(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“If you want me to stop, all you have to do is say the word.”]
The phone rang with a jolt, and I sat up in bed, wondering why I didn’t smell smoke or see fire. Once my head had cleared, I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my housecoat, and went to the living room, allowing the incessant ring to be my guide through the darkened apartment. It was also not yet daylight, only 5:30 a.m. And the phone kept ringing in my ears. Of course, I always feared bad news when someone called at an early hour; however, I was also irritated that my deep sleep had been disturbed. When I picked up the phone, I said “Hello!” with little civility.
“Is this Dorthea Parsons?” a strange man’s voice on the other end of the line said.
“Yes. Who is this?” I knew immediately it was not either of my sons or my daughter-in-law. If it was a prank call, I was ready to slam down the receiver.
“Are you a friend of Hattie Carlson?”
“Yes. What’s happened? Is she hurt?”
“No, she aint hurt, but you need to stop this investigating.”
I was not, as yet, intimidated by this man’s voice, though there was an ominous sound to it. I was still angry at having my sleep disturbed. I did not worry about consequences when I asked, “Why?”
“Because it’s not healthy. Not for you and not for Hattie.”
“Why not?” I persisted. “What could we possibly find out that would matter to anyone but Hattie?”
“You’d be surprised, Mrs. Parsons.” I had no response to that. “Look,” the voice continued. “Consider this a friendly warning. The next guy might not be so nice.”
“Next guy? Who would that be? And who are you?”
“That’s not important, Mrs. Parsons. Just take my advice.”
I was left holding the phone with only the dial tone echoing in my ear. I put down the phone and sat down in the chair beside it. What a strange call, I thought. I could not imagine why this investigation should matter to anyone but Hattie.
When I was investigating the death of little Catherine Fuller, I also received some threatening phone calls. In the end, it had turned out to be her father, not wanting me to find out that his wife might have had anything to do with it. But when I started looking into Hattie’s parentage, I never thought for a moment that anyone would feel threatened by my inquiries.
This secret, I decided, was far more than just that Hattie was adopted, or even that her aunt or her mother had borne her out-of-wedlock. There was something much more sinister going on here, and my skin began to crawl at the thought of the possibilities. Since I didn’t know yet what the answers were, however, the hostile man on the phone had just made me want to know more, not slow down. I wonder how often people use such threats, thinking they will frighten the other person, when the opposite happens.
I decided I would spend the day on the internet, and see if I could locate a copy of Hattie’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate.
I began with Hattie’s birth certificate. I had done a lot of internet genealogical research on my own family, so I knew quite a bit about how to manoeuvre through the websites. British Columbia has a Department of Vital Statistics with records of birth going back to 1872. I knew that, if I found Hattie’s name on the free online index, I would need her permission to actually obtain a copy of her certificate. I thought it was possible that I would be able to get the necessary forms off the internet, have Hattie sign them, and send them off in the mail today.
But I was not expecting what I found: there was no birth certificate for Hattie Eliza Carlson. Not for the year in which she thought she was born and not for five years before or five years. I never found anything to indicate that Hattie’s birth had been registered. I was convinced, more than ever, that the birth certificate Hattie possessed was not a legal document, but something someone had made to look like the real thing. I wasn’t sure how Hattie would react to that, but it was an interesting piece of knowledge to add to the jigsaw puzzle. No birth certificate suggests that someone didn't want this birth to be known.
Since I had hit a dead end with a birth certificate for Hattie (although in this case no evidence was also evidence), I decided to see what I could find out about her parents’ marriage.
Marriage certificates, like birth certificates, can only be asked for by the people involved or by a parent or agent of the two people involved. Genealogical marriage certificates are available to researches if both the bride and groom have been dead for twenty years or more; obviously, there is a fee to pay.
Before I went that route, I decided I would just check the online index, as I had for Hattie’s birth certificate. Within an hour, I had finally found a reference to it. Hattie believed that her parents had married one year before her birth, but this was hard to believe because her mother would have been only 12 years old! I think that her parents had never told Hattie her mother’s real age.
I was excited by this new knowledge, and I knew that Hattie would be, too. But I thought that it would also be good ammunition in talking to Hattie’s relatives. With the facts and statistics I now could verify, it would be difficult for Hattie’s brothers to deny that their mother was probably not Hattie’s mother.
Before going back to Hattie with my news, I decided to re-contact everyone I had already seen, just to hear their reaction to my news. I called people in the same order I had originally seen them, so my first call was to Matthew and Betty’s home in East Vancouver.
Betty answered. “Hello?”
“Betty, this is Dorthea Parsons.”
We exchanged polite niceties and then I got down to the business at hand.
“Betty, I’ve learned that Hattie’s birth was never legally registered. I’ve also learned that her parents were married four years after her birth.”
“Really?” Betty seemed genuinely surprised. “It must be a clerical error.”
“I don’t think so. Since there is no official registration of Hattie’s birth, it’s obvious they wanted to hide her identity. They apparently lied to Hattie for years about Martha’s true age and when they got married. Now that I have found this information, is there anything else you can tell me about Hattie or her mother?”
“Like what, for instance.”
I was growing weary of the evasiveness of everyone in Hattie’s family. Somewhat annoyed, I said, “Well, what do you think? Who was really Hattie’s mother?”
“I have no idea. Truly I don’t.”
Our conversation carried on for a minute or two longer, but I got nowhere, and Betty said that Matthew did not wish to speak to me.
After we said good-bye, I called Joseph and Jane, Hattie’s cousins who lived in the West End. I was pleased when Jane answered the phone. I told her what I had learned.
“Well,” she said, “I’m really not surprised. I always felt that something was being covered up, but I wasn’t sure what. And what about that letter? Have you learned any more about it?”
“No, unfortunately, although Hattie says that she had heard about it.”
“That letter, if you can find it, I wager will answer all of your questions.”
Jane and I speculated for a few minutes longer, but we didn't get far.
Then I tried the most difficult call of all: James, Hattie’s brother, in Kelowna. For some reason, James always answered the phone.
“Hello.” His voice was gruff and angry.
“Mr. Carlson, this is Dorthea Parsons. Do you remember my calling you a couple of months ago?”
“Yes.” James was still a man of few words.
“I’ve learned a few more things about Hattie.” Rather than letting him talk, I pushed on and told him all that I knew and who I had met.
“So what does any of this got to do with me?” he asked.
“I thought you might want to help your sister.”
“Not particularly. Why should I?”
“She took care of you when you were just a boy.”
“That was her job.”
I got no further than that, so I changed the subject. “Is your wife, Mary, there? Would she be willing to talk to me?”
“No, she’s not here, and even if she was, I would tell her not to talk to you.”
“Because she knows nothing, and this isn’t any of her business.”
“She’s been a Carlson for a while, hasn’t she?”
“Well, I would think she’d care about Carlson family affairs.”
“No, she wouldn’t.”
I’ve worked with some stubborn people in my day, but James Carlson was on my list of the top five most stubborn. I gave up and told him that if he or his wife thought of anything that might be useful to me, please call. But I had the distinct feeling that he would be telling his wife absolutely nothing.
With the information I now possessed, I went down to the floor below me and knocked on Hattie’s door. As always, she answered quickly and we enjoyed a friendly greeting. Once settled in the living room I told her what I’d learned:
- no birth certificate;
- her mother’s age hidden from her; and,
- the date of her parents’ marriage certificate is four years after she was born.
I also told her that I had called both of her brothers again, and had had a conversation with her cousin’s wife, Jane. I hated to tell her how hostile James had been in both conversations, but I really saw no reason to soft-cushion it for her either, and she wasn’t really surprised. I didn’t, however, tell her about the strange phone call I had received that morning.
After she heard everything, Hattie said: “So what next? It would seem that I was right about my mother not being my mother, and she’s not likely to have given birth to me at the age of 12.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but there is one thing we haven’t considered.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“What if you weren’t born in the year that is stated on your birth certificate? We have only a home-made birth certificate. We don’t know if it’s accurate.”
Hattie seemed somewhat shocked at the thought that the day she had celebrated her birthday for 91 years might not be the same. What if she was actually only 89? Or what if she was 93? She was puzzled by it all, I could tell.
To reassure her, I said, “Don’t worry. I think they told you the right date of your birth. Instead, they lied to you about Martha’s age and about their wedding date.”
“It almost seems surreal. I can’t understand why it was so necessary to keep things so quiet.”
“Remember, illegitimate children were not accepted into society in the early twentieth century.”
“I know. But the secrecy seems so drastic!”
“I don’t think it was for the times. Today it seems quite silly. I do think, however, that this secret is even worse than just the birth of an illegitimate child. Martha was protecting someone — perhaps herself, her husband, or someone else in the Creighton family.”
“You think my mother is Aunt Matilda, don’t you?”
“Possibly,” I said, “although she would have been only 15 when she gave birth to you. Not so uncommon in those days, but not perhaps with the wealthier classes.”
“What a terrible thing to have to keep secret,” Hattie said. “I wonder what both Matilda and Martha went through to make this decision. Do you suppose they agreed upon it together? And who took care of me until Martha married?”
“We still have a lot of unanswered questions, Hattie. I’m still going to try to find your Aunt Christine and your cousin Dorothy and Maurice. We’re not done yet!”
“Evidently not. I can’t thank you enough for doing this, but I’m getting a little frightened. Maybe I don’t want to know the answers to all of these questions.”
I understood Hattie’s fears. Sometimes it’s better not to know the whole truth.
“If you want me to stop, all you have to do is say the word.”
Hattie stared at the floor, then at the ceiling, and then at me. “No, I want to go forward with this. There just aren’t many years left for me, and I want the answers before I die, whatever they might be.”
Hattie and I chatted about other things for another hour and then I left, telling her that I would be in touch in a few days. I had no idea that the next day I would get my first real break in uncovering the mystery.
- Continue to Chapter 8.
- 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.