(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["I believe it became a secret between the two of them. Neither one of them wanted it to ever be revealed."]
I thought that Hattie was probably facing an uphill battle to break down the walls of her family’s secrets. It almost seemed as if there were a conspiracy — especially among the men in the family — to keep the truth from ever being revealed. This did make me wonder if the secret might possibly be darker than even Hattie had imagined. But, even if she was indeed an illegitimate child, raised by either her aunt or even adopted by a total stranger, this was a secret that Martha Carlson wished to carry with her to her grave — and she had.
Hattie had handed me a difficult task, but I wasn’t prepared to give up yet.
The day after I visited with Matthew and Betty Carlson, I went back to see Hattie. She responded quickly to my knock on her door, and we settled ourselves in the living room. She was anxious to learn what I had discovered, and I was sorry that I couldn’t tell her more.
“Your brother isn’t willing to say much, Hattie, and he doesn’t want to believe that his mother might have lied to all of you, or that she bore a child out of wedlock. Betty seems just as convinced that there is nothing to your theories.”
Hattie leaned back in her chair and seemed a little dejected.
“Well, I’m not really surprised. He adored Mother and he would never believe she had ever done anything that he considered immoral. He certainly doesn’t want her reputation spoiled.”
“I believe you are right, Hattie. If he knows something, he’s not going to reveal it if it in any way taints his mother’s name. What do you think, Hattie? Is this a deep, dark secret, or is it really just a simple case of one woman having a child and giving that child to her sister to raise?”
Hattie placed her arms on the chair and leaned forward.
“To be honest, Dorthea, I just don’t know. Mother was a very quiet, dignified woman, and she rarely talked about herself or her family. I was afraid to ask questions because, even when I made small attempts to find out anything, my mother would tell me that she would not discuss it. She tended to make light of the whole thing. I stopped asking questions because I just knew that she would not answer me. The closest I came to learning anything was when I asked about Aunt Matilda. But she was very discreet even about that.”
“I need to know more about your family, and your mother’s family. It will help me in my conversations with your relatives and in my research. Can you tell me more about Martha and her siblings and parents?”
“What about your grandparents? If Matilda or Martha, their only daughters, disgraced themselves by finding themselves pregnant, what would have happened?”
“My grandmother died in 1909, while giving birth to William, my uncle. So if either Matilda or Martha got in a family way without benefit of marriage, their Papa, my grandfather, would have been one formidable man to deal with. He never remarried and he grieved over the death of my grandmother for years. He was a man of inherited wealth, but also a hard-working banker, who hired nannies to care for his children.“
“What was he like? Do you remember him?”
“I was 15 when he died, so I spent time with him, but my grandmother died four years before I was born. I never knew her. Grandfather was austere, dignified, and quiet. He smoked a cigar, I remember, that used to make me feel sick when I was near him. He wasn’t a happy, jolly man, and I was always expected to be very quiet when we were in his house. I always got the feeling that both my mother and my aunt were a little bit afraid of him. Our family didn’t visit very often, but we did have a traditional Sunday afternoon family gathering.”
Hattie paused, as though in her mind’s eye she was recalling those afternoons long ago.
“I never really liked going much. The children were allowed to play and have a bit of fun, but that was for the boys more than girls. As the oldest, I was the one who took care of the younger ones — my brothers and some of my cousins, though not all of them, had been born before my grandfather died.”
“Did the family gatherings end after your grandfather’s death?”
“Pretty much. We didn’t see my aunts and uncles and cousins nearly as much after that.”
“Do you think that your grandfather was always austere, or did his wife’s death changed him?”
“Everyone tells me that he changed, though I wasn’t around when it happened. But a lot of the family said that it was the combination of his wife’s death in 1909 and his son’s drowning in the lake the following year that really changed him. James was only ten years old; he died in 1910 so I never met him. I suspect that the remaining children in the family were raised by nannies and sitters and that his children made little attempt to approach him about anything.”
“So,“ I speculated, “if either Matilda or Martha realized they were pregnant, without benefit of marriage, it is unlikely they would have gone to their father, or even their three brothers for help.”
Hattie was adamant in her response.
“Absolutely! I believe it became a secret between the two of them. Neither one of them wanted it to ever be revealed. In those days, you know, a child born out-of-wedlock was a terrible shame on the young woman and her family.”
“It’s possible, Hattie, that they kept their secret so well, including falsifying documents, that we’ll never find out the truth.”
“True. It’s possible. I have wondered about that new DNA stuff. Wouldn’t that tell me if I’m one of theirs?”
“Yes, I think it could, Hattie. I believe that you can verify siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, parents, and grandparents with DNA. But you need DNA from two people, and no one can be forced to provide it in a situation like this. Your mother’s body, or your aunt’s body, could be exhumed, but you would probably need the permission of your brothers to exhume your mother’s body. I’m not sure if anyone would have to give permission to exhume Matilda’s body, since she never married and has no children. It is certainly a pathway we can take, if no one is willing to tell us what they know. As well, it might give you a definitive answer on who is NOT your mother, but it might not tell you who your mother is. And the issue of who your father is would also not be answered.“
Hattie nodded her head in agreement.
“Yes, there are complications, but we can hold back that idea until later. I would like to think that eventually someone in my family knows something and will tell me. What’s your next step at the moment?“
I pulled out my small notebook from my backpack. “Your brother, Matthew, has given me James’s number in Kelowna. Shall I call him, or do you want to?”
“No. No. I don’t want to talk to him.”
“Why not? What happened between you two?”
“Well, James was five years younger than me, and Matthew was seven years. I took care of both boys, almost like a mother, particularly when I was about fifteen and they were ten and seven. James — maybe it was because he was the oldest — always seemed to fight me more than Matthew. He’d argue with my instructions, whether I told him it was time to get ready for bed or time to go to school. He just always seemed side opposite.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “No other problems?”
Hattie shook her head, but stared directly at me.
“Well, when he got older, he just became difficult about everything. He started dating Mary, his wife, when he was just eighteen and she was sixteen. I told him he was too young, and so was she. He got very mad at me, and told me to stay out of his business. I know they began to have intimate relations — you know, sex — and I told him to quit before she got pregnant. Oh, my, was he ever mad at me! After that we just argued about everything. The funny thing is, they didn’t get married until 1938, when he was 20 and she was 18. So maybe he did listen to me, but I still thought they were too young. When he and Mary got married, they moved to Kelowna and that’s where they have lived since. James rarely communicates with me — by letter or by phone. I’m not sure he even knows I’m still alive.”
I watched Hattie as she told me her story and I could see that she was still bothered by her brother’s rejection of her. “It doesn’t seem like much reason to spend your life not communicating with your sister, does it?” she asked.
“I think he must have had other reasons, Hattie. It doesn’t seem to me as though you two have really any major fences to repair.”
Hattie frowned. “I don’t know. My brother can be very stubborn. I’m not sure he cares about me at all.”
“I’m not sure that’s the case, Hattie, but we’ll soon find out.”
We talked a little bit longer. I told Hattie I would call her brother as soon as I could. She looked sad when I left, and I worried about whether or not this exploration was a good idea. But I knew that, if I had been in Hattie’s shoes, I would have felt the same as she did. I would want to know.
- Continue to Chapter 4.
- 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.