Biopsy. The phone felt heavy in my hand. I had not yet recovered from my mother's death, and my favorite aunt, my mother's only sister, had just called to tell me of her upcoming biopsy. For months her son Jack and I had been nagging at her to take better care of herself. Well into her eighties, Aunt Ruth had spent over a year putting aside her own needs to attend to those of her husband, Chuck, who lay in a nursing home dying of emphysema.
"She's going to kill herself for that old bastard," I angrily complained to my second husband Bob each time I returned from visiting her and seeing her so worn out. No one could convince my nearly blind aunt, who was trying to cope with her own failing health, that daily visits to see Chuck were taking too much of a toll on her. Even when she saw the bloody discharge in her underwear, she refused to see a doctor.
"I'll deal with it later," she promised me, "Chuck is my first concern."
I knew better than to argue.
Upbeat and mellow about most things, Aunt Ruth always held firm in her convictions regarding her husband of over sixty years. In her eyes, he could do no wrong. Neither my mother nor I had ever let on about his attempt to molest me when I was twelve. Certain that Aunt Ruth wouldn't have believed Chuck capable of such depravity, my mother, fearing a rift between her and her only sister, had made me promise not to tell.
So, over the years, I'd gritted my teeth and pretended everything was fine. If my aunt noticed that I would no longer kiss or be kissed by her husband, she never mentioned it. When she told me last year how he no longer seemed in his right mind, how he'd begun calling her from the nursing home at all hours of the night, complaining that she hadn't been in to see him (even though she'd been in just that day) and accusing her of cheating on him with other men, her tone was conversational rather than exasperated. Nothing he did or said ever seemed to faze her. Now it would seem that my fear may be realized; her dogged devotion to him may have ended up costing her her own life.
What to say? How to answer without adding to whatever stress she may be hiding beneath her matter-of-fact tone? I decided to be just as matter-of-fact.
"Well, I'm sure there's nothing to worry about." I tried to keep my voice even. "Cancer doesn't run in our family."
"Well, that wouldn't apply to me," she didn't miss a beat, "I'm adopted."
I laughed. What a kidder. "Yeah, okay." Always smiling, so laid back, Aunt Ruth could be counted on to lighten the mood.
"I'm not kidding."
I realized her voice was serious.
That afternoon, I sat on my mother's older cousin Flory's couch, jogging her memory over tea. I'd gotten very little information from Aunt Ruth after her startling revelation, only that she discovered the papers that verified her adoption one day when she was about fourteen. Bored and alone in the house, she'd been "snooping" in the attic. She never mentioned her discovery to my grandparents for fear of being punished. My mother, only about four years old at the time, had been too young to confide in. Even when she got older, Ruth kept her discovery to herself, telling only Chuck. She had no idea who else in the family knew.
"Oh, yes," Flory said to me on the phone, just minutes after I hung up with my aunt. "We all knew. I'm surprised your mother never told you."
"Ma knew?" I thought my mother had told me everything! "I'm coming over."
"Your mother found the papers after your grandmother died," Flory now picked up her teacup, tilted her head back, and looked down at me through her bifocals. "Annie had made her the executrix even though your grandfather was still alive. Homer wasn't really well, you know, even then. He'd already started coughing up the asbestos."
Flory chuckled. "Pauline came running to me first too, just like you have. I think because I was older and had grown up next door. Of course, I hadn't been born when it happened; I was born right after." She sighed and looked off in the distance. "My mother, Molly, had her hands full with all of us kids, especially after my father died from the consumption. We spent a lot of time over at Aunt Annie's."
Trying to be polite, I cleared my throat. "So everyone knew, but no one ever talked about it?"
Flory peered down at me. "Didn't seem to be any point. Your grandmother didn't want Ruthie to know, so it was all kept quiet."
I shook my head, still trying to absorb everything I'd heard that day. "But my aunt already knew!"
"We didn't know that. Everyone was protecting her — even your mother when she found out. But I just assumed that she would have told you when you got older. It's quite a story." She chuckled again and sipped her tea.
* * *
Annie Martin stood alone on the platform in the biting March wind and pulled her heavy knit shawl tighter, wrapping her arms around her ample bosom. She sniffed the air, and despite the ever-present odors of rubber and asbestos from the two factories across the street from the station, thought she could smell the snow that the low gray clouds had been promising all morning. With any luck, the storm would be moving in from the west and therefore not delay the train's arrival to North Brookfield from Boston. Conscious of her rapidly beating heart, she took a deep breath and held it a moment before exhaling, at the same time silently reprimanding herself for being silly.
'Tis but a child, after all, being brought from the big city, and a wee one at that. A little girl who would be theirs, hers and Homer's, and about time too, after over six years of a pleasant but childless marriage. Why, Molly already had two children, and though Annie loved taking care of her nephews, her heart had nearly burst with longing both times her younger sister had announced that she was with child.
Many nights Annie and Homer sat around their kitchen table and by the soft glow of the gaslight, Homer, in his quiet way, had tried to reassure his wife that nature would eventually take its course. She was only twenty seven, a bit late to be just starting a family but still well within child bearing years. Worrying about it would do no good, he reasoned, and she agreed; nevertheless, she argued one evening, surely the time had come to face facts: five years was enough time to rely on nature, or faith, or God. The time had come for action. Homer just shook his head. He knew that when Annie made up her mind to take action, the world better step aside.
The next morning, Annie found herself in sudden need of a small screwdriver. Or maybe a hammer. Whatever would be less expensive but which required a trip to Jim Ivory's hardware store around the corner. Of course, she could just walk to the end of the street and knock on the Ivorys' door to ask about the "state" children they took in, but she didn't want to seem desperate. She had her pride. So, over bins of tools and barrels of nails, she casually asked Mr. Ivory how the children were doing, and how many lived at the house now, and how someone might go about arranging to take care of a child from the state — a baby if possible - if someone had a mind to.
That evening, the Ivorys joined the Martins around the kitchen table as contact information was exchanged: names and addresses of case workers who might be helpful. Annie wrote the letters, filled out all the forms, and waited. Finally, a letter came from one of the case workers — a little girl was available for adoption. Her mother, an unmarried medical student from Tufts, had decided she could no longer afford the time and money required to care for the toddler and wanted her to have a real home - away from the city and with two parents. A home visit was arranged. Homer met the train that day and, while Annie fussed with the last minute details at the house, he walked with the case worker from the depot up Forest Street to North Common Street, hoping his brothers-in-law would not see him and decide to stagger out of Hart's Café with too much of the drink in them.
This time, however, Annie herself would meet the train, her arms aching to hold Ruthie, the little girl the case worker was bringing to North Brookfield to her and Homer. Leaning slightly forward and into the wind, wisps of her auburn hair whipping against her forehead and pale, freckled cheeks, Annie squinted through her glasses, hoping to see the first curl of smoke over the trees.
When the train chugged into the depot, Annie barely acknowledged her brother Bob Kelley's greeting as he waited for the tourists going to the Barre Hotel. When Bob was sober, he made a bit of money driving the team for Mr. Bush, whose livery was a bit down and across from the asbestos factory. The horses stomped and huffed, their breath pluming in the frigid air, but Annie's eyes and ears focused only on the people descending from the train.
Ah, t'is the child! And already walking, but, yes, Annie had known that. A golden-haired child of golden complexion, with a high forehead and tiny nose. Not exactly the fair skin Annie was expecting when told the mother's name was "Cadigan." "Daughter of a Welsh woman," Annie's younger sister Lizzie Kelley had said, "should fit right in, unless her Da be English." And a big bow in her silky golden hair! Wasn't that just the most cunning thing! Annie vowed then that Ruthie's hair would always be sporting a bow.
Feeling suddenly timid, Annie did not step forward to help the case worker as she led the toddler by the hand, down the steep steps of the train's passenger car. What will Ruthie think of her? Will she cry when the train leaves her behind with a stranger? Ruthie still had not looked up. Annie's heart swelled with longing as she watched the tiny high-laced boots struggle with the steps. The child carried some variety of rag-doll that fell to the ground when her other hand reached out to grab the railing. Unable to hold back any longer, Annie sprang forward and picked up the doll just as the child's feet both touched the ground.
Uncharacteristically at a loss for words, Annie simply handed the doll to the toddler. The case worker spoke first as she transferred the tiny hand in hers to Annie's.
"Ruthie, this is your new Ma," she said.
The child looked up at Annie, and, glory be to God, she smiled.
"Hello, Ruthie," Annie said, "and, yes, I'm your new Ma."
Annie straightened from giving the bean pot a stir and closed the oven door. Her face flushed and dripping sweat, she wiped her brow with a corner of her apron and tried to ignore the little pile of wooden blocks still in the corner. Molly's boys would like those. Now that Molly will be having another baby, she'll be glad for more toys to keep the boys occupied. Now that Ruthie won't be needing them. No, 't will do no good to think of Ruthie. Tonight Annie's brother George and his wife Florence from next door will be coming over for brew and beans. Think of that, not of Homer walking out the door and down the street with little Ruthie by the hand. Any minute now, the train from Boston will be pulling in to the depot, carrying the caseworker who will take Ruthie back to her Ma, her real Ma, the one who said Annie and Homer could have her baby but then changed her mind. Will Ruthie even remember being here in Annie's home after only a few months? Will she remember being rocked and sung to? Being kissed goodnight? Annie choked back the tears that threatened just behind her eyelids.
Without intending it, Annie found herself at the window, looking across the street at the house she eventually hoped to own. Her French-Canadian in-laws, the Martins, were good to provide the top floor of their two-family until a proper house could be bought. Annie had already decided on the Barrett house. From her kitchen window, she could see the wrap-around porch, perfect for a rocking chair or two and planting the lilac bushes around. The big barn could be a workshop for Homer, and a chicken coop and lavatory already occupied the sizeable back yard. Annie knew that, on the other side of the house, a large space ran the house's entire length and had both a front and rear door. A space such as that could be rented out for extra money to a shopkeeper or, perhaps someday, she herself might like to run her own store.
Annie thought the side yard of the Barrett house is ripe for a hammock of striped fabric like the ones in the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue. She could picture it full of laughing children, one of them a golden child with a big bow in her hair. Annie bit her lip and turned from the window.
"Someday, Annie," Homer had said when the bad news came last week in a letter from Boston, "you will have your house, and we will have our children. When God decides the time is right."
Annie sat herself at the kitchen table and looked up at the statue of the Virgin on the shelf near the stove. The Virgin's serene expression and open hands, palms facing out, promised help to the troubled. Annie's Ma, Elizabeth Kelley, had raised her to pray to Mary for a heartfelt need because Jesus never refuses His Mother.
"Please," Annie whispered to the statue, "I want to be a mother too, like you."
As Annie stood on the platform at the depot, she wished she'd taken her shawl. She could feel just the nip of an early fall in the air, enough to raise the goose flesh on her bare arms. In such a hurry she was to meet the train, she'd rushed down Forest Street oblivious to the chill until, now, standing and waiting, waiting once again, waiting for Ruthie, her Ruthie!
Annie had been dickering with the ragman when the letter came. Another letter from Boston, but this one good news. The caseworker had written to say that the woman from Tufts who had taken Ruthie back because she missed her so had again changed her mind. Medical school so expensive that she had to work, and she realized she had no time for the toddler. The caseworker had told the woman, name of Cadigan, about Annie and Homer's lovely home and couldn't she see how well taken care of Ruthie had been during those few months she lived away from the city in North Brookfield? A big family she would have, with grandparents up the stairs and down the street, aunts and uncles all around the neighborhood and lots of cousins to play with. This time, the letter had promised, the adoption would be for good. Ruthie would be coming with a paper hand written, dated and signed by Hazel D. Cadigan giving "full surrender" of the child, "Ruth D. Cadigan" to "Mrs. H. O. Martin."
The shrill whistle cut through the air, announcing the train's arrival and exciting the horses Bob Kelley kept reigned in. It being mid week, tourists to the Hotel were unlikely, but the team gave him the excuse to see the joy on his sister's face where lately only the sadness had been. Annie stepped close to the train before it even stopped and peered up into its windows.
"Annie, girl, be careful, or ye'll be sucked in," Bob called from his perch on the wagon.
"I'm fine, Robert Kelley, and you can mind yer business, thank you very much," Annie tried to sound cross at his nosiness but couldn't — not today when her prayers had been answered.
The child appeared, held by the hand of the caseworker, her other hand still holding the same rag doll from last spring's train ride. Annie stepped forward and caught up the little golden girl in her arms. She had so missed the impish little face, the mischievous sparkle in Ruthie's eyes, her tugging of the skirt when she wanted Annie's attention.
"Ruthie, d' ye remember me, your Ma?" and Annie hugged the child who would soon be Ruth D. Martin, all papers that said otherwise to be safely locked away. As Ruthie's chubby little arms reached around Annie's neck, Annie whispered her thanks to the Virgin who had brought Ruthie back home for good. Annie would see to it that no one would ever again take her Ruthie from her.
Annie Martin's hand shook with anger, disappointment, and disbelief as she reread the hastily scrawled note her older daughter, Ruthie, left on the pillow of her unslept-in bed.
"Homer!" she bellowed.
When her husband entered Ruthie's bedroom, Annie thrust the note at him.
"She's left with him! Eloped!"
Homer silently read the note, his face sad, then looked up at Annie's red, raging scowl and waited.
"She thinks that by sneaking out like this she will get her way, does she?" Annie continued to holler, oblivious to how the voices carry on a spring morning with the windows open. "Well, 't is another thing she has got coming!"
Awakened by all the commotion, six year old Pauline, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, walked into her older sister's room. "What's wrong, Ma?" Then spying the still-made bed, she asked, "Where's Ruthie?"
Annie turned to her child, the miracle child she had given up all hope of ever having, finally born to her and Homer right here in this house the year she, Annie, turned thirty five. "Pauline Ida, 't is nothing to do with you, so go get yourself some breakfast as long as you're up."
Pauline knew better than to argue when her Ma used the mad voice. She scurried towards the stairs and went part way down to where she could still hear.
"Some of her clothes are gone," Homer said in his calm, quiet way while opening drawers and the door of the closet.
"She's still but a child," Annie's voice continued to rise. "Barely sixteen and run off with that . . .that . . Hooligan saxophone player!" She snatched back the note and headed down the stairs, almost catching Pauline darting down before her and around the corner.
When Annie entered the front room, she could hear the key turning in the lock of the other front door that led to the large space she and Homer rented out to the butcher. A bit of a smell on the slaughtering days, but fresh meat nearly at the fingertips as well as blood and the casings for the boudin that Ida, her mother-in-law, had taught her how, cooked for Homer.
As a tenant, the butcher was agreeable enough, and the money he brought in helped to pay the mortgage on what used to be the Barrett house. The Martins bought the property in 1920, right after Annie had discovered she was carrying Pauline. A fair amount of work had had to be done to the house, which had been used as a two-family, but Homer proved handy with a hammer and saw, as most Canucks were. "Give a Canuck a hammer, and he's a carpenter," Annie's father-in-law, Emery Martin, was fond of saying. Homer had converted the two separate living quarters into a single-family, even cutting out walls for doors where there needed to be.
Thanks to the Virgin Mary, Annie had the proper home she always prayed for and the two children too, except that now one of them had gone and run off. Silly in the head over a dirty-minded man too old for her who didn't even have the decency to keep his hands to himself when he came courting. How many times had she caught him pawing at Ruthie's bosom, and even one of her fierce looks brought barely a blush to his impertinent face! Ruthie would be giggling and pretending to fend him off - and Pauline pretending not to see - as Annie fumed. Finally, she and Homer had put the foot down: Ruthie would not be allowed to keep company with Chuck Vernon, a Yank from Spencer. Yanks were only trouble, and what kind of a name was "Chuck" anyway? And no more out of town dances where a young girl could be taken in by the likes of a saxophone player in a jazz band! Annie had overheard Ruthie confiding to her cousin Flory, Molly's girl, about the band members smuggling in the drink, "hooch" they called it, and the dirty songs they'd be playing, something about "with your pants off" and the whole crowd singing it. No, Annie had decided there and then, if the family dances with the old fiddler in the big barn at the end of Forest Street weren't good enough for Ruthie, then her Highness could stay home and be done with it. Ruthie had not argued (but then, she rarely did), so Annie assumed obedience. The note in her hand, however, told the real story. Ruthie had just decided to wait for the Yank to come snatch her away.
Annie picked up the receiver of the newly installed telephone and asked the operator to connect her with the police.
"But I don't understand, Ma." Pauline whined, her mouth turned down, her eyes threatening the tears, "Why does Ruthie have to go?"
"Child, 't is my last nerve you're getting on right now!" Annie's patience nearly gone, she continued to stuff Ruthie's things in a laundry bag while Ruthie silently sat on the bed, her head down, her eyes lowered.
Barely two months had passed since the day the troopers brought Ruthie in the back door in front of Pauline and in sight of the whole neighborhood, having finally caught up with her and the Yank back at the Vernon house in Spencer where they intended to live as a married couple. Crossed the state lines, the two had, into Maine, where they had lied about Ruthie's age, and Annie had had a good mind to charge Vernon with the kidnapping, but Ruthie became hysterical, swearing she would behave if only they would let him go, she loved him so. The police let him off with a stern warning never to step foot near the Martin home and not to try to contact Ruthie, who would meanwhile be seeing Father McGillicuddy about the annulment. At Annie's insistence, Homer had nailed Ruthie's bedroom windows shut so she couldn't sneak out at night since, clearly, she could not be trusted.
Then the vomiting began and Annie's badgering finally got the truth out of Ruthie. She had allowed that man to be intimate with her even before the night they ran off together, and now her monthlies had stopped.
"There, 't is the last of it," Annie said and turned to Ruthie. "We'll be taking you there in the Uncle's car. I don't want that man of yours anywhere near this house."
"Ma?" Nearly in tears, Pauline looked from her mother to her sister and back.
"Say your goodbyes now, Pauline. Ruthie has misbehaved, and she will no longer be living in this house." Annie turned away from the sobs and headed for the stairs.
A few minutes later, as young Emery, one of Homer's brothers, stayed behind the wheel of his idling Model T, Annie led Ruthie by the arm up the walk of the Vernon house on Ash Street in Spencer and pounded on the door with her fist. When the door opened, she did not greet the surprised older woman who stood before her but merely said, "'T is your son I'll be wanting to see."
Almost immediately, the tall, lanky man with the quick hands and insincere eyes appeared. Annie roughly pushed Ruthie into his arms before he could even speak.
"She belongs to you now," Annie said.
Ruthie turned to face Annie; she hadn't spoken since she revealed the nature of her condition that morning, had barely spoken during the two months she'd been back home, kept nearly a prisoner in her room. Her large, sad eyes locked on Annie's.
Annie looked at the girl she had raised as her own and remembered a golden child with a big bow in her hair, stepping down from the train nearly fifteen years ago. It was on her lips to say "No daughter of mine would ever behave in such a way!" but, no, no matter how hurt and angry Annie was, she could never tell Ruthie she was adopted. That information had stayed a secret all these years at Annie's insistence. Instead, she looked Ruthie in the eye and said, "You made your bed, I hope you're happy lying in it."
Annie would never know that, having found the adoption papers a couple of years earlier while in the attic where she didn't belong, Ruthie nearly responded with the words that were on her lips: "If I were your real daughter, your flesh and blood, you would not be treating me like this." Instead, Ruthie said nothing as Annie turned her back and walked away.
* * *
Cancer shrunk my Aunt Ruth. Despite the radiation and chemotherapy treatments, the disease ate at her body, and over the last few months of her life, I saw her grow progressively weaker, until she became bedridden in the same nursing home where she had almost daily visited her husband, Chuck, until his death.
The Ruth I knew had always been a woman who saw the bright side of even the darkest day. She rarely got angry, never scolded, and always had a joke or a warm, ready smile. Amazingly, though the cancer ravaged her body, it never broke her spirit. At least twice a month, I drove from North Brookfield to New Hampshire to see her, and every time, she was upbeat. I marveled at (but now understood) the vast difference in personality and temperament between Aunt Ruth and my mother, Pauline.
Certainly, while growing up I had noticed the disparity, especially during my teenage years when it seemed that my mother and I fought over everything. There were times when I would toss in frustration at my mother "I bet Aunt Ruth would let me." My mother's cool response would always be, "Would you like to go live with your Aunt Ruth?" As tempted as I might be at the moment, I immediately thought of the prospect of living with Chuck and kept silent. I had long since stopped spending the two weeks every summer at the Vernons' apartment in Cambridge, then at their retirement mobile home community in New Hampshire. After the uncle that I thought I knew had betrayed my trust in him, I could hardly stand to look at him let alone live there.
My aunt's perpetually sunny disposition had its drawbacks too, however, by discouraging any bad news or negativity. It forced people to feel protective of her good-natured innocence. Since she always remained positive, people around her felt a responsibility to stay positive too. Ruth was not the go-to person to vent anger or feelings of injustice, at least, not for me, nor for my mother. When a woman is angry, she wants the person to whom she vents to feel anger on her behalf, a sort of vicarious misery-loves-company attitude very common among members from both the Irish and French-Canadian sides of my family. My mother had this down to a science, sometimes even to the extreme. She and I would feed off of each other's anger over an injustice done to one of us, until it reached its crescendo, whereupon we could wind down and feel refreshed and ready to move on with our daily lives. Aunt Ruth, however, seemed to lack the ability (the genetic trait? I now wonder) to carry it off and really never even seemed to see the point in trying.
Many times over the years, Ma said to me, "I don't get my sister" and proceeded by relating her most recent attempt at a serious discussion with Ruth, who just didn't have it in her to be serious. I remember many comments my mother made about her "little" sister (referring to height rather than age) and how she wondered how they could be so different. "I don't know where she gets it," Ma said about this or that trait of Ruth's, her remarks making it even harder for me to wrap my head around the fact that Ma knew about the adoption and had kept it from me. Ma had told me so many stories about her own childhood and about my grandmother Annie that I felt almost as if I had grown up with her. Ma's detailed accounts have allowed me to crawl into the skin of this woman who died before I was born and know how she would respond in a given situation. She made Annie come alive for me. My mother had also told me about Ruth's elopement and how, though only a small child, she vividly remembered the police bringing her teenage sister through the back door, the yelling afterward, and then the cold silence that lasted for days. So why hadn't she told me about the adoption? Perhaps for the same reason Annie had never told her: to protect Ruth.
Of course, now that the adoption information was out in the open, I wanted to talk about it, to ask my aunt how she felt about it when she found out and how or whether it changed her, but she insisted the past is the past, so I stopped asking. Not trying to be stubborn, Aunt Ruth simply stayed true to her nature never to dwell on the unpleasant.
The week before she died, Ruth turned eighty nine. Because her birthday fell on a Thursday, and my daughter, Chloe, was in school, I decided to make the trip to New Hampshire on the upcoming Saturday, but I still called to wish my aunt a happy birthday. As far back as I can remember, every year on my birthday, Aunt Ruth would call me and begin singing the birthday song as soon as I picked up the phone. Somewhere along the way, I began reciprocating. This year, I struggled to sound cheerful as I sang, knowing this birthday call to her would be my last. The doctors had already informed the family that Ruth had reached the point of receiving only the drugs to keep the pain "manageable." All actual treatment for the cancer had been exhausted.
As soon as I finished the song, Aunt Ruth surprised me by beginning it again, singing it to herself: "Happy Birthday to me . . . Happy Birthday to me . . . " in a voice so weak she had to pause at the end of each line to gather the strength for the next line. Tears trickled down my cheeks, but I could not let her know that I was crying, just as I could never have shattered her trust and belief in the goodness of her husband by revealing his attempt to molest me. That kind of pain and disappointment had no place in her world, just as acknowledging the pain of cancer and a lingering death had no place in her world. Coming from anyone else, the birthday song being sung while dying and half groggy from morphine would have struck me as bitterness, but coming from my aunt, it fit as a natural response to her condition. I remembered how my mother had reacted to her own failing health, angry and despairing over what she saw as her body's betrayal. I could understand that reaction and could see myself behaving similarly. In contrast, however, Aunt Ruth continued to treasure and find joy in each day of her life. Once again, just as I had so many times before, I marveled at her resilience.
Two days later, I stood at the foot of her bed as she attempted coherence through the haze of the pain killers increased to get her through the end as comfortably as possible. Before the close of the following week, Ruth would slip into a coma and quietly pass on, but now, though she recognized and greeted me, she rambled about events and people from her past, something I had never before known her to do. I only half listened until she started talking about her parents, my grandparents, Annie and Homer Martin, and what she referred to as "the trouble."
"I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused them," she said, her eyes closed. "I didn't mean to."
I didn't know how to respond. Should I respond?
"I was in love," she continued, "We were in love."
I remained silent since she didn't seem to be looking for answers. In her drugged state, perhaps she was no longer aware of what she was saying.
"But it was never the same afterwards," she said. "She never forgave me."
I assumed "she" referred to Annie, and though I'd not heard it from my mother, her older cousins had told me about the "tension" between Ruth and Annie that lasted even after the birth of Ruth's first baby, second baby, and right up until Annie died of pneumonia when my mother was twenty one, Ruth thirty one and pregnant with her third child.
"And Poll got the house," Aunt Ruth said, referring now to my mother, "Poll got everything. I didn't get any of it."
Now I felt uncomfortable and a little guilty. My mother had told me that after Annie died, she and her first husband Johnny had moved into the house with their son Jay to "take care of Pa," who arranged to sell her the family home (where I now lived with my family) for one dollar. It never occurred to me to question what my aunt had received or why my mother, as the younger sister, had been executrix of Annie's estate and had been given power of attorney over Homer's finances. Obviously, I realized now, Ruth's feelings had been hurt enough for the slight to be on her mind over fifty years later while on her death bed. Yet I had never heard her say an unkind word about either of my grandparents, nor seen or felt any resentment directed toward my mother. Even now, Ruth's tone was not bitter or angry, just sad.
"It's okay though," she said, her voice weak and breathy, her eyes still closed. "I don't blame anyone. It wasn't their fault. It was right to leave everything to Poll. She was their daughter. I was adopted."
Donna Girouard is a full time Instructor of English at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and the faculty adviser for their student literary magazine, The Bear's Tale. Her essays can be found in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Writer's Bloc, Embodied Effigies, Apeiron Review and The Oklahoma Review. Donna Girouard is an Assistant Professor of English at Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, and faculty adviser of the college's literary-arts magazine, The Bear's Tale. Her essays can be found in Storm Cellar Quarterly, Writer's Bloc, Embodied Effigies, Apeiron Review and The Oklahoma Review. Her essay "My Mother After All" will be in the next issue of Writer's Bloc, and her essay "Shhh" will be in the November issue of Storm Cellar.