(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“This is my life we’re talking about. My father. My mother. Whoever they were, I want to know.”]
After my early-morning anonymous caller, I had turned down the ringer on my telephone. It was a dilemma I wasn’t sure how to solve: I wanted my sons to be able to reach me, but I wasn’t interested in talking to a voice on the phone who wouldn’t identify himself or tell me why I shouldn’t find out the circumstances surrounding my friend’s birth.
I had speculated about who the caller might have been. I did not recognize the voice, but one of Hattie’s brothers could have had a friend call for them. I have to admit that I tended to think James was behind it. He was always so hostile when I called, and he created a barrier between me and his wife. I strongly felt that he most likely knew more than he was telling. And the secret, however much he knew about it, was not something he wanted revealed.
When the phone rang about mid-morning, I was cleaning house and almost didn’t hear it. Once I realized that it was ringing, I rushed to answer it before the person gave up. My hands were soapy and not quite dry when I picked up the phone and said hello.
“Oh,” a woman’s voice. “I was beginning to think no one was there.”
“Sorry. I had my hands in soapy water.”
“Oh. Well.” The woman seemed unsure of what to say.
“Can I help you?”
“Well, no. I’m really trying to help you. Are you Dorthea Parsons?”
“A friend of Hattie’s?”
“You’re trying to find out about Hattie’s birth?”
“Yes. Do you know something?”
“Well, only in a tiny way.”
“Who is this?”
“Oh, I‘m sorry. I should have introduced myself. My name is Mary Carlson. I’m James’s wife. And James is — “
“Hattie’s brother,” I interrupted.
“Well, Mary, I have had a tough time getting a hold of you. James always said you were gone when I talked to him.”
“Yes, I know. And he didn’t tell me about your first call at all. The second time you called, I was just coming in the house when I heard the end of his conversation with you. I asked him what it was about and, at first, he wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“You must have amazing abilities of persuasion. I couldn’t get him to tell me anything.”
“No, I’m not surprised. James can be very formidable.”
There was a brief silence. I worried that perhaps she was frightened and might not say any more.
“So how did you get my number?” I asked.
“James only told me that you were a friend of Hattie’s and you were trying to find out about her real mother.”
“Her mother wasn’t Martha then?” I asked.
“I doubt it, but I don’t know for sure.”
“What do you know?”
I was growing impatient. It seemed like it was taking forever to hear answers instead of questions. But Mary seemed determined to tell things in her own way, at her own speed, and in her own way.
“Well, James told me a little, and then I called Jane — you know, Joseph’s wife — to see what she knew. She told me about your visit and about your efforts. She said she liked you and she thought you were a sincere and honest person. She suggested that I phone you.”
“I‘m glad that Jane helped you find me.”
“Yes.” Mary paused. It was only a few seconds, but it seemed much longer. “Jane tells me that she told you about a letter in the family.”
“Yes. Do you know anything about that?”
“It was from me that Jane learned about it.”
“What do you know about it?”
“I know that Matilda wrote it sometime before her death in 1963, and that she left it to Martha in her will. I know that Martha had it, but never opened it. She gave it someone else in 1980, just a few months before she died.”
“Who?” I asked anxiously.
I was ecstatic! Now we knew that the letter truly had been written and it existed. I could hardly wait to tell Hattie.
But my spirits were soon dampened when Mary said, “But I don’t have it any more.”
I couldn’t believe I had come so close and then quickly lost again.
“Did you destroy it?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“No, I would never have destroyed it, but I was afraid James would if he ever found it.”
“Please tell me everything,” I said. I was growing weary of asking prying questions.
“Well, my mother-in-law knew she was dying when she gave me the letter. She told me that she didn’t want to give it to Hattie because it was about Hattie. She said she didn’t want to give it to either of her sons because they would destroy it, especially if they knew the contents. I felt Martha had given me a very heavy burden, and I didn’t know what to do with it.” There was a pause, as though Mary were trying to find the right words. “I couldn’t understand why a letter should be kept if no one was ever going to open it up and read it. But I also thought that maybe some day it would be very important for someone to know what the letter said. It might be the difference between life and death. So I kept the letter hidden. I bought my own safe deposit box and nothing else was there but that letter. James knew nothing about it, and — trust me — it’s hard to keep any secrets from James.”
I didn’t want to interrupt, but I asked, “Was there any writing on the envelope?”
“Yes. I probably don’t remember the exact words but it said something like, ‘The contents of this letter are of importance to Miss Hattie Carlson. No one should ever open it but her. I wish it to be kept from her, however, until she is older.’”
“So why didn’t Martha give it to Hattie? She had it for more than twenty years. And Hattie was certainly an adult by then.”
“Martha told me that she didn’t want to be alive when Hattie read the letter because she thought that Hattie would never forgive her. She hinted that the ‘mystery’ was more than just who was Hattie’s real mother. She said the family would consider it a disgrace and they’d never get over it.”
My curiosity deepened, wanting to know what this terrible secret was.
“Do you know what she was talking about, Mary?”
“No. And I’m not sure I ever want to know. But I promised Martha I would not destroy it, nor would I give it to Hattie.”
"So you said before that you no longer had the letter. What happened?""
“James found out about my safe deposit box. He wanted to know what was in it, and — as always — he would not give up his questions until I told him. So I removed the envelope and placed some jewelry in there. Then I told James that I had jewelry there and he demanded to see for himself. So I took him to the bank with me and he saw the jewelry. But he didn’t know about the letter. I felt I could no longer keep it. If James found it, I knew it would be lost forever. I decided to give it away. It seemed as though only the women in the family cared about this letter and its contents, so I thought at first about giving it to Betty, Matthew’s wife. But Betty seemed to want to deny the letter’s existence, and she was almost as afraid of Matthew, her husband, and I am of my own husband. So I gave it to her daughter, Margaret.”
“When was that?”
“I'm not sure of the date. At that time, Margaret was doing pretty well for herself. She was in her mid-thirties, still single, and apparently happy as a schoolteacher. I had no idea that within a few short years she would be in serious trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“I don’t know all of the details. Betty will talk to you about it, I think. Something about a mental illness and some drugs.”
“Does Margaret still have the letter? Do you know where she lives today?”
“I have no idea about either. I haven’t seen her since I gave her the letter.”
Mary’s news was both exciting and disappointing. She confirmed the existence of a letter but she had given it to someone who apparently might not still have it. I had mixed emotions.
“Mary, I can’t thank you enough for calling me and telling me all of this. I will see if I can find Margaret and get the letter back.”
“I think Hattie should know whatever is in that letter,” Mary said. “I don’t understand all the secrecy. Whatever it says, it can’t be as bad as my husband, James, seems to think.”
“Has he ever indicated to you what he thinks the letter says?”
“He always clams up with me about it. There’s always this suggestion that it’s ‘something women don’t need to know about.’ He’s also told me that he thinks the letter is ‘all lies.’ I really don’t know what it says, but whatever it is, I think Hattie deserves to know.”
Mary and I talked for only a few minutes more. She admitted to me that she had called while James was out for a mid-afternoon drink with some buddies. She told me, in so many words, that their marriage had been a difficult one, but she had stuck by him for “some unknown reason,” she said.
After Mary and I said good-bye, I spent the rest of the afternoon considering the information she had given me. When I had taught school, for a while we had used a district-based critical thinking program which was very effective with the students. One of the problem-solving lessons, called “Consider all Factors,” taught students to consider all of the possible ramifications of any given decision. So that was what I did now.
In a series of “What if” questions I considered how all of this could end for Hattie:
- What could the contents of that letter reveal? Rape? Murder? Mental illness?
- Was Hattie’s real father a killer?
- Was her real mother an addict or a mental patient?
No matter what I considered as possibilities, I was convinced that Hattie could handle the truth. After all, she had led a good life, most of it as a teacher, and she had done nothing wrong or illegal. If she learned that her real mother or her real father was a murderer, a mental patient, or something else, what would it really matter to her? The most difficult thing she might have to face is that we would never actually know who her real parents were, if they were not members of the Creighton family. That, indeed, might be the hardest thing for her to face.
I decided that I would return to see Hattie again and lay all the cards on the table. If she wanted me to proceed, I would try to find Margaret and see if she still had the letter. Not wanting to wait until the next day, I headed down to Hattie’s apartment, even though I rarely showed up at her door this late in the afternoon. She was a little slow getting to the door and letting me in.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you right now.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “I was just taking a little nap.”
“Oh, I am sorry, Hattie, but I have news and I thought you’d like to hear it.”
Hattie was interested in knowing what I had learned, so we went directly to her living room, and I told her everything (still leaving out the anonymous phone caller, of course).
Hattie listened carefully. When I finished, she said, “Hmmm. Interesting. I would certainly love to know what is inside that envelope.”
This was my chance to ask: “So you want me to continue, then?”
“Of course! Why would I want you to stop now?”
“Hattie,” I said cautiously, “this may not be good news. Have you considered that your real parents might not be very nice people? How will you feel if you find out that your real father was a murderer or a rapist? Or that your real mother abandoned you rather than care for you?”
“I do not mind.” Hattie sat straight up in her chair and looked directly at me. “This is my life we’re talking about. My father. My mother. Whoever they were, I want to know. Martha was a good and kind mother to me. William was a good and kind father. But they apparently were not my parents. I want to know who was, no matter the cost. Can you understand that?”
“Yes, I can, Hattie. So I will continue.”
Hattie and I talked a while longer and then I left. I planned to call Betty the next day and see if I could find out where her daughter, Margaret, was.
- Continue to Chapter 9.
- 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.