The Reader - Week 17
Buried secrets can be exhumed, albeit with difficulty. The unity of the previous generation of my father’s family was fractured by three inter-related events. All of the principals are dead now but their stories still linger, not in any public awareness but, rather, in the darkest rooms of private memory, behind seldom-opened doors that, if accidentally breached, are quickly shut again. I have an old photo of five of them, my father, his brothers and sisters. It is faded and out of focus. There were actually six siblings: born to a mother of German lineage, a woman who loved life, and a Yankee carpenter who loved liquor. The mother rejoiced in her family; her children came easily and most were born three years apart, her extended nursing of each infant was the only birth control she ever used. Mary, Arthur, Allan, Mae, Aaron and, after a span of seven years, the caboose-Margret. There would have been more, but post-partum care in the years of the Great Depression was minimal, her undiagnosed high blood pressure killed her a few days after she gave birth to her last child.
The children’s father was not a bad man. “His word was as good as his bond” was a line in his obituary. But he was lost without his wife. His drinking increased to the point of his being unable to work regularly and baby Margret was “passed from pillar to post” in an effort to give her a semblance of a normal childhood. , The others, older, were left to fend for themselves. There were a few ways a child could earn some money back then: hunting and trapping, gathering berries and, at least while prohibition was in force, collecting bottles. The bootleggers making ‘Minnesota 13’ corn liquor always needed them, as did those who brewed beer from recipes handed down from their immigrant parents. The kids did what they could. Allen, the middle boy, was trouble. His emotions ran unchecked. Living unsupervised in close proximity to his younger sister Mae, Allen couldn’t control his impulses. Mae was a vibrant girl but when she was on the cusp of adulthood she had to go away for a while because of Allen’s behavior.
I pieced this together from various sources, no one would say it so many words, but I could do the math. Allen moved out to Montana, where he died drunk—frozen to death in a cattle feed-lot. But the son that Mae had by him, Laurence, also moved to Montana, and was raised in a small town near the Canadian border by Mae’s older brother, Art. I met them once, when I was a child, in the late fifties. Laurence looked like his mother. His mother, who later got married and raised a family, never went to Montana to visit. I wondered why. Mae died from hypertension as well, leaving behind three teen-aged children who needed a mother. That story had a happier ending. Before she died, Mae had me stay with them for a few days one summer. She always took an interest in me. Later on, I thought that it might be her displaced affection for the one son that she never new. Our families did things together: always Christmas, sometimes summer vacations in a cabin near Detroit Lakes. She would live in a swimsuit those stays; the dark hair that crept out from the ‘Delta of Venus’ behind her suit was fascinating to this then twelve-year-old boy. When she died, a year later, I was conflicted, thinking that my impure thoughts had some bearing on her untimely demise. Later, when I got more of the story from an older cousin, I realized that my Aunt Mae, besides being a vivacious and attractive, had a darker side as well. She was considered to be a willful and disobedient child, but it was Allen who was the real transgressor. Their son Laurence spent most of his adult life drunk. He died of exposure as well.
Andy put the manuscript down. It was a bad story, he thought, one that Jennifer didn’t need to hear on a night like this.
“Jennifer?” he said.
“M-m-mm,” she murmured. Her whisky was gone. “Thas good story. Read more.”
“Your phone chimed when you were outside,” said Andy.
“Let it ring,” she said, with eyes closed, “Jus’ daddy. Daddy.” She began to weep. “Leave me alone,” she said, turning away. Andy gently positioned her on the couch and put a blanket over her.
“A world of troubles,” Andy thought. He went into the kitchen and turned on the radio. An old Patsy Cline song came on:
I miss you darlin', more and more every day
As heaven would miss the stars the above
With every heartbeat, I still think of you
And remember our faded love
It was time for Andy to have some whisky.