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.”