(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“Oh, God! Not that again! She doesn’t give up, does she?”]
When I awoke the next morning, I was determined to follow-through with Hattie’s request that I contact her youngest brother, Matthew. I understood why she wanted to know the truth. I knew that I would want to know if I were in the same situation. Hattie told me that she had been almost like a second mother to her two younger brothers, who were five and eight years younger than her. The gap in their ages was another reason why she wondered about her parental lineage.
Hattie‘s brother, Matthew, was seven years younger than her, making him “young” by Hattie’s standards, although today I knew I was going to find a man in his early 80’s. Now retired, Hattie said he had spent his life in construction, taking advantage of the ever-changing-and-growing landscape of Vancouver’s skyline. His wife, Betty, had been a housewife and mother, raising their two children through the 50’s and 60’s, but Hattie said she didn’t know her or the children very well.
I called the number Hattie had given me — Matthew and Betty lived in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood in East Vancouver — and hoped I would be able to make arrangements to meet with at least Matthew that day. A woman’s voice answered. “Hello,” she said.
“Hi. Is this Betty?”
“Yes, it is.”
I introduced myself and explained that Hattie wanted me to talk to her and her husband on Hattie’s behalf. Betty seemed surprised, and a little confused, but I told her that I didn’t want to go into details over the phone. “Could I come and visit you and Matthew?” I asked.
Betty hesitated. “Well, I suppose so.” She paused and I waited. “Why do you want to see us?” she asked again.
I explained everything again, but with little detail, just saying that I was Hattie’s friend and she was trying to find out some information about the family. Betty finally asked if she could talk about it with Matthew first, so she left the phone for a moment. “All right,” she said when she came back. “When would you like to come over?”
We arranged for me to visit them that afternoon, and after she gave me directions to their house, I said good-bye and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon doing my own routines and chores. I thought about dropping by Hattie’s place to tell her what had happened, but I decided not to. Hattie had a telephone, but she rarely answered it; she said she didn’t trust them much, and I never bothered to ask her what she meant by that. If I wanted to give her a message, it was usually better to drop by or slip a note under her door.
At 2:00, I left my apartment, caught the Number 5 bus on Robson Street and rode downtown, where I switched buses and rode the Hastings bus past some of the seediest and most disreputable parts of downtown Vancouver. I never liked riding the Hastings bus in that area, but eventually we got into the better parts of East Vancouver and I got off the bus at Renfrew, right near Hastings Park and the P.N.E.
I walked to Triumph and found Matthew and Betty’s home within a couple of blocks. This area of Hastings-Sunrise, between Nanaimo and Boundary and Broadway and Burrard Inlet, still had a large concentration of older, single-family homes. Matthew and Betty’s was a typical 1940’s bungalow — basically a box divided into four or five rooms — but the yard was well-kept and the house looked well-cared for. The houses were close together and garages had not been built with the original homes. Driveways, if there was one at all, usually just allowed the owner to park their car off the street and a few owners had built carports, looking oddly out of place since they didn’t match the homes.
At the front door, I rang the bell. Within a few minutes, an elderly gentleman, who I assumed was Matthew, greeted me. “Hello,” he said. “You must be Dorthea.”
“Are you Matthew?” I asked.
“Yes. Come in.”
Matthew was a man who had not aged well, certainly not as well as his sister, Hattie, if indeed Hattie was his sister. He was in his early 80’s but he looked 100. Bent over, crippled, walking with a cane, he slowly moved to the living room. “I don’t move as fast as I used to,” he said to me, “but I always git to where I want to go.”
He led me into a small living room which looked as though it had been decorated in about 1945 and not a thing had changed since then. The couch and matching chair were a faded pale green with a floral design. The end tables and coffee table, all made of matching mahogany, showed not a speck of dust, and plastic still covered the lamp shades. “Sit down,” Matthew said. “Welcome to my humble home.”
I took a seat in the matching chair and he immediately sat on the right end of the sofa. I got the feeling it was the only place he ever sat. Nearby was a small table with newspapers and magazines, the TV Guide, and the TV and DVD remotes.
I was wondering where Betty was when Matthew said, “Now what is all this about?”
“I’ve become a good friend of your sister, Hattie. We live in the same building in the West End. I visit her every week, and I often run errands for her. Yesterday, she asked me to do a favour for her.”
Matthew seemed uninterested, almost detached. I waited for him to respond.
“Well, go on,” he said, almost a little irritably.
As he finished his sentence, a woman appeared at the door. Hattie had told me that Betty was five years younger than Matthew, but she looked even younger. The contrast between her and Matthew was quite remarkable. Instead of five years between them, they looked as though they had twenty years. While Matthew was wearing an old, faded black t-shirt and a pair of jeans, Betty was dressed in an attractive wool black suit with a red blouse. She wore small pearls at her ears and a matching necklace. Her blonde hair was cut short and curly. She was short — about my height at 5’3” — but she stood tall. Based on what Hattie had told me, she had to be in her late 70’s, but she had few lines in her face and she moved like a woman ten years younger. I suspected that she had spent far more time on her appearance than she had on the living room furniture. From the minute she had arrived in the room, she had taken control.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “I assume that you are Dorthea?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m just going to bring us some tea,” she said. “Can you wait until I get back to talk about whatever this favour is for Hattie?”
“Certainly,” I said, and then she disappeared. Matthew and I stared at each other, wondering what we should say to fill up the time. “Hattie tells me you have been in construction all your life.”
“Yes. It was hard work, but it paid the bills. Unfortunately, I was involved in an accident shortly before I was due to retire. I fell about twenty feet and broke my leg badly. It’s never healed quite right. But I have received good compensation for it, so I guess I won’t complain.”
“Twenty feet. That’s quite a fall.”
“Yes, tell me about it,” he said, as he rolled his eyes. “It never should have happened. A temporary railing wasn’t secure enough. I fell right through it.”
“Oh, dear, that’s awful,” I said.
“Yeah, I got through four years of the war without a scratch. Kinda crazy, isn’t it?”
“You were lucky. What did you do in the war?”
“I joined up almost immediately. I was only 19, but I wanted in. I thought it would be a great adventure, but it didn’t turn out to be that way. I went to England first, and then I was involved in D-Day and moving inland to reach the Germans.”
“You must have quite a few stories to tell.”
“I do indeed.” But Matthew apparently did not want to tell them, as an uncomfortable silence descended.
We waited for Betty’s return and, fortunately, it wasn’t long. “Here we are,” she said, as she entered carrying a tray with three cups and saucers and hot tea steaming from each cup. She set the tray down on the coffee table and asked if I wanted sugar or cream. Since I didn’t, she handed me a cup, and then gave one to Matthew. She picked up her own and sat down on the sofa beside Matthew.
“Well, Dorthea, Matthew and I are certainly curious. What is Hattie up to now?”
I found the question a little odd, as though Hattie was someone who was always stirring up trouble, but I decided not to question it. Not now, at any rate. “Hattie and I have become good friends,” I began. “We get together at least once a week for a chat, and I run a lot of errands for her.”
“Is she well?” Matthew asked.
“That’s good to hear.”
“Do you not call her often?”
“What’s the point? She never answers the phone.”
“True,” I said, and smiled. “I’m sure she’d enjoy a visit, though.” I really didn’t want to tell them that she never left her apartment. I wasn’t sure if they knew, and if they didn’t, I didn’t want to reveal Hattie’s secret.
“We don’t have a car,” Matthew said. “And we rarely take the bus. With all of my physical problems, it’s hard for me to do much. I prefer sitting here.”
Betty smiled and said nothing. She didn’t seem to have a thought in her head, and I wondered just a little what this couple had in common.
"Hattie says you have two children," I said, trying to keep the conversation going.
“Yes, two.” Now Betty seemed more willing to talk. “Gerald, our oldest, is 57. Margaret is three years younger.”
“Do they live here in Vancouver?”
“Yes. Gerald is an architect and Margaret teaches school. Neither of them is married, though, so we have never had any grandchildren. But they’ve been good children, so I can’t complain.”
I could tell that Betty really wanted to complain, but she said nothing. She turned to Matthew, as though looking for some kind of silent support that she had never been a grandmother, but he seemed uninterested in the conversation. “What is it that Hattie wants to know?” Matthew asked, clearly irritated that I had not yet come to the point.
Betty tried to smooth over her husband’s gruffness. “Yes, please tell us about that. I’m sure you don’t care to hear more about our children.”
“Not at all,” I said. “I have two children, too, and I always like to brag about them. But I am here on Hattie’s behalf and so I should probably get to the topic. Hattie asked me if I could find out whether or not her mother — and your mother, Matthew — was really her mother.”
Matthew shook his head and raised his voice. “Oh, God! Not that again! She doesn’t give up, does she?”
Betty added: “Hattie has suggested to us several times that Martha was not her mother. But Matthew and I think she’s wrong.”
“Why?” I asked.
Betty and Matthew looked at each other, as though they knew a lot of things I didn’t know and they weren’t going to tell me. “Well,” Betty said. “Because Hattie has no other memory of a different mother. Because she looks like Martha. And why on earth wouldn’t Martha tell her if she had adopted Hattie?”
“I’m not sure that’s evidence,” I said. “If Aunt Matilda is Hattie’s mother, not Martha, then she could still look like the family. And in those days people didn’t always tell about adoptions, and records were sealed. As well, if Mattie were born out-of-wedlock, either by Matilda or Martha, this would not be something that they would want to admit to.”
“Nonsense!” shouted Matthew. “It just isn’t true. My mother didn’t have a child out of wedlock — Hattie or anyone else. Aunt Matilda was an old maid all her life. I doubt that a man ever looked at her! My mother was a good woman, and I resent my sister suggesting otherwise. I will not have her good name sullied!”
Betty touched Matthew’s leg, as though to calm him. “Now, Matthew, don’t get your socks in a knot. Remember your blood pressure, dear.”
I smiled, appreciating Betty’s levity. “I don’t think that Hattie thinks disrespectfully of your mother, Matthew. I think she believes that there’s been a secret in the family for a long, long time and she wants to know, for sure, who her mother was before she dies. I think I would feel the same as her, if I were in her shoes. Do you think you have any information that would help her prove either case?”
“No,” Matthew said, “and I wish you’d tell Hattie to just drop this. She has brought it up over and over again for years. I’m sick of it.”
I stayed for another half an hour, but it did not change much of anything. Matthew and Betty assured me that they had no knowledge of anything which might prove that anyone else but Martha was Hattie’s mother, and they repeatedly suggested that I drop it. I could see that I was going to get absolutely no where, and I finally ended the conversation by asking if they could give me Matthew’s brother’s phone number in Kelowna. Matthew, at first, did not want to do it, but Betty finally talked him into it.
“There have been issues between Hattie and James,” Matthew said. “I don’t want them to start fighting with each other again.”
I assured him that I would do all the talking, and I would try to mend fences, if necessary. Matthew did not believe that James would have any information for me, and even as I left, he kept trying to discourage me against calling James, but I was not dissuaded. This was about Hattie, not her brothers. I felt Hattie deserved answers, and I had every intention of trying to find them for her.
- Continue to Chapter 3.
- 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.