Home from college for Christmas vacation. Day five and looking forward to returning to school. I was like a guest obliged to entertain his hosts as a thank-you for their invitation. Rachel and her family were with cousins in New Jersey. I tried to get a head start on my reading for next semester.
That evening, the telephone rang during dinner. Dad answered it in the hall. “Hello?” and “Give us a call,” he said before hanging up. “That was Uncle Neal. The doctor is at the nursing home. He doesn’t expect Aunt Ellen to live through the night.”
No one said a word. Leslie acted like she was about to cry.
I said nothing knowing my throat would choke up. I tried not to think of Aunt Ellen in the nursing home. Instead, I remembered the stories she’d told me when I was a child: sailing to England with a friend from work, dancing with her beaus as a debutante, and visiting me when I was a baby.
“I covered my face with a scarf,” she told me. “When I took it off, you laughed and laughed. Your mother said you wouldn’t fall asleep if I stayed, but you screamed when I tried to leave. You sat in my lap, playing with my locket, watching the reflected light. Cuddled against me, you closed your eyes and fell asleep.”
We remained at the dinner table, quietly talking. Mom told Leslie about the time Aunt Ellen traveled with Grandma out west on the train. Hadn’t Leslie heard that one before? Maybe telling an old, but familiar, story made Mom less sad.
“Mom, I remember Aunt Ellen visiting when I was in my playpen on the lawn.”
“In your playpen? What happened?”
“You wanted me to take a nap, but I screamed when Aunt Ellen tried to leave.”
“You screamed all the time in your playpen. That was just a story she told you. You can’t remember anything that far back.”
Mom’s disbelief hurt. I remembered a large, empty lawn surrounding my playpen. I saw Aunt Ellen coming towards me down the street. And something else: the locket she always wore. I remembered the flickering sunlight. An image that distinct must have happened. Why would I make up something like that?
While Leslie and I washed the dishes, the telephone rang again. “Hello?” Dad listened a moment. “Tell us the details when the arrangements are final.” He hung up. “Aunt Ellen died ten minutes ago.”
Crying was childish but I didn’t care. So what if I was old enough to be in college. She was an important part of my childhood and now she was gone. But ever since Christmas dinner four years ago, she hadn’t been the great-aunt I’d known all my life. I had never seen anyone change so dramatically. All I remembered about visiting her in the nursing home was hearing her talk about Grandma’s baby and seeing the red scar. Grandma was right when she said her death would be a blessing.
Before leaving for college that fall, I arrived home at one o’clock after a date with Rachel. During the inevitable midnight tête-à-tête in the kitchen with Mom, she told me she’d asked Grandma about her sister’s scar, but her mother brushed her question aside. “I never knew all the details of her life.”
“But you’d have known if she’d ever been pregnant.”
“Not necessarily. She was always off with her young men. She certainly had enough of them.”
“I didn’t argue,” Mom told me, “but I was shocked by her bitterness. They risked a scandal with her being unmarried and pregnant.” She topped off her wine glass. “In those days, unwed mothers were never mentioned. Perhaps the baby died soon after its birth and the family kept everything hush-hush. I won’t ask my mother again. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m sorry I ever saw the scar. I know it upset you.”
That’s when I got up from the table, ending the conversation. I wasn’t discussing how I saw the private parts of a ninety-year-old woman. As a freshman, I kept quiet about my limited experience about girls ‘down below.’ Besides, I had enough trouble getting Aunt Ellen’s body out of my mind. An image detrimental to my masturbatory fantasies.
After Aunt Ellen’s funeral and before I returned to school, our family drove up to the White Mountains to ski. Three of us skied; Mom camped out in the chalet with her book. We planned to stay for four days but had to cut the trip short.
Mom’s brother called the hotel to tell us Aunt Ellen’s lawyer scheduled the reading of her will the next day. The attorney asked Mom, Leslie and me to attend. Uncle Neal said, since she had no money, he didn’t see a reason to attend, but promised to extend the lawyer’s invitation. “He probably wasn’t asked to attend,” Mom said.
We packed the car the next morning and drove to the lawyer’s office in Central Square. Dad expected to park in a garage for a dollar, but at the last moment, he found an empty space on the street.
“Why is it empty?” Always suspicious of good luck, Mom peered through the windshield at the parking signs on the curb. “It’s confusing. They seem to contradict one another.”
“I’m not moving. I’ll wait in the coffee shop over there in case a cop comes along.”
The lawyer’s office occupied a three-story, brick building, once an elegant private home. The receptionist rang Mr. Brookner’s office. He descended in the elevator.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Aherne.” He shook Mom’s hand. “Regrettably, I never had the pleasure of meeting Miss Russell. She made her will with my former partner, Mr. Erickson, over ten years ago. When he died, I ‘inherited’ her affairs, you might say.” He led us to the elevator. “First, allow me to express our firm’s sympathy on Miss Russell’s passing.”
He spoke with precision as if spooning each word out of his mouth. Despite his white hair, he was looked athletic, not at all dusty and threadbare like a lawyer in a Dickens novel. That was a letdown. Meeting a lawyer sounded exciting, but there was nothing mysterious here.
He ushered us into his office where five chairs surrounded a table. “Please be seated.” He noticed the extra chair. “I expected your husband.”
“He’s out in the car.”
“I see.” He moved the fifth chair back, preventing it from touching the wall. “Would anyone care for a beverage before we start? Coffee, tea, water?”
Mom said she’s fine. I also declined. Leslie said she’d like an orangeade.
“Give me a moment to ask Miss Nicholson if we have that beverage.” He left the room.
Leslie turned to me. “Why didn’t you ask for one?”
I shrugged. Orangeade was beneath me. Sherry was more appropriate for the surroundings.
“I’m sure Leslie will let you have a sip of hers.”
“No way. He can get his own.”
“I don’t like orangeade.”
If we’d been alone, my sister would have stuck her tongue out. How juvenile.
“One ice-cold orangeade coming up.” Mr. Brookner acted delighted he succeeded in providing this token of hospitality. He poured the can of soda into a glass and handed it to Leslie. “Here’s a coaster.” He wiped his hands on his handkerchief.
“Now if you’re all comfortable, we can begin. This shouldn’t take long, but as the deceased’s representative, I like to do this in person. I’m a great believer in tradition.”
While he talked, I examined the office. The bookshelves were filled with books from floor to ceiling. Each set of books had the same colored binding, perfectly aligned on the shelves. Boring. I wondered how often the lawyers read them.
“Miss Russell was farsighted. There’s no need to probate her will. I understand the family distributed her possessions among relatives when they sold her home.”
“My brother took care of the details.”
Mr. Brookner opened a folder and removed several pages stapled together. “I’ll skip the boilerplate and go straight to the bequests. She left two in the names of your children.” He handed two envelopes to Mom. “You’re the trustee until Mark and Leslie reach the age of twenty-one.”
“That’s five years away,” Leslie grumbled.
“It’ll be here faster than you think,” Mom spoke sharply. Leslie’s behavior would be discussed later.
“She opened the brokerage accounts with $10,000. They’re worth substantially more now.”
“We never expected she had any money.”
“There’s one other bequest. She left this locket to Mark.”
He opened a velvet bag and took out the locket she’d always worn around her neck.
Mr. Brookner returned it to the velvet bag which he handed to me. “With that settled, perhaps your children will return to the waiting room.”
Leslie and I got up and Mr. Brookner opened the door to the outer room. As he closed it, he spoke to Mom, “The next provisions may come as a surprise—” The door clicked shut.
Leslie sat with her arms crossed against her chest. “Why did we miss a day of skiing for this.”
“Give me a break. Aren’t you happy to get the money?”
“Yeah, when I’m twenty-one. In a thousand years—Rats! I forgot my drink.”
I slipped the locket out of its bag and turned it over. ‘My Family’ was engraved on the front. I pressed a tiny latch on the side, and it snapped open, revealing two sepia photographs: one was a baby in a white dress; the other a photograph of my grandfather as a young man. I recognized him from a copy of the photograph we had in an album at home.
We heard a muffled cry from the office. Then silence. Leslie and I looked at each other. “I guess Aunt Ellen had more money than she thought.” Even Leslie looked interested.
The door opened. Mr. Brookner’s lawyerly composure was rattled. “Mark, ask your father to come up right away.”
Mom was sobbing in the room behind him.
“What’s wrong?” Leslie asked.
“Go now, Mark. Leslie, come in and stay with your mother.”
I found Dad in the coffee shop. “Something’s happened to Mom.”
His face went white. Leaving his coffee behind, he followed me out of the shop. “Is she hurt?”
“I don’t think so. Leslie and I were in another room.”
Back in the office, Mr. Brookner shook my father’s hand. “Mr. Aherne, I’m afraid your wife has had a shock. She’s calmer now. She didn’t expect to hear what was in the will.”
Dad pushed by the lawyer and went into the office. I crowded in behind him.
“George, I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Believe what? Did she have money after all?”
“There’s no money, but that isn’t the point. Aunt Ellen is – was – my mother!”
My father frowned. “She was? Then who was your father?”
Calling the revelation an earthquake was no overstatement. Just as things got interesting, I had to return to college.
I called Leslie the next day. She said Mom was in shock and rarely left her bedroom. “She stays in bed most of the time. Dr. Madison prescribed some pills to help her sleep. Dad’s wonderful. He’s taken time off from work.” Leslie said she didn’t know what they talked about.
I buried myself studying for exams and forgot about Aunt Ellen’s will until the weekend when Leslie called me on the dorm phone. “Mom is better, although she still has periods when she loses her composure. She’s started drinking more. The slightest comment sets her off. Sometimes she unloads on Dad as if he had something to do with it. You’re lucky you’re not around. In case you can’t tell, I’m going crazy.”
Given Mom’s state of mind, Dad didn’t want her calling Grandma until she could talk coherently about what she’d learned. He told Leslie Grandma had a lot to explain. As a freshman, I found the news surprising, but not a big deal.
Looking back fifty years, I now understand what a terrible shock Mom experienced. She must have spent hours reevaluating every family event, every conversation, every facial expression trying to orient herself in a world where, in an instant, every landmark shifted.
At the time, I sympathized more with Aunt Ellen. She always acted like a second grandmother. When I was a child, I’d catch her calling me her grandson. Realizing her mistake, she’d quickly change the subject. Aunt Ellen was jealous when Grandma Bess invited Leslie and me to stay at her house. She’d call us on the phone and try to convince us to walk over to her house. She lived in a prison with no chance for a reprieve.
Leslie called two days later. “Dad took Mom to see Grandma. I wish I’d been a fly on that wall.”
“What did Grandma say?”
“Dad thought she’d have a heart attack. She couldn’t believe Aunt Ellen spilled the beans. She and Aunt Ellen wanted to protect Mom. Unwed mothers were the lowest of the low, and they thought Mom’s future would be ruined if people found out.”
“How’s Mom doing?”
“Better. Out of the blue, she’ll say, “I should have put two and two together. How could I have been so blind?” She accepts what happened, but can’t understand why Grandma never accepted her. Poor Mom.”
Leslie talked for almost an hour. I wanted to remind her I had beaucoup studying to do, but Leslie needed someone to talk with. Before hanging up, Leslie asked if I’d come home the next weekend. “I need a break. All I do is go to school, cook dinner, do my homework, and listen to Mom. There better not be any more surprises like this.”
I agreed to come home after my history exam on Thursday.
“Thanks, Mark! You’re not mad, are you?”
“Of course not. Don’t worry. I need a break from this place, too.”
After my last exam, I took a taxi downtown in time to catch the bus home. Dad drove into Boston to pick me up. I wished Leslie had come instead because I was awkward talking to Dad about personal topics when they skirted the subject of sex. But I needn’t have worried.
“The damn traffic in Boston is ridiculous” was all he said. I agreed and waited for him to say something about Mom. Halfway home, I broke the silence. “How’s Mom doing?”
“Much better. She’s had some good news considering everything that’s happened over the last three weeks. Grandma admitted Walter is Mom’s father.”
“Granddad?” I whistled. I hadn’t seen that coming. “In the end, her father was her father.”
“This was good news. Mom assumed no one knew who her father was. You know how much she loved him. Walter didn’t want to give up the daughter he’d always wanted. I don’t think he gave Grandma any choice in the matter. She agreed to pretend she was the mother.”
We arrived home. Mom acted normal. She was glad to see me and when we hugged, she laughed a little. “How do you like having a new grandmother?” But she said little after that.
I picked up the rest of the story from Leslie. “What happened makes sense in a way. Granddad met Aunt Ellen when Grandma brought him home to meet her family. Mom says there was a ruckus because Granddad couldn’t decide which sister he wanted to marry. Mom thinks Grandma didn’t want anything more to do with sex after Uncle Neal was born. After thirteen years, Granddad’s eye wandered.”
“Maybe he saw Aunt Ellen off and on for years,” I said. “A regular Peyton Place.”
Before going to bed, I took the locket from my bureau drawer and looked at the pictures. Now I understood why Mom’s picture as a baby was next to a photo of Granddad. Each sister suffered: one with a husband who cheated on her and perhaps never truly loved her; the other with a baby an intolerant society thought best to take away from her. I understood Mom’s pain and could even believe I knew how she felt. But I couldn’t forget Aunt Ellen’s lifelong loneliness watching her child grow up from a distance. No wonder she took her revenge by revealing the truth after her death. It’s said, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ And nothing is colder than the grave.
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