Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Family I Knew

Last month, my step-mother called from Kansas and made a simple request of me. In hushed tones, which said my dad was in the next room, she started, “Your father has all these old boxes – photos, files, documents – that have been in storage for years, and someone needs to clean them out. I would do it but George won’t let me throw out anything that was your mother’s.”

Dad at 83 is stubborn and thorny. This is nothing new, just aspects of his personality that expanded over the years. Cecilia, my step-mom, is a life saver. No, really, an honest-to-God life saver. A former RN, she saved Dad’s life when he had a heart attack in their living room two years ago. They married nine years ago when Mom died unexpectedly. Cecelia was my mother’s best friend in high school and married her cousin, who passed away the year before Mom, so my brothers and I had known her all our lives. Their marriage was a true blessing for everyone.

“Of course,” I said. “Ethan’s spring break is in two weeks and we will come out.” Terrible timing for my work, which I didn’t tell her, and Shannon my husband would not be coming due to his own work dramas. Ethan, our seven-year-old son, loved his grandparents and would be thrilled.  I would just make the trip work somehow.

As Ethan and I jumped in a rental car at the Denver airport and prepared for the five-hour drive, I thought of what we could expect to find in Kansas. Comfort food with lots of gravy cooked by Cecilia, glasses of wine poured by Dad, long games of Pinochle into the night, walks in the garden and around town, and Ethan getting too many toys to take home on the airplane. These things I know well and they never change.

The first morning after our arrival, Cecilia gave me a cup of coffee and took me to the basement. Fifteen boxes were stacked neatly in the corner. We pulled up two chairs and grabbed the first box. Slide trays – 17 trays with 40 slides each. A quick calculation in my head said 680 slides. I groaned. As a child, I loved these slides, sitting in the living room with the family, eating popcorn while Mom cringed at out-of-date hair and fashions, and the boys reminiscing about the Shetland pony my brother Eric won at a baseball game that proceeded to tear up our back lawn. As an adult, I saw only a huge project that would take many hours as I scanned these precious memories into digital files for the family. One more project on my list that would not be completed.

Next box we opened was old towels and sheet sets to beds long gone. With a Sharpie, I wrote “Goodwill” on the outside. Hopefully, the rest of the boxes would be this easy.

The third box was old photos and documents from my two grandmothers. Cecilia and I dusted this one off and took it upstairs to sort through at the dining room table, with fresh cups of coffee.

My dad wandered in the kitchen, walking slowly with his cane. His legs were beginning to betray him, not allowing him to stand for more than a few minutes unsupported. “What are you girls doing?” In addition to his legs betraying him, memory was also betraying him. “Remember, Dad, we are going through the old boxes this morning.”

I began to separate the photos into piles. My mother was in many of them. I miss her every day, and looking at these family pictures again made my heart hurt.

I laughed out loud when I saw a stack of old postcards, bundled neatly together with rubber bands. Grandma Lily, my father’s mother, kept every post card that my father and uncle sent her through the years. Our family trip to San Francisco when I was six was there, and our road trip through Utah was also represented by the colorful cards. Even more exotic were my cousins’ postcards from trips to Manchu Picchu and Brazil (they were always the more adventurous side.)

Toward the back of this pile was a small note card with a cute puppy on the front, colored bright yellow, circa 1974. It looked like something my mother would have bought for me to write thank you notes. As I opened it, the handwriting was definitely from a woman, with graceful loops and beautiful words, but it was not mine. “Dear Grandma,” it started. It had to be from my cousin Jodi, my only female cousin.

As I glanced at the bottom of the page, I was confused. “Love, Caroline.” Caroline? I flipped the note card and envelope over. It was addressed to Lily Brown, my grandmother. My stomach begin to feel nauseous, as it does when I start to do something I don’t want to do, like ride a roller coaster or get into an argument with my husband.

“Dad, who is Caroline?”

Cecilia turned heel and left the kitchen, informing Ethan that they were going for ice cream right now. He was thrilled, and I was still confused. After they left, I asked Dad again, “Who is Caroline?”

My dad always had an answer for everything, whether it was a quick joke or to wave you off when he thought something was unimportant. Instead he walked past me into the kitchen and slowly poured another cup of coffee.  He stared into the brown liquid for a few minutes, not looking at me. That nauseous feeling was getting worse in my stomach.

“I guess you need to know but there was never a good time to tell you kids,” he began. I sat with my mouth slightly open, want to say something but waiting. Something unexpected and perhaps unwanted was coming.

After a pause, I prompted again, “So… who is Caroline?”

“Well, she is… she is… let me think how to say this… well, she is… oh, what is the word?” he stumbled. Whether it was the Alzheimer’s which was beginning to show or simply a difficult conversation, his words were tearing me up. What seemed like ten minutes probably lasted ten seconds.

“She’s your half-sister.”

At 44, I thought I knew my family inside and out. I was finally comfortable with who I was, my relationships with my two brothers, my father’s distance and obstinance, losing my mother and dealing with a new step-mother at an advanced age. All the pieces were there, maybe they did not fit perfect but I knew where they went.

Four little words on a note card changed that. The family I thought I knew suddenly changed. My dad had another family before us, with two children. Now, I had a sister and another brother. Time to re-learn what I thought I knew.