(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["Dorthea, I’m wondering if you would consider doing something for me?"]
❤️ I felt warm and content, sitting by my gas fire in my cozy living room, with a blanket covering my legs and a heating pad warming my back. For an hour, I had been immersed in Catherine Cookson’s Our Kate, an autobiography I had read at least a dozen times, each time more amazed at the fortitude and endurance of the human spirit.
Catherine Cookson‘s books have never been on the so-called English literature classics list, and my high school English teacher, Miss Davis, would have never accepted a book report from me on a Catherine Cookson novel. It was an argument I had had with Miss Davis long ago, perhaps knowing that one day I, too, would be a high school English teacher and would let my students read Catherine Cookson if they wished, but I was no longer concerned about what Miss Davis thought. Instead, I was absorbed in the trials and tribulations of a young Catherine Cookson and her single mother. Although this was an autobiography, it read like a novel, and it was so easy to see how she was able to take her life experiences and turn them into fictional stories.
🍃 The wind blew the last of the fall leaves against the window, though the majority were gone, raked up long ago by apartment building caretakers, sucked up by the infernally noisy street-cleaning machine. For mid-November, it was an exceptionally typical day: grey clouds and a wan sun, cool but not yet cold, and once-beautiful yellow and red leaves, missed by the sucking machine, reduced to mush on the sidewalks and in the streets. Winter had to be just around the corner. I could hear a few cars pass by, but students were in school and others were at their jobs. I heard a street person rattle by with his grocery cart. That was it. I lived in a pleasant cocoon.
Since moving to my small fifth-floor apartment in Royal Manor, located on Nelson Street in the West End of Vancouver, I had developed a fondness for the neighbourhood and specifically for my building. My thirty-five years as a high school English teacher were behind me and, although I often wished that my husband could still be with me, I had learned to live with my widowhood. I had made friends with people in the building, and I occupied myself with daily walks, fitness classes, reading, and volunteering. I had chosen to rent the apartment, thinking I would buy eventually, but in just a few short months my apartment, and even the building, seemed like home to me. I was beginning to doubt that I would ever leave, though I was old enough to know that one’s plans can never be certain. Things can change even in a heartbeat — a lesson I had learned all too well the day my husband collapsed — but for the moment I was content.
📚 The minutes ticked by, and I kept reading. I knew, however, that it was time to raise myself from the chair. Despite my great desire to continue reading (and I even knew the ending anyway), I was all too aware that Hattie would be waiting for me, as I always visited her on Tuesday mornings. She also didn’t like it when I was late, so I finally pulled myself away from my book and prepared to leave: a short shower, a quick brush of my teeth, some facial cream for my dry skin. I slipped on a pair of comfortable black suede-like pants and my favourite red sweater, and wore my “indoor shoes” — fur-lined, comfortable moccasins with beads on the toe and fur around the top edge — and then quickly straightened up the apartment. To some, it may seem odd that I cleaned before I left, but I like to return to a tidy home.
📍 Hattie’s apartment was one floor beneath mine — directly beneath me, in fact. It took less than a minute to go down the flight of stairs. I knocked on Hattie’s door precisely at 10:00 a.m. She was so used to my visits — and I was her only one — that she didn’t check in her peep hole to identify her guest. Seconds after I knocked, I heard the chain slide off, the bolt turn, and Hattie stood before me. I decided that she must have been waiting right at the door for my knock.
“Dorthea,” she smiled. “How nice to see you again, as usual. Please come in.”
“Thanks, Hattie,” I said, as I stepped in, “but you shouldn’t just open that door before knowing for sure that I’m the one who’s there.”
“Oh, I knew it was you.”
😉 She gave me a little wink and turned away, heading towards the kitchen.
💕 Today she was wearing her pink dress and slippers.
During my visits to her, I had learned that she owned seven sets of dresses and matching slippers, each in a different colour: pink, blue, green, yellow, white, black, and red. Each day, she washed the previous day’s dress by hand and hung it to dry in the bathroom, and each day she wore a different colour. When I first met her, she wore too much make-up — powder, rouge, and lipstick — but recently, on my recommendation, she had softened it, and it looked more natural. She admitted, as well, that it was too expensive to keep using so much. Her hair, a beautiful silver-gray, was always brushed and pulled back behind her neck, tied with a ribbon in the same colour as her dress, of course.
☕ Our ritual was well established. She made a cup of coffee for herself and a cup of cocoa for me. If it was warmer weather, we switched from hot drinks to cold, usually some juice or lightly flavoured ade. She never let me help her. It seemed to be some kind of a question of pride with her: if she couldn’t put together some drinks for a visitor, then it was time to leave and go to the old folks’ home.
I had received the message long ago not to try to do anything in her kitchen, so I went to the living room, sat down in the rocking chair, and picked up an old copy of National Geographic. Hattie had a huge collection, dating back to the 1950s. She put a new one out each month, and I always found them interesting. This one had a cover article about African elephants. I had already browsed through several spectacular photographs when I shouted to Hattie, “How are you doing in there?”
☕ “I’m just fine,” she said, as she walked into the room, carrying a tray with our hot coffee and cocoa.
I placed the magazine back on the side table, stood up and grabbed the tray from Hattie, and placed it on the footstool between us. Hattie sat down in her usual chair, and I returned to the rocking chair. We sipped our drinks (black, of course, without sugar or milk) and chatted about the latest gossip in the building and how dreadful the weather had been. At 91 years of age and suffering from agoraphobia, Hattie never left her apartment, so she always enjoyed listening to my tales, and I’ve always enjoyed story-telling.
“How’s Mark?” she asked. Mark was my next-door neighbour, a 30-something hairdresser who had his own home business. Illegally, of course, but everyone was willing to look the other way. Mark was a personable and friendly man, always willing to help others, and no one begrudged him his right to earn a living. His customers were quiet, coming and going at various times of the day, usually without my ever noticing they were there.
“He’s fine,” I said. “We talked just the other day. His business is going well, and he feels he’s getting a handle on his debts. He’s worried about his mother, a widow, who is having trouble taking care of herself.”
“Is she ill?”
“I think she may be showing signs of Alzheimer’s. Mark’s not sure. He’s taking her to the doctor next week.”
Hattie shook her head. “That Alzheimer’s. What a dreadful disease. I guess I’m not going to get it.”
I smiled. “No, Hattie, I think you escaped that one!” In fact, Hattie’s mind was amazingly clear and precise. She rarely forgot anything. Sometimes I thought she was better at that than I was, and I am nearly thirty years younger.
👻 “Well, have you seen Catherine’s ghost lately?” she asked, changing the subject. Her mind may have been sharp and not likely to forget anything, but she tended to change topics often, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to remember the past more easily than the present. When I had first moved in, there had been stories of a little girl’s ghost in my apartment, which was located just above Hattie’s. It had led me on an investigation to discover why the child had died, and Hattie had helped me in that investigation. Now solved, we felt rather smug that we had had something to do with unravelling all the riddles.
“No,” I said in answer to Hattie’s question, “I don’t think Catherine will come around again. She knows that things are settled, and she’s content.” I didn’t really know if I believed in ghosts. I had never actually seen Catherine — or any ghost, for that matter — but sometimes I had felt her presence. Or, at least, I had felt something. Maybe it was just my vivid imagination.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Hattie said. Frankly, I doubted that Hattie believed in ghosts either. She and I had both shared a common career — teaching English to high school students — and this had given us a special bond even though she had begun teaching thirty years before I did and ended her teaching career just as I was beginning mine. Although we had met each other only a short time ago, I felt as though I had known her all my life.
“Anything new going on in your life?” I asked.
“No, no, nothing,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason in particular.”
There was a moment of silence not an uncommon event and something that occurred easily because we had become good friends. The stillness and our inner thoughts were broken by Hattie’s question: “Dorthea, I’m wondering if you would consider doing something for me?”
Although I sometimes volunteered to shop for Hattie — and I had bought her a DVD player so that she could watch movies — it was not often that she specifically asked me to do something for her, so my interest was peaked immediately: “Why, of course, Hattie. What is it?”
“Well, it’s very personal,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, trying to hide my surprise. Hattie had always been willing to talk to me about her teaching career — and we had many common experiences — but she had never told me many personal things about herself: her family, perhaps even a long-ago lover. I couldn’t imagine what she might have in mind. “Hattie, you know I’ll do anything for you. Just ask. What is it?”
Hattie smiled, but hesitated. “This isn’t easy for me to talk about.” I said nothing, waiting for her to continue. “I come from a fairly large family. I‘m the oldest of three children; I have two younger brothers, James and Matthew, who are quite a bit younger than me. My mother was the second daughter of five children. She had an older sister and three younger brothers.”
“You must have had a lot of family get-togethers as a child,” I said.
“No, not really. There were some: weddings and funerals and some holiday gatherings.”
Hattie stared out the window for a moment, and I waited for her next comment. She turned her head again and this time looked directly at me. “I loved my mother. She was good to me, but — “She turned again to look outside and then at the floor. “But I have always wondered if she really was my mother.”
She waited for my reaction.
“Really,” I said matter-of-factly. “That must have been difficult to grow up with. Why did you suspect that she might not be your mother?”
“Well, I never had any proof. They were just feelings, and little bits of conversation I overheard over the years.”
“What did you hear?” I asked.
“I once overheard my father say to my mother, ‘You will not tell Hattie anything — ever!’ They were having a terrible argument and I was listening at the door of their bedroom. I couldn’t hear everything, but I did hear that one sentence very clearly.”
Hattie paused for a moment, as though she were remembering that moment at her parents’ bedroom door.
Then she went on: “Another time, I heard my two younger brothers, James and Matthew, giggling with each other, and when I asked them what it was about, they said that they’d heard my father tell my mother that I was a bastard. They asked me what it meant. I was so ashamed and shocked that I just ran away and cried. I was about ten, five years older than James, and I didn’t know what the word meant. But I instinctively knew it was something shameful. I learned later, of course, what it meant.”
“Did you ask your mother about these things?”
“No,” Hattie said, almost loudly, “of course not! I would never have thought to embarrass my mother by telling her that I thought she wasn’t my mother! And, well, I guess I just didn’t want to know. It was easier to believe that it was just gossip and not really about me.”
I nodded my head. "Yes, of course, I can understand that."
Did anything else happen to make you suspicious or question what you had always been told?” I asked.
“Yes. I had an Aunt Matilda. She was my mother’s older sister. Aunt Matilda never married and she was killed in an airplane crash in 1963 when she was something like in her mid-60’s. She travelled a lot, and on that particular trip she had been to Europe, mostly in Italy that time, I think. She was already back in Canada, though, and on her way home to Vancouver when her plane crashed as it was taking off from Montreal. No one survived. Over one hundred people were killed.“
“I’m sorry. That must have been difficult.”
“Well, I was only fifteen years younger than Aunt Matilda, so I was 50 when she died, and I went to her funeral. But when I was a little girl, she always sent me letters from wherever she was — just to me, not to my two younger brothers.”
“And you thought that was odd,” I said.
“Wouldn’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, I think I would.”
“I asked my mother about it once, and she said that since Matilda had never had any children of her own, she liked to use me as her ‘make-believe daughter.’ At the time, it seemed like a reasonable and plausible explanation, but I still wondered, especially since I heard these other bits of information.”
“Did she continue to communicate with you a lot after you grew up?”
“Yes, she did. She sent me post cards from her various places she visited, and she often called or came to visit me, even here in Vancouver.” Hattie paused and leaned over to a small table with a drawer in the top. She opened the drawer and pulled out a framed photograph and handed it to me. “That’s her,” she said. “That’s my Aunt Matilda.”
It was a black and white photograph, taken in the early 1900’s I guessed, of a young woman wearing a long white dress with 3/4 length sleeves made of lace. She was slightly turned away from the camera and looking back at it with a soft smile on her face. She was neither beautiful, nor ugly, but rather plain. Her eyes had a sparkle, though, and a defiance. Her hair — probably brown — was cut short, divided in the middle, and slightly curled under at the ends. The edge of the photograph faded into white and someone, probably Matilda herself, had written at the bottom: "Matilda Eliza Creighton, Vancouver, BC, 1916."
“She’s lovely,” I said. “High school photograph?” As I asked the question, I passed the photograph back to Matilda.
She took it, and placed it in her lap. "Yes, I think so. My mother gave it to me after Aunt Matilda died." Hattie looked at the photograph again, and then stretched over her armchair to place it back in the drawer.
“What did your aunt do?“ I asked. “Since she was single, she must have had a way to support herself.”
"She was tough, and way ahead of her times. In those days, many colleges and universities wouldn’t accept women or, if they did, they couldn’t graduate. As well, she didn’t have a lot of money since her father had to support four children. World War I was a good thing for her, in that so many men went away that there were plenty of jobs. She got her start by working as a secretary and filing clerk for a company that was making uniforms for the soldiers. She had few skills, so she took some courses in typing and shorthand. She was smart and she was good at what she did. She eventually moved up into administrative positions. She learned how to run a company — by literally doing it herself — and, eventually, she owned her own clothing company. That was terrible, as far as her father was concerned — remember, my grandmother died in 1909 while giving birth to my Uncle William — but he did help her out occasionally and she inherited a bit when he died in 1928."
“And she never married?” I asked.
“No, never. She told me the right man had never come along. I could relate to that, so I never asked her more questions. She led a busy life: she was active in the fight for women to get the vote, she volunteered downtown at a local soup kitchen, she saved her money, and she travelled. I think she was happy.” Hattie paused and seemed to be picturing her aunt in her mind. “I think, you know, that I loved her in a special way, even though she wasn’t my mother. I felt as though we were, somehow, connected.”
“How often did you see her after you had grown up?”
“Oh, she rarely missed contacting me less than three or four times a year, and sometimes much more. I always got a birthday card and a gift from her. Sometimes she’d call and we’d go out for coffee together. We could talk about things easily. I really liked her.”
“You never asked your mother if Matilda was your mother. Did you ever ask Matilda?”
Hattie’s face turned once again to shock. “Ask her?” she cried. “No, never.” She shook her head vehemently. “Never. I would never have asked such a thing.”
“How did your mother feel that you kept in close contact with your aunt, even after you’d grown up?”
“She didn’t seem to mind, although sometimes I have to admit that she acted as though she were jealous.”
“That’s not surprising,” I said, “if she knew that Matilda was actually your mother.” I decided to head down a different path: “What about your birth certificate? Have you ever seen it?”
“Of course,” Hattie said, “and it lists Martha Marie Carlson as my mother and William Carlson as my father. There is nothing on it to indicate anything otherwise.”
“And you were never told that you were adopted?”
“No, never. I was always led to believe that I was Martha and William’s oldest child and only daughter. But now, I’m an old lady and I may not have a lot of time to live. I want to know the answer before I die. If Martha wasn’t my mother, who was? And, who then, was my father? Do you think I’m crazy to want to know?” Hattie looked puzzled and a little sad.
“Of course not,” I replied. “I understand completely.
After a moment of silence, I asked Hattie (but it was really almost to myself), "But where do you suppose I should begin?" I actually had several ideas, but I thought it best if Hattie gave me the directions. This was, after all, her story, and her mystery.
Hattie put her hands together in her lap and leaned forward, as though the actions might help her to think better. “That’s hard to answer. My maternal grandparents are gone, of course. And all of my mother’s siblings are gone, except for the widow of my mother’s youngest brother, my Aunt Christine. I haven’t heard from her in years, and I don’t know how to reach her. It’s possible she might know something, but there were eleven years between the oldest and the youngest sibling in that family, and she’s only an in-law. She would only know something if her husband had told her, and he might not have known much, being the youngest in the family.”
“Well, there must be a few people alive in the next generation. Your siblings, and your cousins?”
“Yes, it’s possible that some of them know, and most of them are alive. It’s the next generation away, so I’m not sure what they might know, but I think that’s where we’ll have to begin. I also have a niece and nephew — the son and daughter of my youngest brother, Matthew — and my cousins had some children. We might find some answers there.”
“Possibly, yes,” I said. “But I think the closer we stay to your mother’s generation, the better. I should try to track down your Aunt Christine, but I can start with your two brothers. Are you close to them? Do you ever see them?”
This question seemed to cause Hattie pain. She raised her hand to her forehead and shook her head. Then she sighed and looked straight at me. “I rarely see either of them. My brother, James, lives in Kelowna. He‘s married but they never had any children. My other brother, Matthew, lives right here in Vancouver. He‘s also married, and they have two kids, a boy and a girl. The girl, Margaret, has been in a lot of trouble, I think, but I don’t know much about their son, Gerald.”
My mind was racing. There was a lot to do here, and Hattie was giving me a lot of information and not much time to absorb it. I reached into my backpack and grabbed a notepad and pen. I began to take notes, and I knew it would be necessary to create a family tree, so I could keep the connections clear. “Hattie,“ I said, “let’s try one thing at a time. Do you know how I can reach your brother, Matthew, who lives here in Vancouver?”
“Of course.” She reached over and, from the same drawer where she had found Matilda’s photograph, she now pulled out a small book. It looked old and well-used, and she flipped it open and began scanning several pages. “Here it is,” she said.
As Hattie gave me her brother’s address and phone number, I jotted it down. “I will contact them tomorrow,” I promised her.
“Good,” she said. Her face seemed to relax, as though I had taken a great burden from her. “You’ll let me know what happens?”
We chatted for another hour, Hattie never again mentioning her nearly century-old question about the identity of her mother. When I ended our visit, I told her that the next time I came I would have some information for her. It might not be the information we needed, but it would hopefully lead us to the next step. Hattie smiled and thanked me. She closed the door, bolted it, and threw the chain. I waved at her through the peep hole, not knowing if she was actually there. When I returned to my own apartment, I felt invigorated: I had a new mystery to solve.
- Continue to Chapter 2.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Table of Contents of Chapters in Secrets.
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.