(A novel by Susan Overturf)
["The question had made both of them uncomfortable, like an unexploded bomb had just landed in the middle of their living room floor."]
I still remember the day that a science teacher at the high school where I taught warned the staff in a meeting that all of us would soon have to “get on board” because the information highway would soon be upon us and we would not want to be left behind. I chuckled at his words then, but as computers became more and more a part of my life, I realized that his predictions had not been far off.
Living in a world not far from the thoughts expressed in Orwell’s 1984, the internet has both invaded our privacy and enabled us to find lost friends and relatives. It’s hard to say that it has improved the quality of our lives, but perhaps in Miss Hattie’s case it could be said that it has. At least I was hoping that the internet might help me find the answers to the questions which had haunted her all her life.
Finding people on the internet is sometimes remarkably easy, especially if you are willing to put down a few dollars. Some sites offer background checks, as well as addresses and telephone numbers. The genealogical sites give complete family trees, but they do not provide the whereabouts of people. However, if one follows some of the genealogical chat rooms, there is often more personal information about individuals. This requires patience and a willingness to search rather oddly-titled conversations such as “ANYONE KNOW BEATRICE FIRTH OF SASKATOON?”
When I googled Hattie’s aunt’s name — Christine Bessie Creighton — I found two links. The first one was a University of Edmonton alumni website where Christine was an alumnus, but all it gave was her full name: Christine Bessie Williams Creighton. The second link was to a chat room where descendants of Creightons were discussing their heritage, and Christine’s name came up as someone’s great-grandmother. Needless to say, I was no closer to finding where Christine lived today, so I decided instead to see if I could find either her son, Maurice, or David and Gladys’s son, Joseph. In turn, Joseph might lead me to his sister, Dorothy.
Finding Joseph proved amazingly simple, and I marvelled that Hattie had no idea that he and his wife lived within blocks of her. There were only a dozen Creightons in the Vancouver phone book, and first initials or names eliminated all but two, which were listed as “J. Creighton.” The first call was a dead end, but the second was a winner.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.
“Good afternoon. Is this the residence of Joseph Creighton?”
“Is this his wife?”
“I’m looking for Joseph Creighton, whose parents were David and Gladys Creighton. Is that your husband?”
“Yes, it is. Who’s this?”
And so I once again told my story. Jane, Joseph’s wife, was friendly and agreeable to meeting with me. Both now retired, Jane said they had plenty of free time. I didn’t reveal much of my reason for visiting, except to say that I was trying to find out family information for Hattie. Jane invited me over the next day. I spent the remainder of my day working on my own errands and chores.
Hattie had no idea that her first cousin, Joseph, lived precisely four blocks away from her, even on the same street. I walked up Nelson street and found Joseph and Jane’s apartment building between Jervis and Bute. I buzzed their apartment, and Jane allowed my entrance into the building. I took the elevator to the eighth floor and knocked on #805.
A very large woman, tall and at least 100 pounds overweight, greeted me. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Jane, and you must be Dorthea.” She wore a colourful, elaborately flowered muu-muu. Or at least that’s what we called them when I was a young girl. It was loose and flowing, and I’m sure she felt comfortable in it, but it only accented her largeness all the more. I smiled and entered the foyer of their apartment. It was small and there was barely enough room for the two of us to stand just a few feet apart.
“Yes, I’m Dorthea,” I said. “Thank you so much for letting me come to see you and Joseph.”
Jane led me to the living room, just large enough for a under-sized faded couch, a matching (and equally fading) chair, and a small TV on a bookcase. Jane sat down next to a man, who I assumed was Joseph. Like his wife, Joseph was considerably overweight and their bulk bodies filled the couch and made it sink in the middle. I sat down on the chair, the only one left in the room.
“Thank you so much for letting me come to see you,” I repeated.
“No problem,” Jane said. “This is Joseph.” She pointed to the large man beside her.
I smiled. “Hello, Joseph,” I said. He smiled back at me.
“Why are you here?” Joseph asked, his first words. He was a man of perhaps 75, and his wife was clearly younger, perhaps by as much as ten years. But both appeared to have had difficult lives, their bodies looking bloated, overworked, and tired.
“I live just down the street, and I have become good friends in the apartment building with your cousin, Hattie Carlson. Do you remember her?”
Joseph’s eyes seem to glaze over, as though he were trying to see into the past.
“Yes,” he said, “I do.” She was the oldest daughter of Uncle William and Aunt Martha, wasn’t she?”
“She was a lot older than me. Is she still alive?”
“Yes, she’s 91.”
“Amazing! I never knew her very well. I went to James’s wedding — that’s her brother, you know, in about 1938. I was about eight years old and Hattie must have been in her mid-twenties. She didn’t pay much attention to me. She did a lot with the wedding arrangements, I think.”
“What about you, Jane?” I asked. “Did you know Hattie or ever meet her?”
Jane closed her eyes. “Mmmm. I don’t know. Let’s see. Maybe I did. Hattie and her brothers were a lot older than us. We got married in 1960, and James and Matthew were both married by then and Matthew and Betty had their kids. I think we met at both of Joseph’s parents’ funerals. Joe’s dad died in ’64 and his mom just four years later.”
“I’m not sure Hattie was there, Jane.” Joseph looked at Jane and Jane shook her head, as though she wasn’t really sure either.
“Oh, I remember now. I did meet her at Papa Creighton’s funeral — I always called Joseph’s father Papa. We’d only been married four years. Hattie must have been in her fifties at the time. I remember talking to her about her teaching career. I couldn’t believe how many years she had been in a classroom! I had three little babies at the time: our twins, Robin and Robert, who had been born in ‘61, and Peter, born in ‘63.”
“You must have had your hands full,” I said. “Did Hattie help with the children?”
“She did, actually. I remember she played with them for quite some time, even getting down on the floor and playing marbles with them.”
This sounded like the Hattie I knew, and it was a story I would enjoy taking back to her. But, as yet, I was learning nothing that would help Hattie in her search.
“Did you ever hear any stories in the family about Hattie and whether or not Martha — that would be your Aunt Martha — might not have been her real mother?”
Joseph looked directly at me and said nothing. Jane stared at the floor at first. The question had made both of them uncomfortable, like an unexploded bomb had just landed in the middle of their living room floor. There was a very long pause.
“I’m sorry. Did I say something to upset you?”
“No, it’s not that,” Jane said. “It’s just that we’ve heard this before.”
“How interesting. What have you heard?”
Joseph suddenly grabbed Jane’s arm. “You’re not going to tell this stranger anything about my family, Jane. You just keep quiet.”
I was embarrassed for Jane. She did not look at me.
“I understand if you don’t want to say anything, but Hattie has always wanted to know the answer to this question. She has asked me to see if I can find out for her. Wouldn’t you want to know who your real mother and father were?”
“Aunt Martha and Uncle William were her parents,” Joseph said. “And that’s the end of that.”
“What do you know?” I asked.
“Nothing. Not a thing.” And he turned to Jane and said, “And, Jane, don’t you say a thing.”
“I’m sorry to have upset you,” I said. “We won’t talk about that any more. How are your children? You said you had three.”
Jane immediately burst into tears, and I was appalled that my innocent question had brought such a reaction. Joseph apologized for his wife’s tears and then told me that their twins, Robert and Robin, were both killed in an automobile accident in 1979, the night of their graduation from high school. It was an all-too-familiar story that I had heard many times in teaching: Celebrating teens, mixed with cars, alcohol, and speed. There had been six students in the car, and they had all died when the driver lost control of the car and it wrapped itself around a telephone pole. “I am so sorry,” I said. “I was a teacher for many years, and I spoke at a number of memorials for students. I know how hard this is on the families and friends who are left behind.”
Jane had grabbed a kleenex nearby and was wiping her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry I was so emotional.”
“Please don’t apologize. I understand. What about your youngest child?”
“Peter,” Jane said, as though the name might break if she said it too loudly. “Yes, Peter. We haven’t seen him for two years.”
“What happened?” I asked.
Joseph grumbled, “He’s a coward, that’s what he is.”
Jane elbowed her husband and then looked at me. “He never got over his siblings’ death. He was 16 when they died, and he started using drugs. His grades went down, he started running with the wrong crowd. You no doubt know the story.”
“Yes, unfortunately I do,” I said. “Did he get off drugs?”
“No!” Joseph almost shouted. “We did everything for him, but he would do nothing to help himself! I finally told him to leave and never come back.”
“That was two years ago,” Jane said. “He was 40 years old, and had never had a decent job. He’d lived with us, and continued his habit.”
“He stole from us!” Joseph shouted.
“Dear, calm down.”
“I‘m so angry at him!”
“I know. But Dorthea doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I understand. I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough time.” Joseph and Jane both nodded. “Do you have any idea where he is?”
Jane answered for both of them: “He’s probably here in Vancouver, on the streets, supporting his drug habit by stealing cars. We don’t want to know. We told him we were through with him, and that was the end of it.”
Quiet descended on the three of us for a few moments. Jane and Joseph were no doubt thinking of their lost children, and I was thinking of my two sons who had done so well, one married and with two kids, the other single and happy in California.
I knew I would need to leave soon, as it seemed as though Joseph and Jane were not going to reveal anything they knew about Hattie’s parentage. But I decided to give it one last try.
“Are you sure,” I asked, “there is nothing you can tell me about Hattie?”
Jane looked at Joseph, as though she wanted permission to speak. Joseph shook his head. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Well, I should be going. I thank you for your time and for the conversation.”
Joseph remained sitting on the couch, but Jane got up and walked with me to the door. She opened it and stepped out into the hallway, motioning me to follow her. As soon as the door closed, she said, “Joseph won’t let me say anything, Dorthea, but I think there is something to the stories about Hattie.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, I’ve been married into this family since 1960. I’ve been to weddings and funerals and family gatherings. Over the years, I got to know Betty fairly well, that’s Matthew’s wife and Matthew is Hattie’s younger brother.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I knew Muriel fairly well, too. She’s Maurice’s wife. Maurice is William and Christine’s son. Betty was 15 years older than me and Muriel was 10 years older. They knew more about the family and the gossip.“
“What did you hear?” I asked, my heart pounding, hoping that Joseph would not appear at the door and refuse to let Jane tell me any more.
“There was always talk about Martha and Matilda, the two sisters. The gossip was that Matilda, who never married, had given birth to Hattie out-of-wedlock, and then her sister, Martha, had raised Hattie.”
“That’s precisely what Hattie has always surmised. But how do we prove it?” By using the personal pronoun, I hoped that I would encourage Jane to join into my little conspiracy theory.
Jane looked around her, as though someone might be listening to our conversation. She went back to the door and opened it slightly, apparently to see if Joseph was there. “I don’t know why I’m checking,” she said. “He never leaves that couch!” Then she went on: “I heard that Matilda wrote a letter and she left it with her will. When she died in 1963 in an airplane accident, I heard that the letter was given to Martha by the lawyer.”
“What was in this letter?” I asked.
“No one knows. But the family gossip was that it was about Hattie’s parentage.”
“Do you know if the letter still exists?”
“No idea. There are plenty of people who want it destroyed, my husband included, if it’s ever found.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m not sure,” Jane said. “It’s as though there’s more to the secret than just that Matilda had a baby out-of-wedlock. That’s not much of a scandal these days, but it was then.”
“Do you get the feeling it’s the men in the family who want this secret kept?”
“Yes, I do. I’ve only talked about it with Betty and Muriel, and that was a long time ago.”
“If Matilda gave the letter to Martha, what do you think might have happened to it after Martha died?”
“My guess is she would have given it to a woman in the family. Maybe Mary, James’s wife, or Betty, Matthew’s wife.”
“Why not to her sons? Why not to Hattie?”
“Whatever is in that letter is not something that Martha wanted Hattie to see. And the men in the family seem bound to destroy the letter, while the women seem to want to keep the secret but not destroy the letter.”
“Interesting. I appreciate your telling me this, Jane. If you think of anything else, will you call me?”
“I’ll try,” she said, “but I won’t have much freedom to talk. Joseph hardly ever leaves the house.”
“Would you ever go to visit Hattie? She lives only four blocks away.”
Jane hesitated. “Yes, I might.”
I gave Jane my phone number and address, and Hattie’s, but I told her that it would be best to contact me first if she ever thought of visiting Hattie. I said good-bye and took the elevator down to the main floor. As I walked back down Nelson, I thought of the strange visit. Two people, overweight and underexercised, alone and sad with the loss of all of their children, no goals or activities in their lives. How many people are like that in the West End, I wondered. And then my mind went to the letter: What was in that letter, and where is it now? Jane thought, if it still existed, that a female relative would have it. That gave me some new avenues to explore.
- Continue to Chapter 6.
- 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.