(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["It is possible to make gold out of lead, you know.”]
My encounter with David Fuller remained with me for days. Although I felt that I had stood up well to his bullying, I had flashbacks to my own father’s abuse. For a while, I allowed myself the luxury of not thinking about the Fuller family and their little daughter. I went back to the solitary pursuit of investigating my own childhood. The more research I did of my past, the closer I came to understanding my father‘s behaviour. There was no way that the past could be erased, but my adult self could reassure my inner child that I had done nothing wrong. Numerous times I wished that I could tell the ghost of Catherine Fuller the same thing: that she had done nothing to deserve her fate. The ghost did not appear, however, and I hoped that my thoughts were perhaps reaching her.
Eventually, travel plans occupied my time and energy. During the holidays, I flew to Calgary and spent time with my son and daughter-in-law. My new grandson, named Jake after my late husband, was only a month old and I had time to get to know him. Peter, my younger son, also flew from California to spend time with us. It was a happy family time, and I enjoyed the change of scene. I simply did not think about Catherine Fuller, occupied as I was with family and Christmas events.
Not long after I returned home, I went downstairs for one of my regular Tuesday morning teas with Miss Hattie. She greeted me eagerly and was impatient to hear all my news about my trip. Of course, I had photographs to show her as well. The tea was already hot and ready to be poured when I arrived and we settled ourselves in the living room. For nearly half an hour, I told her about my sons and my new grandson and showed her photographs. Miss Hattie never indicated to me any regret that she had never married nor had children of her own.
As she finished looking at the last photograph, she said, “I so enjoy talking to you, Dorthea. Thanks for filling me in on your family and your trip.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I’m always delighted to spend time with you.” I paused, but said nothing further.
She seemed to sense my uncertainty. “What is it? There’s something you want to tell me, isn’t there?”
“Yes. You are very perceptive.”
She smiled. “Well, tell me!”
During our many morning teas, I had told Miss Hattie about my childhood, my parents, my family. I had found her a good listener and a good friend. “Well,” I began, “I’ve been going through the rest of my boxes.”
“Among the papers and photographs in my mother’s boxes, I found my birth certificate. My father’s name is on it.”
“And you’re surprised?”
“Not really, no. He was married to my mother. In those days, she would not have admitted that anyone else was my father.”
“Do you think someone else was?”
“No, I don’t think so. My mother had four kids. I doubt she had time for an affair.”
Miss Hattie smiled. “Well, I guess you’ll never really know.” She paused. “Can’t they do DNA? Couldn’t they compare yours to your siblings?”
“You know, I believe you’re right.” I shrugged my shoulders. “But, I think for now I’ll let that sleeping dog lie. There seem to be other issues.”
I paused and looked down at my feet. It was difficult to tell even a good friend what I had learned.
“Go on,” Miss Hattie urged me. “Tell me.”
Her encouragement enabled me to say the words: “My mother considered giving me up for adoption. I found a letter from an adoption agency, providing my mother with information on how she could arrange for her child’s adoption immediately after the child’s birth; it was dated just a month before I was born.“
Miss Hattie said nothing, just letting me continue.
“Why she kept the letter from the adoption agency, I can not imagine.“
“Perhaps she realized it was a mistake. Maybe she kept it to remind her not to do that again.”
I smiled. Miss Hattie’s words seemed like a logical explanation, but I didn’t think it was likely. “But why did she consider giving me up at all?”
Miss Hattie shrugged. “There are many reasons women consider such things. Maybe her husband wasn’t your father, and she was afraid he would find out. Maybe she felt they couldn’t afford another child. Maybe she was emotionally at the end of her limit.”
I nodded and sipped my tea. “Yes, you’re right. It could have been all of those things, some, or none. I’ll never know.“ I paused and then said: “Working with students for thirty-five years in the classroom taught me that there are many reasons why a parent might decide to give up their child. In fact,“ I wryly considered, “I knew a few parents who should have given up their children!“
Miss Hattie laughed, as did I. “Yes, yes. It really isn’t funny, though, is it?”
“No, not really.” I held on to the handle of my teacup and fingered it. “Perhaps I might have been better off, growing up in a home where my parents had chosen to have me. My life might have been quite different.”
“Do you wish that it had been?”
Miss Hattie’s question startled me. I had never thought about it before. “I don’t know. I truly don’t know. I can’t change it anyway, so there’s no real reason to think about it.”
Miss Hattie nodded in agreement with me. “It does make me think of five-year-old Catherine Fuller, though. Might she still be alive today — an active and happy 15-year-old — if she had had different parents than David and Eileen Fuller?“
“So you have not forgotten our little Catherine?”
“No, of course not. I’ve just been too busy with my own family and issues. What do you think? Was Eileen Fuller a good mother?“
Miss Hattie smiled. “I’m not a mother. Maybe I’m not qualified to answer that question.”
“Don’t be silly. You taught school for years. You know a great deal about children and how they should be raised.”
Miss Hattie put her finger to her chin, like the philosopher thinker. She looked up and then at me, not pausing at all. “I don’t think I saw Eileen and Catherine together enough to be sure if Eileen was a good mother. What kind of a mother lets her husband, the father of her child, hit that child?“
“So you think that happened?”
“Yes, I do.”
I thought for a moment about my own childhood. “I always wondered that about my own mother, especially when I was younger. But, as I got older, not only did I give up depending on my mother to protect me (she rarely did anyway), but I assumed that my mother was in her own self-protection mode, as much as her children.“
Miss Hattie agreed. “Abused women seem to act in similar ways. I suspect that your mother and Eileen Fuller were very similar, too.”
I nodded. “No doubt. I sometimes wonder now how my mother would have reacted if I had confronted her and said: ‘Why didn’t you help me? Why didn’t you help us?’“
“And what do you think she would have said?”
“I’m not sure, but I suspect she would have argued that she was too wrapped up in her own problems.”
“You are a very wise woman, Miss Hattie. How do you know so much?” I asked.
“No special abilities, my dear, just a lifetime of observing the behaviour of others. Teachers tend to do that, you know.”
“True.” I smiled and put my empty teacup and saucer down on the coffee table. “You know, you’ve never told me much about yourself. What was your childhood like?”
Miss Hattie crossed her arms and stared out the window. “My mother died when I was only two years old while trying to give birth to my baby brother who also died. My father committed suicide a month later. I had no living relatives willing to take me in. I grew up in an orphanage.”
I stared at Miss Hattie and felt tears come to my eyes. How cruel life can be, I thought. Who takes care of the children? “I’m so sorry,” I mumbled, but the words felt inadequate.
“You don’t need to be. Everyone bears burdens.”
“What was the orphanage like?”
“Pretty much like the boarding school Jane Eyre went to. I loved that book as a child because it seemed to me to be exactly what my life was like.”
“I had one very good friend and one very special teacher. They made my life worthwhile, and the teacher inspired me to become a teacher myself. It is possible to make gold out of lead, you know.”
I smiled. What an indomitable spirit, I thought. “Oh, Miss Hattie, what a wonderful mentor you are!” I stood up and crossed the space between us and gave her a hug. “Thank you for everything,” I said.
“Of course,” she mumbled.
I stood and looked out the window, then returned to my seat. The sun was shining, though it was a cold January day. “You know,“ I said, “if I couldn’t ask my own mother those questions, maybe I could ask Eileen Fuller.“
“An interesting idea.” Miss Hattie smiled.
This is what you were waiting for all along, weren’t you? I thought.
For another thirty minutes, Miss Hattie and I talked about how and when I might approach Eileen Fuller to talk to her about Catherine’s death. When I left, full of confidence and hope, I was determined to carry out the plans we had made together.
Disclaimer: Let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.