(A novel by Susan Overturf)
[“You’ve given me hope and despair, all in one breath.”]
It had been ridiculously easy to find Dorothy Creighton, after all the months that Hattie and I had wondered what her married name was. She was not in the phone book, however, as she preferred having an unlisted number.
I called Remax Realty, explained who I was, and asked if they still had a contact number for Dorothy, even though she was retired. They, of course, would not give me the number, but I asked them to give her my name and number and said that I would appreciate if she would call me. I told them to tell her that it was “about Hattie.”
Two days later, Dorothy had called, obviously curious to know what my call was about. She had expected to hear that Hattie had died, and when I told her that she was not only alive, but also healthy, Dorothy seemed pleased to hear it. I explained only briefly on the phone what I needed to talk about, but she agreed to have me come for a visit the next day and she gave me directions to her home.
Dorothy lived in Kitsilano, a neighbourhood bordering on English Bay (across the water from the West End). Its street boundaries were Alma, 16th Avenue, and Burrard. In the 60s and 70s, Kitsilano was a popular neighbourhood, with large single-family homes. It attracted liberal professors and their families, as well as young-and-single party-going hippies, many of them students of the university.
Both Broadway and West Fourth Avenue, major arteries, cross through Kitsilano, and extend into the next neighbourhood, Point Grey, and eventually the University of British Columbia. On side streets near Fourth Avenue today, there are still some of those homes which had been built in the mid-20th century, but a large number of houses have been replaced with condos and apartment complexes. Along the avenue are many colourful shops and restaurants with an international flavour. Kitsilano’s Vanier Park is home to both the Vancouver Maritime Museum and the Vancouver Museum, as well as the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and the Gordon Southam Observatory. Beyond the museums, there are large public beaches along English Bay.
As a West Ender, I was partial to the West End, but Kitsilano has a similar flavour, the difference being that it is a much larger area and runs along one main street, Fourth Avenue, rather than the rectangle made by four streets which surround the West End. It is more expensive to live in Kitsilano, particularly as homes and apartments get closer to UBC. I had never considered looking for a place to live there, because I had assumed that my small teachers’ pension would not be enough to pay the rent. Dorothy had managed to purchase a home in the Kitsilano area shortly after her husband committed suicide. She had lived there ever since but, ironically, most of her family did not know she was there.
It was easy to get from the West End to Kitsilano: just a walk down to Granville and catch the #4 which travels down Fourth Avenue all the way to UBC. I got off at Alma and 4th, as Dorothy had instructed, and walked towards English Bay. On 1st Avenue, I turned and walked one short block. Dorothy’s house was the only one left in her block. She was surrounded by apartment complexes and condos. She had never had much of a view of the Bay, but it was impossible now, as her home was dwarfed by taller buildings all around her. I wondered if she ever felt claustrophobic.
I climbed the stairs — twenty of them — to the porch and wondered if Dorothy was fit and healthy. These steps would pose quite a challenge for anyone who was struggling with arthritis, obesity, or any number of other conditions. I knew Dorothy had to be in early 70’s, and I had no idea how well she was.
I pushed the doorbell and heard a chime that played a little melody, though I couldn’t identify it. Shortly after, a small, gray-haired woman opened the door. Dorothy looked athletic and fit; she wore a bright red jogging suit and clean white running shoes. Her hair was short and combed back, away from her eyes and ears. I noticed her eyes immediately. They were bright and active, very aware of surroundings. “Dorthea?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Come in, come in. I just got back from my run. I’m sorry I’m behind schedule. My plan was to run a little earlier today and be back in time to have tea and cookies ready for us. I’m afraid I didn’t quite manage that.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’m just glad that I’ve been able to come over to see you.”
Dorothy led me into her living room, a beautifully and tastefully decorated decor: hardwood floors with warm, flower-covered area rugs; a dark green couch and matching sofa; a fireplace, once original but now converted to gas; nicely framed art prints in several places; two bookcases filled with books; and several lamps and end tables and a coffee table.
It looked like a room that was loved and often lived in. Beside the chair were several books with bookmarks sticking out of them, a ball of wool with knitting needles preventing the wool from rolling, and a small table nearby with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle. Dorothy pointed to the couch and asked me to sit down. She left me alone while she went to the kitchen to get some tea. I stood up and browsed through her books: lots of novels with authors like Catherine Cookson, Mary Stewart, and Daphne DuMaurier. But classics, too: Shakespeare, the romantic poets, and some American writers, inclding Steinbeck and Hemingway. I was totally absorbed in looking at the titles when Dorothy returned.
“Here we go,” she said. She placed the tray on the coffee table: a tea pot, two tea cups, and a small plate with about half a dozen cookies on it. “I see you’ve been looking at my library,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, returning to my chair. “I hope you don’t mind. I was a high school English teacher for many years, and I always like to see what people read. Or even that they read, for that matter!” And I winked.
“Yes, I can imagine,” Dorothy said. She poured the tea and handed me the cup and then she poured herself some, and we both settled down for a little sip. “So,” Dorothy said, “tell me about yourself. You said you were an English teacher.”
“Yes. For 35 years. I retired a couple of years ago and moved to the West End.”
“Oh? Where were you before that?”
“You didn’t like it there?” she asked.
“It was all right to work there, and to raise a family there, but I needed a change.”
Dorothy stared at me. “I suppose so. I‘ve not moved around much. I was born and raised in Vancouver. I’ve lived here all my life.“
“Have you travelled much?” I asked.
“No. Not much.”
“I haven’t either,” I said. “I guess I’m a bit of a home body.”
Dorothy and I paused in the conversation. It seemed perfectly natural, and I had the feeling that she and I were much alike. I felt as though we could be good friends. “So,” she said, interrupting my thoughts, “tell me about Hattie, and about why you’re here.”
I gave Dorothy the short version of my efforts to find out more about Hattie’s parentage. When I told her about the letter, she did not respond at all, so I wondered if perhaps she knew nothing about it. It was possible that Margaret was totally confused about who she had given the letter to, but I carried on, hoping my visit would not be in vain.
“This letter,” I told Dorothy, “has been in many hands, but only women in the family. Matilda left it in her will; Martha had it for nearly twenty years and then gave it to her daughter-in-law, Mary; Mary held on to it for another five years and then gave it to Margaret.”
“Margaret. That’s Matthew and Betty’s daughter.”
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“Yes, I do.” I thought that if Dorothy had the letter, and if Margaret had given it to her, she was being very coy.
“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked.
“More than ten years ago.”
“Do you remember where that was?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Can you tell me about it?” I felt as though I was prying, and I couldn’t decide if Dorothy trusted me. I didn’t think that she did.
“Tell me,” she said. “Have you had any contact with my brother, Joseph?”
“Yes, I have. Why?”
Dorothy sat up in her chair and leaned slightly toward me. I had the feeling she wanted to be sure that even the walls couldn’t hear what I said to her. “My brother is a mean, vindictive man. He knows that there is a family secret, which involves Hattie’s parentage. I think he may even know more than that. Whenever anyone in the family tries to find out anything for Hattie’s sake, he is very aggressive.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve already seen that aggression.”
“Have you now?” Dorothy smiled. “What did he do?”
“He had a friend call and threaten me.”
“That sounds like Joseph all right. Tell me: Were you threatened?”
“Not really. I can’t imagine what this family secret is, but Hattie is a good friend, and I understand her need to find out who her parents were.”
“What if that secret were horrifying? What if it were so terrible that you didn’t want to tell Hattie about it?”
I looked at Dorothy and considered her question. It was one I had already thought about, but I still had some doubts about what I would do if I learned something that I thought would be painful for Hattie to hear.
“I’ve thought about it,” I said, “and I have even talked to Hattie about it. But she tells me that she’s an old lady and nothing can hurt her now. She says she wants to know the truth, no matter what that is.”
“Yes, I can believe that Hattie would say that.” Dorothy leaned back. It was as though my words had reassured her that I was authentic and willing to help Hattie. I felt that I had gained a notch in her approval rating. “I know about the letter,” she said.
“Yes, I thought that you might. That’s why I came here.”
“Yes. I thought so.” Dorothy tilted her head and asked, “What do you want to know?”
“I really don’t know all that much,” she began. “After my husband died, I continued my career in real estate. I had little to do with anyone in my family, but especially my brother. I attended a few family gatherings, but I seemed to be persona non grata, simply because my husband had killed himself. Why on earth I should be shamed for his act, I’ll never know. And then, people don’t know what to say to me about my husband. Silly, isn’t it? What do you say when a person’s husband kills themselves a year after you’re married? ‘I’m sorry. What can I do to help?’ It’s really very simple. But the Creighton family is incredibly tight-knit and secretive, and they don’t talk to each other. The men particularly are quiet, but they often rule with an iron fist. You’ve met my brother, Joseph, so you know what he’s like. Hattie’s brother, James, is not much different. And my father was a cold fish as well. Hattie and I are the only female cousins. The women share more, but most of them are wives to the Creightons. I guess that’s why Margaret sought me out. I was the only female cousin Hattie had, and she’d been told not to give the letter to Hattie.”
“So Margaret did give you the letter?”
“She told you that?“
“Yes, though it took her a while to remember.”
“Why would she have trouble remembering?”
“Margaret became ill, not long after she gave you the letter. She had to quit teaching. She’s living in a rooming house on east Hastings now. Life is pretty difficult for her. She has trouble with her memory.”
“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry to hear that. When I saw her last, she seemed fine. A little eccentric perhaps. She seemed to enjoy her teaching, and she was living on her own and feeling quite independent.”
“I have a hunch that she knew she was getting ill. She thought that she should pass on the letter before she accidentally lost it.”
Dorothy nodded her head. “Yes, perhaps, though she did not indicate that to me at the time.” Dorothy went on to tell me that Margaret had called her out of the blue one day, explained who she was, and asked if she could see her. Dorothy had agreed, and they had met at a coffee shop. Towards the end of their visit, which Dorothy had thought was just an ordinary attempt to connect with a relative, Margaret opened up her purse and handed Dorothy an 8x10 brown envelope.
“A large brown envelope?” I asked. “No writing on it.”
“Margaret had written, in her elementary schoolteacher’s printing, ‘KEEP THIS LETTER SAFE.’ She told me that Mary, James’s wife, had given it to her several years before. She didn’t want the responsibility of it any longer.“
“Did she give you all the details?”
“Not really, no. I just understood that it had to do with Hattie, and that I was not to destroy it. And Hattie was never to see it.”
“Yes, that about sums it up,” I said, but then I explained the entire story.
“Amazing. Why would Aunt Matilda not want Hattie to see it?” she asked.
“Well, that’s what Hattie would like to know,” I said. And then I asked the all-important question: “Do you still have the letter?”
My heart sank. I had come to another dead end. “No,” I said sadly.
“I can see you’re disappointed, but take heart. I didn’t burn it, and I didn’t throw it away. I know who I gave it to. Lizzie.”
“Lizzie?” This was a name in Hattie’s family I didn’t even know. “Who is she?”
“Lizzie is Elizabeth Bett Creighton. She’s the daughter of Maurice and Muriel. Maurice was the son of William Walter Creighton, the youngest son in the Creighton family, a brother to my father, David.”
“Oh, Hattie didn’t tell me about her. I did know about Maurice, though, but I haven’t tried to find him.”
“He won’t be hard to find. He lives in the Fraser Valley, I think. Surrey maybe.”
“What about Lizzie?”
“When I gave the letter to Lizzie, she had just graduated from medical school at UBC and was doing her internship. She seemed like a responsible and reasonable young woman and I thought she would be a good caretaker of the letter. I gave it to her about five years ago.”
“Do you think she’s in Vancouver?”
“She certainly might be. She was engaged to be married, though — to another doctor — and it’s possible they headed to a community in the interior or even in the North.”
“Well,” I said. “You’ve given me hope and despair, all in one breath.”
Dorothy smiled. “I don’t think you’ll have any trouble finding Lizzie. Maurice and Muriel can tell you her married name and, besides, you might very well use her maiden name professionally, as I did.”
Dorothy and I talked for several hours more. We seemed to have much in common and she gave me several ideas of how to find both Maurice and Muriel, their daughter Lizzie, or their son, Michael.
Although I had not yet found the letter, I thought I had made good progress, and when I said good-bye to Dorothy, I was anxious to tell Hattie what I had learned. I also thought that, in Dorothy, I might have found a new friend. I told her that I often went to plays and concerts, and I asked her if she would ever like to join me. She enthusiastically agreed, and I promised to call her the next time I saw something that we might go together to see. It had been, overall, a successful day. Perhaps I was nearing the end of my quest.
- Continue to Chapter 14.
- 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.