn’t that the older children ever lived in need, she says. But they always had to share, unlike Lynda and Paul. “It’s almost like they were in a different family.”
Lynda sighs when this topic arises. “They called us the spoiled babies because Mom and Dad always [served] steak and potatoes on Saturday nights and [the older children] never got steak.” The irony, Lynda points out, is that she hated steak. And even when she and her brother were the only children left, they still did not dine with Nellie and Dick. “I thought that was the worst,” Lynda says. “I never understood it. But Dad would come home from work after a long day and would want to watch the news. So, yeah, we were all shoved into the kitchen, in a little nook.”
She and her brother didn’t escape the burden of chores. Lynda says her mother would check the tops of window sills, inspecting the thoroughness of her youngest daughter’s dusting. “We were trained that the girls did the inside of the house. The boys did the outside.” As for social restrictions, the dating age in the Lovell house might have dropped to 16 when she was in high school, but the rule was a moot one for Lynda “because I didn’t have a date until I was 20,” she explains. “I was huge in high school. I didn’t have any boyfriends. I weighed 185 pounds.”
A docile, chatty girl, she says she never tested the limits of the household. Paul did more of that, and in Lynda’s memory, her parents weren’t lenient with her younger brother. “No way!” Paul concurs. He says Nellie and Dick were always watching, hawk-eyed, for any sign that he was even thinking about mischief. “I was always more afraid of my dad than I was of my mom, if I was going to do something wrong. All she had to do was mention my dad, and it was, ‘Oh no!’ He never laid a hand on me, ever.” But a verbal rebuke from his father carried a lot of punch, Paul says.
In those years, Dick’s alcoholism no longer tormented the family, according to Ron (the fifth from the eldest). “Prior to his death, he was sober for eight years,” Ron asserts. On three or four occasions, Ron, Paul, and their father went on local deer-hunting expeditions that rank among Paul’s warmest memories. He remembers sitting with his father on a rock in the backcountry, waiting for the sun to rise. “My brother Ron would walk around the valley and scare them up. I remember seeing tons of does and stuff that we couldn’t shoot. I’d get all disappointed.” But his father would urge patience. They never did shoot any deer, Paul recalls, but he murmurs, “It was awesome.”
In 1982, Dick suffered a major heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. In the aftermath, he was forced to retire from carpentry, and when he did, Lynda says she began to get acquainted with her father. Everyone in the family knew that Dick loved reading light fiction; he had always gobbled up Louis L’Amour novels and the like. But when Lynda began taking college classes in astronomy and biology, Dick astounded her with all he knew about those more complex subjects. “I would throw questions out, and he would give me all this information! He had schooled himself through books.”
A lifelong smoker, Dick got grimmer news about his health toward the end of 1983, when a persistent sore throat turned out to be caused by a cancerous tumor. Surgery removed most but not all of it, and through the early months of 1984, Dick and Nellie traveled up to Los Angeles for therapy. He did well for a while. But in the late spring, he took a turn for the worse, and five minutes into the morning of May 5, he died. Lynda, who was born on May 4 and turned 20 that year, believes that her father held out so that the shadow of his death wouldn’t mar her future birthday celebrations.
Dick’s death didn’t leave Nellie without financial resources. He had a pension from the carpenter’s union, and he’d saved money, she says. Lynda continued to live with her mother for a while, and although Paul moved out after high school, he later moved back into the El Cajon house. (He and his second wife and their children, in fact, reside there today.) Also living in the house for many years was Nellie’s bedridden elderly aunt. Only after she died did Nellie’s children begin to worry about their mother. “She wasn’t eating right!” says Mary. “She’d eat tortillas all the time and roll up lunch meat in them.” After some discussion, Nellie agreed to move in with Mary, her third-youngest daughter, about three years ago.
Mary still works as a teacher’s aide for the Cajon Valley school district. She lives in a comfortable Mediterranean-style house in a new development not far from the Los Coches Road exit off Interstate 8. She and her husband of 15 years have three daughters, a twist of fate that strikes Mary as comical. “I wanted five boys,” she says. At one point, she even dreamt of running a home for boys. What she got was “the prissiest girls” that anyone could imagine, she says. She would have tried a few more times to have a boy, but “God decided three was it.” (This happened when her husband, who has multiple sclerosis, was no longer able to work, she explains.)
Today all but two of the Lovell children live in San Diego County. Richard works with fire-protection and safety systems, and three of the other boys wound up in the heating and air conditioning field. This is no coincidence. Ron, who’s now a supervisor for a large national heating and air conditioning company, introduced both Michael and Paul to the industry. Donald parried the knowledge of planes that he acquired in the Air Force into a high-powered aerospace career. Jim, one of the only two children to get a college degree, managed and owned a health club for several years, then became a developer, before evolving into a building designer based in Idaho. The other college graduate, Larry, eventually left the priesthood and a few years later married a woman with three young boys. Larry now works in the mental health field in Albuquerque.
Among the girls, Nellie’s energy and organizational skills seem evident. After working for 15 years as a realtor, Cathy became a top-producing loan officer for a local mortgage company. When her sister Connie needed work, Cathy suggested that she join the same firm as a receptionist, and since then Connie also has become a loan officer and a program administrator. Terry developed a clientele for her work as a seamstress; then when she got divorced, she went to work as a customer-service representative for an insurance company. Tina for 16 years was married to a man who wanted her to be a housewife. But when they split up, she started working with troubled high school kids in Ramona as an instructional aide. (“They don’t scare me,” Tina says. “I can relate to them.”) As soon as Margaret graduated, she became a bank teller, but after she married and got pregnant, she worked for her husband’s private-investigation business for about ten years. Now she’s back in banking. Lynda, the youngest girl, started as a receptionist for a construction firm and has evolved into a contract administrator.
It’s hard to imagine that Lynda was ever an overweight teenager. The tallest of the Lovell women, she’s as thin as a model and beautiful. She and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, will celebrate their 14th anniversary in May. The fact that Lynda has never been divorced puts her in a minority among her siblings. Nine of the 14 have suffered at least one marital breakup. Tina, Cathy, and Connie have had two (and Cathy has since remarried a third time). Don has been divorced three times.
In a sense, Don’s divorces fit in with all the other twists and turns his life has taken. In his work life, he was successful in a half dozen trades and managerial positions before he took an early retirement from McDonnell Douglas (when Boeing bought it out). Then he opened a custom woodworking shop in Fallbrook. But after a few years of that, he had a massive mental breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He says medications have more or less brought that disease under control. But in November 2000, he also suffered a terrible physical trauma. While helping a Fallbrook church with a construction project, Don was standing on an old ladder that collapsed. The fall lacerated his face, ripped four muscles in his rotator cuff, and broke his sternum, his shoulder, three ribs, an ankle, and several toes.
He was in the intensive care unit at Palomar Hospital for a month, and he says during that time all but one of his brothers and sisters visited him. “I know of families with just one or two kids, and they don’t have that closeness,” Don commented. Indeed the Lovells’ support for one another is something that every one of them seems to cherish. “There isn’t a member of my family — a brother or a sister — that I couldn’t call in a crisis who wouldn’t be right there for me,” Terry told me. “It wouldn’t matter if it was Jim in Idaho. He’d fly in. Or my brother in New Mexico. We are just so close.”
Tina elaborated, “You kind of know who to call —”
“For what situation,” Terry completed the thought.
“Like when I went through my divorce,” Tina continued. “I called Cathy and Connie, because they had just gone through it. Or I knew Jim stayed up late, and I could call him at two o’clock in the morning. We’d chitchat on the phone.”
Tina has the toughest and most streetwise demeanor of all the Lovell offspring, and she told me there have been times when she’s chafed at the looming family presence. “Sometimes I think that my problems should be mine. Like when my daughter got into an accident [smashing into a boulder while driving drunk in a car that she borrowed without permission from one of Tina’s friends]. I’m such a private person, I thought I could handle it. I didn’t want anybody there.” But the news flashed through the family, and everyone showed up at the hospital. Tina concedes, “In the long run, it was better that they were there. At least I could vent…instead of hitting someone. Sometimes you don’t want [news of trouble] to go out, but inevitably, it will. It’s kind of like living on a small block.”
“Telegraph. Tell-a-Lovell!” Terry interjected. “It’s a joke, but it’s really true. Especially if it’s a tragedy. Everyone’s front and center as fast as we can get there.”
When I asked about the disadvantages of growing up in an enormous family, I got a variety of responses. Some mentioned struggles for identity, particularly among the middle children. Some remember feeling bad that Nellie and Dick didn’t come to school and sports activities. Some mention the lack of attention. “She was running a company,” Connie says about her mother. “And how do you have time for each employee? You didn’t get regular reviews.”
While many of Nellie and Dick’s offspring sound like they were oblivious to the constant financial pressure, others suffered from its toll. Ron, for example, says he felt “like Dopey,” dressed in all the hand-me-downs. “Every time I’d go to school, I’d have pants that were too long. I was a scrawny kid, and they wouldn’t fit in the waist so they’d be all bunched up. I hated that.” Because of the ill-fitting clothing and the cut-rate haircuts and the size of his family, Ron says he often felt like an outcast in elementary and middle school. “I didn’t think I fit in.”
Ron lists as another disadvantage the fact that he’s not as close as he’d like to be to all his brothers and sisters. “There’s too many,” he says; not enough time in the week to cultivate the intimacy he craves. “I mean, if you make a phone call to 15, you’ve taken 15 hours of your day.” Ron hastens to point out that family gatherings do bring the Lovells together a couple of times every year. Although they no longer assemble for a Thanksgiving meal at his house, as they did for many years, they still have two annual Christmas celebrations — a gift-exchange party that rotates among the siblings and a Christmas-morning breakfast at Mary’s house. These include not only the siblings but most of their children, bound to each other in their cousinhood. Close to 100 people participate in the annual gift-exchange parties. Sometimes there are Easter parties too, and Nellie’s children and grandchildren often see each other in April on Nellie’s birthday. But Ron’s deeper relationships within the family “go in cycles,” he says. “You’re close with one [person] for a few years, and then you go to another one and say, well, maybe this guy feels left out.” It makes Ron feel torn. He’d like to be closer to all his brothers and sisters all the time.
Besides the logistical difficulties of achieving that, disagreements have flared up among the siblings, according to Mary. At times one pair or another have stopped speaking. But the tiffs have always blown over. “Grudges aren’t held,” she says.
Mary doesn’t “really talk to my brothers that much,” but she shrugs this off with a wry grin. “Eh, what do you talk to a brother about?” In contrast, she talks to at least one of her sisters every day. “Cathy’s down the street. Lynda’s the next exit. Margaret’s just in Santee. Connie’s the farthest, being up in Poway. But Terry’s just in La Mesa. We go to church every Sunday together. Connie we talk to on the phone. We don’t see her as often. But the others, I see weekly. Daily, in some cases.”
All these contacts make life more interesting, contends Lynda. “There’s always something going on,” she says. Someone’s always graduating or doing something you want to hear about, like Connie’s son Tom, the guitarist and vocalist for the musical group blink-182. The sheer size of the family almost guarantees that “wherever you go, somebody knows someone,” she says.
Still, none of them have followed Nellie and Dick’s procreative example. Terry, who holds the ultimate middle position among the children, came the closest — in her teenage dreams. “I thought I wanted 12,” she says. Then she had three babies before she turned 21, “and I got smart,” she recalls with a laugh. She had no more.
Jim and Mary each thought they wanted five. But Mary’s husband’s illness made her change her plans, and Jim says his ex-wife balked after four. “She had a problem taking care of kids. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go nuts if I have any more kids.’ And I’m, ‘Okay, well, don’t go nuts.’ ”
Two other Lovell boys, Donald and Paul, have sired four children (each in the course of two marriages). But all the rest have fewer. “I knew right off I wouldn’t have a lot of kids,” says Margaret (who has three), “because I don’t feel you can give them enough attention if you have too many.” Her younger sister Lynda says she knew she didn’t want more than two. “Granted,” she says, “I was blessed with one of each.” But even had that not been the case, “I would have still stopped at two, just because we can devote our time to them evenly, as opposed to the seven kids that were in our household at the time I was growing up.”
Connie says she can remember the precise moment when she vowed to limit her offspring. She says she was in third grade. “Mom had a special time at lunch when she’d take a break. Her hair was in rollers and she would sit and eat her lunch and read a magazine. That was her time.” On this particular day, Connie asked her mother if she could play with her friend Hazel. Nellie said no, and when Connie retorted, “You just don’t like Hazel,” she says her mother fired back, “No, I just don’t like you!” Today, as an adult, Connie says she knows her mother meant that she didn’t like her attitude that day. But the comment seared the eight-year-old. “I remember leaning in from the door and I was crying and I said, ‘Never in my whole life will I let my children hear me say something like that. I’ll always tell them I love them.’ ” Connie adds that she and her mother have since talked about the incident, and Nellie has exclaimed that she never meant she didn’t love her daughter. But it changed Connie’s life.
Even Richard, the oldest, who seems to have some of the rosiest memories of the merriest times when the Lovell family was at its largest, doesn’t regret having had only three children. “I think if I had more now, we would not have been able to do all that we’ve done.” He and his wife and their kids have traveled all over the West. They have great memories, and Richard says, “There’s a tradeoff there.”
But Nellie harbors no regrets either. If money was tight when she was raising her family, she says, “I just didn’t think of it.” Likewise, caring for all those children didn’t seem difficult. “No. Not at all. It was fun.” She didn’t like it when everyone got sick. And the house was always noisy. But that never bothered her.
Nellie wears a bracelet set with 15 precious stones — one for each of her children. They gave it to her for her 75th birthday, an occasion the family celebrated with a boisterous surprise party at Flinn Springs County Park. After everyone converged upon Nellie, hugging and kissing her and wishing her well, the grandchildren put on a raucous skit that depicted their grandmother’s life. Later, to the strains of “The Emperor’s Waltz,” each of her sons and daughters presented her with a long-stemmed rose. Margaret, who years ago made peace with her mother, handed Nellie an extra rose, for Martha. Besides the bracelet, Nellie’s children also gave her a wooden room divider inlaid with 15 portraits. There’s one of each of them, good-looking men and women caught in the middle of their productive lives, solid citizens all, many still raising children, some now grandparents. Gazing at those photos, Nellie told me she’s enjoyed her life. She enjoyed her kids. She says if she had the choice, she’d have every one of them over again. She’d have more, if only she could.