(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["I guess if you have already waited 91 years for the answer to a question, you are willing to wait a few days more."]
The next morning, as I left my apartment to run some errands, I ran into Mark. He had just said good-bye to his customer and apparently had a few moments to talk.
“Dorthea,” he said, “stop and say hello. I haven’t seen you in ages. What’s up?”
Mark always looked clean and neat. Earrings in his ears, a solid-coloured shirt (usually red, green, or blue), a pair of clean Levi’s with sometimes a pattern sewn into them. I was always willing to talk with him because he was quite personable, and he knew when the chatting had gone on long enough. He had a radar that seemed to read when my limits had been met.
“Oh,” I smiled, “I had a great visit at Christmas with my two sons, my daughter-in-law, and my new grandson in Calgary.”
“Wonderful,” Mark lilted.
Everything to Mark was “wonderful” or “stupendous.” He was a man with a forever happy outlook on life. I admired his ability to do it, and he could not have had an easy life. He told me once that he came out of the closet about his sexuality when she was still in his teens — not an easy thing to do.
“It was a lot of fun. How about you?” I asked.
“Oh, I did my usual things: worked at the soup kitchen, spent some time with friends.”
Mark had already told me that his family — what was left of them — had never accepted his homosexuality and had completed deserted him. He seemed to take it in his stride, with no bitterness nor quarrel. To him, it was just the way things were.
“On Christmas Eve, we rode the Christmas lights train at Stanley Park. We were the only ones there over forty, I think, but it was still a hoot.”
“I’ve never been on that. Is it fun?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for. It’s pretty silly, really, but it’s for a good cause.”
“If my grandson ever comes to visit, he’d probably like it.”
“Yes, he would.” Mark smiled one of his big smiles and glanced at his watch. “Oh, dear, next client is due in just a few minutes. I’d best go get ready for him. But, before I go, tell me in ten short words or less what you’re up to these days. Any more ghosts?”
Mark always asked me about Catherine’s ghost. It had become a joke between us.
“No ghosts, but I am trying to uncover a mystery for Miss Hattie.”
Suddenly, Mark was torn: go back into his apartment and get ready for his next client, or stay here and listen to my story about Miss Hattie.
“A mystery? What kind of mystery?”
“Well, I really can’t talk about it now, Mark, and I would have to have Hattie’s permission to tell you. So I’d better wait before telling you any more details.”
Mark was not offended, as I knew he wouldn’t be. He nodded his understanding and then added, “But do keep me informed, won’t you?”
“I will,” I said, as I headed towards the exit door for the stairs and Mark went back into his apartment. I considered whether or not I might be able to involve Mark in Hattie’s mystery. He might be helpful to me, and he might not. I decided to put it on the back burner and think about it for a few days.
In the meantime, I made it a point to find time to call Hattie’s brother, James, in Kelowna. For several days I had no luck at all: the phone would ring incessantly, but no one picked up. They had no answering machine or voice mail, so I just had to keep trying. One day, when I had almost given up ever connecting, someone answered on the fourth ring: “Hello. Carlson residence.” The voice was rough and angry.
“Mr. Carlson?” I asked. “Mr. James Carlson?”
“Yeah. So who wants to know?”
“My name is Dorthea Parsons. I live in the West End in Vancouver, and I’m a friend of your sister’s, Hattie.”
“So?” A man of few words, apparently.
“Your sister has asked me, as a friend, to make some inquiries of her family.”
James snorted. “More like she wants to butt into everyone’s business would be my guess.”
“Well, finding out who her real mother was is certainly her business and no one else’s,” I remarked, somewhat defensively, and then immediately worried that I had just closed the door on any meaningful conversation with James. At least thirty to forty seconds passed in silence.
Then James shouted so loud I had to pull the receiver away from my ear.
“God damn it! Why is she bringing that up again? Hattie always was too big for her britches. She bossed me around for years. Well, I’m not interested in being bossed around by her any more. This conversation is over, Mrs. Parsons.”
“Wait! Please! Don’t hang up,” I said, somewhat shaken at how quickly James’s attitude had become hostile. “Hattie is your sister and she loves you. She has always wanted what is best for you.”
Another snort. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, too.”
“Please, Mr. Carlson, would you allow me to just ask you a few questions?”
It seemed like an eternity before James finally responded.
“Oh, I suppose. It’s better than talking to Hattie. But I’ll answer what I want to answer. Ok?“
“Of course, Mr. Carlson,” I said in my politest voice.
“What do ya want to know?” James growled.
I wasn’t sure where to begin. “Well, did you ever hear anything about Hattie and who might be her mother?”
“Of course. Her mother was my mother.”
“I know that’s how she was raised, but surely you realize, Mr. Carlson, that your sister believes that someone else might have been her mother.”
“Yeah, I know. She thinks that Aunt Matilda was her mother.”
“So you know that story?”
“Of course, I do. Hattie brought it up all the time.”
“Really? How often?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She would just use it against me sometimes. If I’d done something wrong she’d say, ‘You’re not really my brother and I don’t have to take care of you.’ That kind of stuff. I got sick of it.”
“Did you ever hear anything that might prove Hattie’s theories?”
“No. It was stupid. My mother was her mother. Ask Matthew. He agrees with me.”
“I’ve already talked to Matthew and his wife.”
“Did you? What did Matthew say?”
“His opinion is similar to yours, Mr. Carlson.”
“Well, that don’t surprise me.”
I was running out of places to go. “Mr. Carlson, what about your wife?”
“What about her?”
“Well, is she there? Could I talk to her?”
“No, she isn’t here. Why? What could she tell you?”
“Well, she’s been married to you for a long time. Perhaps she’s heard gossip. Women in a family often gossip.”
“She knows nothing.”
“How do you know?”
“‘Cause if she knew anything, she’d have told me.”
The roadblocks stayed up throughout the remainder of our conversation. I could tell that the conversation would simply go in circles. “Mr. Carlson,” I said, by way of saying good-bye, “Thank you for your thoughts. I would like to speak to your wife some day, so I may call back. Would that be all right?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
And then the dial tone buzzed in my ear.
I was disappointed. I hadn’t expected much from James Carlson, but I had hoped he would be a little more civil. I suspected that his gruff mannerisms were a cover, and I thought it was possible that he knew much more than he was willing to tell me.
I decided to go down to Hattie’s apartment and tell her about the phone call. It was clear that we needed new avenues of investigation. Once settled in Hattie’s apartment, I told her about the conversation with her brother, James.
“I’m not surprised,” Hattie said. “He and I were just like oil and water. He always resented me and my ‘meddling,’ as he used to call it.”
“What about his wife, Mary?” I asked. “Would she know anything?”
“She might, but I didn’t know her as well as Betty, Matthew’s wife, since they have always lived in Kelowna.”
“Mary wasn’t there, but I have a feeling that James might have not allowed me to talk to her, even if she had been there. I think it’s worth trying to reach her at some point. I think family secrets sometimes stay with the women.”
“But Mary is not blood-related to me — just an in-law.”
“I know,” I said, “that it’s a long shot. But I still think that, as a woman, she might have heard or seen something. Sometimes women in the family knows these things when the men don’t. Is it all right with you if I try to reach her?”
“Certainly. Of course. This is certainly much more complicated than I expected it to be.” Hattie looked discouraged and I could understand why. Both of her brothers had been noncommital, James almost hostile, and nothing new had been learned. In essence, Hattie had been told, once again, to stay out of it.
“Don’t give up, Hattie. This has been a mystery for a long time, and you will find roadblocks, just as you always have. I think we need a new tactic as well. I need to track down more of your relatives. Can you give me a family tree, names and dates of birth and dates of death, along with any phone numbers or addresses you still have?”
“Of course,” she said, as she stood up and went to her small table and took out that old address book I’d seen before. “What do you want to know?” she asked.
I suggested that Hattie tell me the names of her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins and their children. Whatever she knew would be helpful in my search. She had given me a rough outline before, but this time she was more thorough:
Her grandparents were Clifford James Creighton and Eliza Jane Matthews. They had married in Vancouver in 1896 when Clifford was 20 and Eliza had been 18. Over the course of the next eleven years, they had had five children: Matilda Eliza, born in 1898; Martha Marie, 1900; James Donald, 1901; David Roger, 1902; and William Walter, 1909. Eliza Jane had died during the delivery of her third son and fifth child, in 1909. Clifford had never again married, grieving for Eliza Jane for the rest of his life. Matilda, the oldest daughter, had never married, and had died in an airplane accident in 1963. Martha had married Hattie’s father, William Carlson, and they’d had three children (Hattie and her brothers, or so she believed). The third child of Clifford and Eliza was James Donald who had died, a year after his mother’s death, in 1910. David Roger, the second son and fourth child, had married Gladys Gertrude and they had had two children, Joseph and Dorothy. William Walter, the youngest child whose mother had died giving birth to him, had married Christine and they had had two sons.
All of Hattie’s aunts and uncles were dead except for Christine, wife of William Walter, the youngest son and the child who had never known his mother since she had died giving birth to him. However, as well as Hattie’s two brothers, she had four first cousins, three of whom were still alive: Joseph and Dorothy, the children of David and Gladys; and Maurice, the surviving son of William Walter and Christine. Some of her cousins also had children, but I decided I would make Hattie’s Aunt Christine top priority and also work my way through the cousins. We might consider the children of Hattie’s cousins, as well as her niece and nephew, at a later date.
“Hattie,” I said. “What do you know about your first cousins?”
“Not much. Aunt David and Aunt Gladys had two children, a son and a daughter. Joseph married a woman named Jane. They had twins, I remember, but I haven’t had any communication with them in years. Dorothy married, too, but I don’t recall her husband’s name. She had kids, too. Uncle William and Aunt Christine had two boys, but their youngest, Donald, was killed in Africa while working as a missionary there. Their other son, Maurice, married and they have kids. But, again, I don’t know where they are.”
I pondered the various avenues of research I could begin. Finally I said, “I think I’m going to try to find Joseph or Maurice, as their last names will be Creighton. They can lead me hopefully to their wives and children. Joseph will probably know where his sister is, and Maurice will probably know where his mother, Christine, is. How does that sound to you?”
“It seems reasonable, but I don’t see how any of these people will know about my parentage.” Hattie was sounding discouraged again, and a little bit nervous about disturbing all of her relatives.
“I will tread lightly, Hattie, rest assured. I am hoping to learn family gossip which may lead me to the family secrets. People who are interested in genealogy also learn a lot of interesting things about the family. If I can find someone who’s worked on your family tree, that would be very helpful.”
“But I don’t see how you will find these people,” Hattie replied, still sounding discouraged.
“Don’t give up yet,” I said. “These things take time. It’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You have to find all of the pieces and eventually things fit into place.
“You sound as though you’ve done this before,” Hattie mused.
“Well, in a way, I have. I have always been interested in genealogy and I’ve studied my family ‘begats‘ quite a bit. And I have sometimes found some interesting gossip.“
“Such as?” Hattie seemed curious.
“Well, I learned that one of my great-great-great aunts had two children out-of-wedlock and never married. The family gossip was that the father had been an Indian.”
“Oh,” Hattie said, clearly somewhat shocked. “Did you reveal that secret?”
“Well, it’d been family gossip for years. I didn’t uncover anything that exciting, really.”
This little story seemed to invigorate Hattie again, but I knew how the teaching of “keeping family secrets” can be ingrained into you from the time you are a child. Hattie wanted to know who her mother had been, but she was also afraid to upset the family order.
“What next?” she asked.
“I’ll begin with the obvious: telephone books, birth and death records, that sort of thing. And these days the internet is a good way to find people, too.”
Hattie grumbled. “The internet. I get so tired of hearing about that. We got along fine without it.”
“It has its down sides, Hattie, I’ll admit that. But it can be a useful tool if you know how to use it. If I can find some of your relatives and learn the truth for you, and it’s because of the internet, will your opinion change?”
“Maybe,” she said wryly.
I left Hattie about half an hour later. I warned her that it might take me several days of searching before I found something solid. She said she would be patient. I guess if you have already waited 91 years for the answer to a question, you are willing to wait a few days more.
- Continue to Chapter 5.
- 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.