(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“Jane says that your Aunt Matilda wrote a letter and it was given to her sister — the woman you thought was your mother — after her death.”]
Hattie had first asked me to search for her true identity during mid-November. My first tentative attempts — a visit to her brother, Matthew, and his wife, Betty; a phone call to her brother, James, in Kelowna; and a visit to her cousin, Joseph, and his wife, Jane — had not netted me much information. Jane’s belief, however, that there was a letter, written by Matilda, Hattie’s aunt and the woman she suspected was really her mother, seemed like a good lead.
After visiting with Joseph and Jane, I wanted to go back and ask Hattie’s brothers if they knew anything of this letter. However, Christmas activities encroached on my time. My son, Michael, and his wife, Lorraine, had given me my first grandchild — a boy, Patrick Michael — six months before, and I wanted to go to Calgary and share Christmas with them. My son, Peter, who still lived in California, also joined us. It was the first time we had all been together since I had retired.
I returned from Calgary in early January while Vancouver was having one of its rare snow storms. My flight was delayed by several hours, and when we finally landed, it took a long time to get transportation into the West End. Because of the snow, all the main roads were clogged with slow-moving traffic. When I finally got home, I was cold and tired. It took me several days to get my life back in order, but within a couple of days, I was able to return to visit with Hattie. I had not spoken to her for nearly a month, and I felt somewhat guilty about that, even though Hattie knew that I had been gone.
Hattie greeted me warmly and we settled in quickly. We talked about our holidays and I showed her photographs of my new grandson. She told me that she had had a pleasant Christmas, but I knew that she had been alone, and I felt a tiny pang of guilt that I had not been here to spend some time with her. She seemed to enjoy hearing about my busy festivities, though.
Finally, we got down to the topic which interested both of us; I had not had time to tell her about the mysterious letter, only that I had gone to see her cousin and his wife.
“Hattie,” I said, “I haven’t had time yet to tell you everything I learned from your cousin, Joseph, and his wife, Jane.”
“Oh? I thought they had not been very helpful.”
“At first, they weren’t. Your cousin, Joseph, seems to rule the roost in that house and he would not discuss it, nor would he let Jane say anything. And when we talked about their children, Jane broke down crying.”
“Oh, dear, why?”
“You didn’t know?” I asked.
“Jane and Joseph had twins — a boy and girl.”
“Yes, I know.”
“They were killed in an automobile accident on the night of their graduation from high school. Didn’t you know?”
“No, I didn’t.“ Hattie frowned and shook her head. “Oh, dear, isn’t it amazing that you can live in the same city and not know what’s going on with your own cousin and his family? I haven’t seen Joseph in years. I can’t remember when. I knew Jane when they first married. But then their lives got busy, and so did mine, and I just didn’t keep up with them.”
“Well, they’ve had quite a difficult time, I think. Their twins were killed in the car accident, and their third child — Peter — became a drug addict. He lived with them for a while but they finally threw him out of the house. They think he’s living on the streets now, supporting his drug habit by stealing cars. Just think, Hattie, your cousin’s son could be one of those homeless guys walking along Nelson Street.”
Hattie said nothing; she seemed upset.
“I had no idea. I wish there were something I could do.”
“There is little that you can. They seem quite locked up in their sorrow and even self-pity. Both are overweight and clearly don’t leave their apartment often.” As soon as I said the words, I regretted them. Hattie, however, seemed totally oblivious to my criticism and did not see it as a remark against her own lifestyle.
I continued before she had a chance to say anything: “Despite that, I think Jane may have started me on a very good lead.”
Hattie perked up. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Jane says that your Aunt Matilda wrote a letter and it was given to her sister — the woman you thought was your mother — after her death.”
“Yes, I have heard rumours about this letter. Did Jane say what was in this letter?”
I was surprised. “You knew?” I asked, ignoring her question. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was just a rumour. I had no proof. I thought it best to let you find out things on your own.”
This seemed like a reasonable explanation. However, I might have asked both of her brothers about this letter if I had known of its existence. Now I would have to go back to talk to them again.
Hattie became impatient with my silence and asked again, “What did Jane say was in the letter?”
“No one seems to know the answer to that question.”
“How unfortunate! But does it matter? Surely this letter can’t still exist.” Hattie seemed to be talking to herself, rather than to me. I had a feeling she had been through this thought process before — many times.
“Apparently, Jane thinks that it does still exist,” I said.
“She told me that ever since she married Joseph, she has heard family gossip about this letter. She thinks that the women in the family have been the keepers of the letter, not wanting to reveal the secret, but not wanting to dishonour Matilda‘s and Martha’s wishes. The men, Jane says, want the gossip ended and, if they could get their hands on the letter, they would destroy it. She just seems to have a gut feeling that this letter still exists, held in trust by various women in the family.”
Hattie seemed confused, and I’ll admit that I didn’t have any answers.
“But why?” she asked rhetorically. “For what purpose? Why not give it to me, if it belongs to me? Why not destroy it if it contains such terrible information about the family? And who would have it after all this time?”
Hattie asked me too many questions at once and, in truth, I had few answers, but I tried to quell what seemed to me to be her rising panic: “Well, I think that the envelope may not say that the letter is for you. And no one knows what this letter says, so no one knows for sure who the letter is about and who it’s for. But there seems to have been a long-standing assumption among family members that it had to do with you.”
“So who did Jane think might have this letter?”
“She thinks it’s been given to women in the family. It seems that Martha most likely kept it for many years and then prior to her death, she passed it on to someone else.”
“Why not to me?”
Hattie was beginning to repeat herself, but I understood her frustration.
“I don’t know. Maybe because the letter does indeed contain information about you and who your mother really was.”
“Why would my mother — Martha — not want me to know the truth?”
“Maybe she loved you. She wanted you to be her daughter, even if you weren’t really hers.”
Hattie frowned. “Perhaps. But it seems so cruel not to tell me.”
“There may be more to the story than we have so far, Hattie. It’s possible that this letter has information in it that will hurt you a great deal. Are you prepared for that?”
“I’m 91 years old, Dorthea. There’s nothing that can shock or hurt me now.”
“Ok,” I said. “Then I’ll continue. Jane thinks that the letter might have gone to one of your brothers’ wives.”
“Why not to one of my brothers?”
I tried to show my patience. Hattie seemed to be having difficulty taking all of this in. I repeated, “Jane thinks there’s a conspiracy among the men in the family to destroy the letter if it’s ever found. She thinks that the women have kept the letter, and not told their husbands.”
Hattie smiled. “Men! Now I know why I never married!”
“You just needed to find the right one,” I said gently. For an instant, I thought of my husband, Jake. We had been married for thirty years and his unexpected death, shortly after our anniversary, had come totally without warning. Even after a dozen years, I still missed him every single day of my life. “My husband, Jake, was a good man.”
Hattie seemed embarrassed. “Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest anything about your husband, Dorthea. The men in my family, however, are all incredibly chauvinistic. It gets tiresome.”
“Now that I can understand. And you have mostly brothers and male cousins! Just one girl besides you, right? Your cousin, Dorothy.”
Hattie smiled, and looked off in the distance as though she were remembering something.
“I was the oldest, too. My brothers are 5 and 7 years younger than me. And my cousins are even younger. Uncle David and Aunt Gladys had a boy and a girl in the early 30’s, and I was in my late teens by then. Uncle William and Aunt Christine had two boys, born in the mid-40’s, and by then I was in my 20’s. Since I never married and had children of my own, I was sometimes asked to care for my cousins.”
“Did that happen often?”
"With my brothers, yes, but not with my cousins, except sometimes at family gatherings. And, as you have just discovered, I lost touch with most of them as they got older and married."
For a moment, both of us remained quiet, recalling memories and experiences in the distant past. I interrupted the solitude by asking, “Hattie, what legal documentation do you have of your birth?”
“I have my original birth certificate. Why?”
“I’d like to see it if I could. Is it here or in a safe deposit box?”
“It’s here. I don’t trust banks much.”
Hattie rose from her chair and headed to her bedroom. I waited patiently until she returned. In her hand was a small, hand-decorated box, something a child might have made for a mother for Mother’s Day. There were crayon hearts all around the edge, and on the top were stick drawings of a woman and a child, holding hands. The box was faded with age, but still in remarkably good condition.
“This is my special box for special things,” Hattie said. “I made it for my mother when I was a little girl. When she died, I found it among her things. I couldn’t believe she still had it after all those years.” Hattie removed the lid from the box and lifted out several photographs and papers. When she found what she wanted, a 4x6 piece of paper, she handed it to me. “Here it is,” she said.
I held in my hands what seemed to me to be a rather unusual document. At the top, centred, written in a grand flourish, were the words “Certificate of Birth.” Below it, in smaller but bold letters, were the words “Province of British Columbia, Department of Vital Statistics.” Then Hattie’s name, date of birth, name of mother, and name of father, were all listed, exactly as she believed them to be. But my immediate reaction was that this was not an official document, but rather a very well-made mimic of the real thing. For instance, there was no certificate number, and no signature from the Department of Vital Statistics. This did not look at all like the birth certificates I had for my own sons, though I knew that Hattie was born much earlier. “Hattie,” I asked, “have you ever doubted the validity of this certificate?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Well, it doesn’t look authentic to me. It looks as though someone, who had exceptionally good handwriting and knowledge of calligraphy, made it.”
Hattie looked puzzled.
“What doesn’t look authentic about it?”
I told Hattie my suspicions, but she did not seem surprised.
“Well, I had never thought of those things, I guess. It would not be surprising, I suppose, if it was made up.”
I agreed. “If they were trying to hide something, it’s certainly possible. But in the early 20th century, many women were still having their babies at home, and unless she was attended by a physician, it would have been up to the parents to register the child’s birth. It could be that your birth was not officially registered. Have you ever tried to obtain a birth certificate?”
“I had no reason to ask,” she stated matter-of-factly.
I had to agree: Why ask for one when you thought you already had it?
“Will you let me do some research on this?”
“Another thing that might be useful is your parents’ wedding certificate or license. Do you have that?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Perhaps I can research that, too,” I said. “I will probably need your approval or your signature to gain access to those records.”
“No problem. Whatever you need.”
Hattie and I talked for another half an hour, and then I told her that I would next do some research on her birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. As well, I hoped to get back to James and see if I could talk to his wife, Mary, and to Matthew and Joseph. I might be able to track down Dorothy and Maurice as well. I had a lot to do. Hattie was anxious to hear what I learned, so I felt obligated to keep things moving.
- Continue to Chapter 7.
- 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.