(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“I was just wondering why you were so interested in other people’s family business.”]
For three days, I made no more inquiries about Hattie’s past. Instead, I used the time to do some much-needed housecleaning, write some letters to friends, and volunteer at the Seniors’ Network thrift store. I didn’t much care for working in retail, even if it was for the benefit of seniors who had little money, but my volunteer position at the West End Community Policing Centre had come to an abrupt end when they closed it down.
I had enjoyed talking to people who had come into the policing centre for assistance. They were often upset and needed a calm voice to assure them that they would be fine, and then I would help them to file a report about their missing items (they were usually victims of theft) and how to make sure their credit cards wouldn’t be used by thieves. I even sometimes helped them get new items and get a taxi to their hotel room (because they were usually tourists). Working at the Thrift Centre had its rewards. People were often very needy of inexpensive clothing, and we provided a service for them which was invaluable, but I had preferred the policing centre.
After three days, I began to worry whether or not Margaret would ever call me. Even if she happened to remember anything, I wondered if she would manage to keep the piece of paper, or the quarters. When the phone rang about mid-day on the fourth day since I had seen Margaret, I wasn’t particularly thinking it would be her.
But the Caller I.D. said “PAY PHONE” so I eagerly picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” I asked with great anticipation.
“Is this Mrs. Parsons?”
“Yes. How are you? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m still at The Powell.”
There was a pause. I didn’t want to hurry Margaret, or her memory, but anticipation of what she had to tell me was great.
“Mrs. Parsons, I remembered who I gave that letter to.”
“Who?” I asked calmly, though my heart was beating fast.
“I gave it to Dorothy.”
“Dorothy,” I said, and unable to recall if she was a member of the family and, if she was, where she fit on Hattie’s family tree, I asked, “Who is she?”
“Oh, I don't know. I can't keep family relationships straight. She's the daughter of my Aunt Gladys and Uncle David. So that makes her my cousin, doesn't it?”
Not really sure, I just said, “Yes.”
"Yeah," she said, "I think she's my cousin."
I was relieved to realize (and remember) that Dorothy was family and therefore could be tracked down more easily. Now, slowly, I was visualizing Hattie’s family tree in my mind. I had already spoken to Joseph, Dorothy’s brother, but I had not yet located Dorothy because I did not know her married name, nor did Hattie. Joseph and Dorothy were, of course, cousins of Hattie’s.
“Yes, I know,” I said.
I didn’t want to confuse Margaret in any way.
“I haven’t met Dorothy, but I’ve met her brother, Joseph.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. I could picture Margaret with a frown on her face, trying to get it clear in her mind who Joseph was. I silently cursed myself for bringing up another name and perhaps causing Margaret to be more confused.
“So,” I said, trying to get back to the topic at hand, “you gave the letter, which your Aunt Mary had given to you, to your cousin, Dorothy.”
“Do you remember when that was?”
Silence again. “No.”
“Well, let’s see. Aunt Mary gave it to me before I got sick. I was still teaching. That was at least a decade ago.”
“Yes, I think Mary said it was about then.”
“When I got sick, I knew I had to give it to someone else to take care of it.”
“Maybe after her husband died?” I suggested.
“Yes, maybe. Her husband committed suicide, you know. She was still getting over it when I saw her then.”
“No, I didn’t know that. How terrible,” I said. “That must have been hard for her.”
"Maybe. It was kind of like she was prepared for it. But I don’t think she wanted to be single."
As Margaret spoke, I had grabbed my piece of paper with the family tree on it. I knew that Dorothy was married and Hattie told me her husband had died shortly after their marriage. So I knew that Margaret’s idea that she had given the letter to Dorothy shortly after George’s death didn’t jive. But that was not surprising: Margaret was often confused.
“It really doesn’t matter when you gave it to her, Margaret. I’m so glad that you called and told me what you did with the letter. I’ll have to find Dorothy now. Do you know what Dorothy’s married name is?”
Again, there was silence. Margaret sighed and said, “Mmm. I’m not sure. Fox? Fulbright? It started with an F, I’m sure.”
“How did you know each other?” I asked.
“She was about 20 years older than me, but I remember her at a few family gatherings. She sometimes talked to me and played with me. In the family, everyone felt sorry for her because of her husband’s suicide, and she never remarried. I was about six when that happened. She lived here in Vancouver and now and then I’d see her in a store or something. We didn’t keep in close touch, but when I wanted to get rid of the letter, I thought of her, and I called her. We met for coffee and I gave her the letter.”
“So you were never in her home? You don’t know where she lived or if she lives in Vancouver now?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“Did she work?”
“Yes, she was a real estate agent, I think.”
“What company?” I asked.
“I don’t remember. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right, Margaret. What you have told me will help a lot. I’ll talk to Hattie soon and we’ll see if we can find her. I can’t thank you enough for calling me. Is there anything I can do for you?“
Even to such a simple question, Margaret struggled to respond. “Yes. No. Well, no. If you see my parents, just tell them I’m ok, will ya?”
I remembered that the last time she had insisted I say nothing. Margaret clearly had mixed emotions about her parents, but then that was not exactly new for those of us who were within the so-called normal range of human thinking.
“Can I tell them where you are?”
“No.” Margaret was emphatic in that response, the only one during the entire conversation.
We talked for just a few minutes more; a conversation with Margaret was slow and ponderous. I told her to keep my number and call me any time she wanted to talk or if she ever needed my help. She told me that she would, but I doubted that she was capable of keeping the number or remembering to call. We said good-bye and, as I put the phone down, I realized that I might not ever talk to her again. I silently vowed that I would go back down to The Powell some day and visit with her again.
Hattie’s family, I was learning, had many tragedies. The mystery of her birth was only one of many:
- Joseph and his wife, Jane, had lost two children on the same night in a horrible car accident.
- Hattie’s brother, James, and his wife, Mary, had never been able to have children, though they had wanted them.
- Hattie had told me that another cousin, Donald, had died in Africa, working as a missionary. He was the son of William Walter Creighton and his wife, Christine Bessie Debolt Creighton.
- And now I had learned that Dorothy’s husband — George Fulton — had committed suicide.
I wondered if Hattie even knew about that. I was anxious to go down to her apartment and fill her in on the news. I looked at my clock — 2:00 p.m. — it was a perfect time to go down.
I was just beginning to head out the door when the phone rang again. This time it said “PRIVATE” on the Caller I.D. and I almost didn’t answer, but decided to do it after all. You never knew if a phone call might bring me closer to information about the letter.
“Hello,” I said, hoping it would be a short conversation.
“Why are you still doing this?”
I realized it was the voice of the same mysterious caller from a few weeks ago.
“Still doing what?” I asked. I was annoyed.
“You know what I mean.”
I was certain now that I was not listening to the voice of neither of Hattie’s brothers. “Are you a friend of the family?” I asked.
“You could say that. Why?”
“I was just wondering why you were so interested in other people’s family business.”
“I’m a good friend,” he said.
“Are you doing someone a favour?”
“Hey, I don’t answer questions. Knock it off. Why are you still continuing with this thing with Hattie?”
“Because she wants me to.”
“She won’t like the answers.”
“How do you know that?”
“Trust me. She won’t like the answers. You should stop now before it’s too late.” And then he hung up.
At least I had confirmed that this was not a relative. But apparently someone in the family considered it important enough to ask a friend to call and harass me. This behaviour did not deter me. Instead, I felt more determined.
I had been headed for Hattie’s apartment when the phone had rung, so now I headed out and down the stairs to the fourth floor. I knocked on Hattie’s door and she quickly let me in. Hattie, dressed in yellow today, was anxious to hear the news, so we ignored the small talk. The last time we had spoken together, I had told her how Mary had given Margaret the infamous letter. So now I told her about my visit with Margaret, and then the phone call three days later, the one I had received that morning.
After Hattie had heard the whole story, including that the letter was given to Dorothy, she said, “Well. What a tangled web! I can’t believe all the twists and turns it has taken. What are the odds, after more than twenty years, and the exchange of hands — Matilda to Martha, Martha to Mary, Mary to Margaret, and now Margaret to Dorothy — that I will actually see it?”
“I don’t know, Hattie, but I think they actually may be pretty good. For some reason, each woman who was given this letter felt that it was important to keep it safe. I think there’s a good chance that Dorothy still has it. What can you tell me about her?”
Hattie shook her head. “Not much really. She was nearly 20 years younger than me. I remember when she was born, I guess. I had a teaching job, even though they were few and far between. I didn’t see her parents, Uncle David and Aunt Gladys, that often. Just at a few family gatherings. I do remember seeing Dorothy when she was a baby and a toddler. But through the years, I just heard from them now and then. They moved away from Vancouver — up to Prince George, I think. But Dorothy came down to Vancouver to go to school at UBC.”
“Did you meet her then?”
“I think we might have exchanged a phone call or two, but that’s about all.”
“Did you know her husband?”
"That’s going to make it more difficult to find her. Margaret didn’t know Dorothy’s married name. Hattie, did you know that Dorothy’s husband committed suicide just a year after they were married?"
Hattie’s face sank. “Oh, no, I didn’t know that. How awful. Poor Dorothy. Did she remarry?”
“Apparently not. Margaret says she thinks she was a real estate agent for many years.”
Hattie seemed to be struggling to cope with all the news I had for her. “My goodness,” she said. “I can’t believe all this tragedy in my family, and I hardly knew about it. Joseph and Jane’s two children dead. Dorothy’s husband killing himself. I almost dread to think what else you might turn up.”
“Hattie,” I said slowly. “Maybe you’d rather that I stopped. I can, you know. All you have to do is say the word.”
Hattie touched her forehead with her hand. She tossed her head and her long hair, tied at the back, moved slightly. She looked out the window and then back at me. “No. I want to do this. I’m sorry to hear about the tragedies, but not knowing who my real parents were is almost a tragedy too. I want to know. I need to know. This is important to me.”
I smiled and reached across and grabbed Hattie’s hand.
“I understand. I really do. And I won’t give up.”
“What next then?” she asked.
“Do you know what Dorothy’s married name was?”
“Margaret didn’t know either, except she thought it started with an F. Perhaps Fulbright or Fox. Do those names ring any bells?”
“No. I’m sorry. I wish they did. I’m sure I knew Dorothy’s married name at some point, but I am not sure. I could go through my old address book, page by page, and see if it pops out at me. I could start in the F’s.”
“Good idea,” I said. “In the meantime, I’m going to visit your cousin, Joseph, again since he is Dorothy’s brother. If anyone knows where she is, perhaps he will. He wasn’t terribly co-operative the first time around, so I may have to consider my approach. Do you have any suggestions?”
Hattie shook her head. “I wish I did. I can’t understand why there is all this secrecy and stubbornness, particularly among the men in the family. My brothers, my cousins. Why?”
“I’m not sure, Hattie, but I think that this secret, whatever it is, is known to some of these people. Or at least they think they know the secret.” I thought about telling Hattie about my two mysterious phone calls, but decided against it. I didn’t want her to worry.
“You may be right,” she said. “So when will you go to see Joseph?”
“As soon as I can."
“Could you not just phone him?”
“I could. But I think this requires face-to-face discussion. It would be too easy to dismiss me over the phone.”
“I suppose you know best.”
Hattie and I said our good-byes and I headed back up to the fifth floor.
As I unlocked the door to my apartment, Mark stepped out of his. “Hi, Dorthea. What’s new?”
“Margaret called me.”
“She did? Good for her. Did she remember who she gave the letter to?”
“Yes. To a cousin named Dorothy.”
Mark seemed pleased and I told him I’d be going to see Joseph again as soon as I could. I decided I needed to discuss with someone about the two threatening phone calls, so I told Mark about them. He sucked in his breath and then said, “Oh, I don’t like the sound of that at all, Dorthea. Maybe you’d better stop this.”
“No, I’m not going to stop. I can’t believe that anyone is plotting my murder, but I do think they want me to stop looking. This secret, whatever it is, is clearly something that some people find hard to face. But I believe that things should be out in the open.”
Mark shook his head. “Not at your expense, Dorthea. Think about this. I think you should tell Hattie to forget it.”
I was sorry that Mark wanted me to quit. I was hoping for a wiser, saner comment, some kind of suggestion as to how I could figure out who this person was and go directly to the source about it. I didn’t want to be talked out of finding out who Hattie’s parents were.
“Thanks, Mark. I appreciate your concern,” I said, probably somewhat unconvincingly, “but I’m not giving up.”
Mark sensed my disappointment at his response. “Dorthea, listen. I’m just concerned about you.”
“I know, but that isn’t what I wanted to hear. I need to do this for Hattie.”
Mark realized he wasn’t going to change my mind. “So what’s the next step?”
“I’m going to try to see Joseph tomorrow.”
“Good luck,” he said. “And, if you ever want my help again, I’ll be glad to do it.”
I spent the evening in my apartment, reading and listening to The Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, and Simon and Garfunkle. I know they’re out-of-date, but they belong to my era and I’ve always enjoyed their music. For a while, I forgot about Hattie and her search. I would tackle it first thing in the morning.
- Continue to Chapter 12.
- 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.