Imagine my surprise when I opened an email last weekend from Reccia Mandelcorn, one of the judges for the One Book: One Aurora writing contest. Reccia leads our little writing group and the Thursday before, she reminded us that the deadline was September 30th.
The theme was Family Secrets. I thought, “Oh, why not” and found a piece I’d started work on many years ago. I certainly wasn’t prepared to write about any of our family secrets, so I edited the original and sent it in.
Lost in thoughts about secrets and truth-telling and risking everything that was dear to me, I wiped my hands across the red gingham apron and picked up the wooden spoon that had been my grandmother’s. Her name – burned on the thick handle and punctuated with a fat brown heart – was still faintly visible after decades of stirring, tasting and washing. Maude Evelyn.
Legend had it that my grandfather, one of the most plain-faced but whimsical men I’d met, wanted to distinguish himself from her other suitors who brought her candy and flowers and copied the lines of famous love poems on lined sheets of paper. Over the long, dreary winter before she agreed to marry him, he’d sat in front of the hearth after a long day in the barn crafting tables and chairs and bedframes from lumber he’d cut and planed himself, and lovingly inscribed one letter in curlicued script a night, using an awl heated white-hot in the glowing coals.
Grandma had been a beautiful, but relentlessly practical woman, tall of stature, with a wide, smiling countenance and long auburn hair always worn in a single thick braid. I can scarcely remember a time when she was idle. With seven children—five of them strapping big men—her hands were always occupied with knitting, mending, cooking and tending to farm chores. She’d been a bookworm, and when her sight began to dim, we grandchildren took turns reading to her. Shakespeare was her favourite, though. I well remember the hours we spent re-enacting swathes of dialogue from his plays, tripping around the parlour in cast-off clothes for costumes, with cardboard crowns and peeled beech sticks for swords. Somewhere in the attic, in an old sailor’s chest crammed with memories, are the needlepoint samplers she stitched of pithy phrases to hang in the bedrooms.
I’d always loved this semi-dreamy thinking time of day, when I’d come in from outdoors to take in my surroundings before starting to get dinner ready. Today, dust motes tumbled in the golden slant of late summer sun through the windows. Clouds of illuminated gnats swirled as if part of a living kaleidoscope. Barn swallows swooped gracefully over the kitchen gardens, leaving behind trails of screeching peeps that always reminded me of a freshly-carved pestle grating against a wet-wood bowl. I’d performed the same routine for so many years, cutting and sautéing, then stirring the chunks of fragrant beef with onions and garlic had become automatic, freeing my mind to sift and weigh the recollections I usually kept tucked away.
I was mulling over one of the lines I’d memorized from Hamlet: ‘God has given you one face, and you make yourself another’, when the scrape the Silverado’s tires on the driveway pulled me back to the now.
Why that line? Why didn’t I think of laundry or the fruit cobbler I was going to bake?
A minute later, a deep voice bellowed “MA!” and Gus’ size 14 boots crunched onto the wooden porch. He yanked the screen door near off its hinges and hulked in the doorway to the kitchen, throwing an outsized rectangle of shade across the pale pine floor. The dog lying under the table lifted one ear, broke wind then shifted his head from one paw to the other with a sigh. I turned from the stove, cooking fog thick on my bifocals. Still blind, I folded a pair of potholders around the bail of the cast iron skillet and when I could see again, I turned off the gas and slid the pan from the burner.
“Boots,” I said automatically, not concerned that he was riled. He had his good days and his not-so-good days.
Shuffle, thump. Bump, cuss, thump.
“Ma. They say Uncle Brewster left the land by Brushy Creek to that Myra woman that bought Sass Potter’s bar last year!”
“Hat!” I said, scraping the stew into a crockpot then deglazing the pan with some chicken stock. “And check that holler before you take another step, my boy.”
He tore off his straw field Stetson and hit the hook by the door with a much-practiced backhand pitch. Bareheaded, Gus was almost as tall as the lintel above the inside door. He was wearing a pair of the wool socks I’d knitted when he was in grade eight. They’d been washed and mended and sun-dried so many times the original red looked more like pink. He stomped over to the farm sink and scrubbed his hands and face in a lather of lavender soap. Given his mood, I didn’t tease him like I sometimes did about him smelling like a fancy-man.
“Did you hear me?”
He grumbled into the towel as he scrubbed dry, rawhide tied plait swinging off his neck. Gus was my youngest, but what used to be smooth and innocent in him had ripened to the texture of rough-cut swamp cedar. Born late and blonde, his eyes were mossy brown rather than the blue of his siblings and his hair had grown dark as a crow’s tail feathers. A gentle boy most of the time, he was half again as wide as his sire.
“Yes, I did. So?”
“That’s just not right, Ma.” The words sounded odd coming from the mouth of a hulking cowboy who’d been to war and back.
Gus came honestly by his highly developed sense of what should be right and what was wrong, having sat for decades around the kitchen table as his three older brothers and his sister debated with their philosophical doctor daddy, no subject safe from their chainsaw discourse.
“Give me a hand, will you? Who’s ‘they’?”
He picked up a clean metal spoon and stirred the meat mixture as I dumped in peeled carrot and potato chunks.
“Nate Simmons. Biddy Crossley.”
“Biddy is a drunken old fool and Nate must have forgotten about solicitor-client privilege. I don’t know what he ever saw in that woman!”
“Biddy does rattle on. But Nate should know about the will, wouldn’t he?”
I poured him a glass of sweet tea and filled a plate with banana muffins. We sat across from each other at the kitchen table, the nicked surface glowing ivory in a sunbeam. Head down, I picked apart my muffin, not wanting Gus to see my eyes. Of all my children, he was the one who could most easily penetrate my defences. He came by that honestly, too. My appetite was gone but not my grief. I tucked my trembling fingers into my lap and cleared my throat.
“It’s none of our business, is it? Besides, we don’t even know if Brewster’s real kin.”
“What do you mean, we don’t know?”
“His daddy–Carl, he was called—showed up at your grandpa’s door about fifty years ago in a broken-down Studebaker with Brewster strapped into the back seat. Brewster’s dad–if that’s who he was–was all beat up, with a forgetful mind and crooked baby fingers just like all the men in our family. And he had a satchel of mysterious papers we were never allowed to see. It was enough to get him a bed and a new pair of boots and Carl was your daddy’s new brother. Brewster never said much to anyone. Never gave your grandma a moment’s worry. Went to law school and bought some land, hired some farmhands and a series of housekeepers. He’s entitled to give it to whoever he wants.”
I remembered a hot summer day not unlike this one, when the air was as still as if etched in the blue-glass sky, the tree-lined hidden quarry pond was deep and cool and quiet, and a trio of Monarchs had rested for a spell on Brewster’s naked muscled flanks until I waved them away and pressed my lips to where they’d been.
Gus stared at his huge hands and flexed his long straight fingers. I could feel his eyes on me. The lid on the crock pot sputtered. He chewed three muffins and leaned back in the chair, the old joints squealing under the strain.
“Did he ever get married, have a girlfriend?”
“Not that we knew of. Lived out of town with the help. Sometimes he’d disappear for weeks at a time—we never knew where he’d gone. We heard stories but there was never a permanent Mrs. Uncle Brewster.”
Because I’d said, no, I couldn’t leave the life I had, hurt the people who loved me, not even for him, no matter how long he’d wait. And he’d never leave me, he’d said, so he always returned.
Gus stomped to the fridge and refilled the pitcher, then our glasses. The rich smell of simmering stew filled the warm kitchen.
“But why her? I thought I was his favourite.”
You were, my darling boy. You were his only son.
“Let me tell you something, Gus. Uncle Brewster loved you. Maybe he loved Myra. She took care of him when he got sick, didn’t she? Besides, this farm is our legacy to you when Daddy and I pass on. That’ll give you six quarters instead of the one.”
“But I don’t want this farm, Ma. Because of what having it would mean.”
Gus’ voice was angry but his face looked soft and unfinished.
Just like his father’s, when we’d wept our final goodbyes inside the half-burned barn.
“I don’t understand,” I said, but I did.
“I always thought, if I had Uncle Brewster’s quarter, I’d have enough land then.” He knelt beside my chair, arms around my waist, his head in my lap.
“But you could get married.”
“Maybe not. I’d stay and take care of you until you got so old I’d have to cook for you and read you stories. There’d be no need for any legacy, Ma. That’s what I’m saying.”
I lay my palm on the soft bristle lining Gus’ cheek. His steady breath warmed my fingers. The timer on the crockpot dinged. I put on my other face and gathered up the plate and glasses.