I stare at the faded Polaroid of my mother in the arms of a tall, blond stranger, who looks vaguely familiar. Both of them are turned toward the camera with happiness from newly ignited love glowing from their faces and every nuanced curve of their entwined bodies. My opinion of love, since my divorce, is that when the passion burns out, nothing’s left but cold ashes. I frown and glance at the bottom white edge of the photo where I read my mother's perfect handwriting. "The happiest day of my life. June 24, 1974."
Who is this man? Where is he now? I don’t remember her ever talking about him.
I toss the photo onto the bed among the rest of the clutter I dumped from my mother’s top bureau drawer. It’s a jumbled mess of stuff from her life that she no longer remembers—stuff I'm attempting to sort through as I clean out her house before putting it on the market.
Because of my mother's worsening dementia, I’m the one who has to do this. She, like me, is all alone since Dad died of a sudden heart attack two years ago, and other than my brother Jonathan, who has a family and isn’t as available, there’s nobody else who cares.
I sigh. It’s hard making decisions for a parent who is no longer able to. She deteriorated so quickly, I haven’t had time to adjust to the role reversal.
I pick up the photo again. Behind the happy couple is what looks like a picnic table and the remains of lunch. My mother is wearing a long orange, green, black, and white geometric design halter dress that shows lots of cleavage. Her long dark hair, in a Cleopatra cut, frames enormous dark eyes—eyes that I have inherited. The man, the stranger, is tall and rangy with a young Robert Redford look and a killer smile.
Hmmm. So Mom had a serious boyfriend before Dad—a handsome, blond man. I wonder what happened to him?
I look at the date again, written on the bottom of the Polaroid. June 24, 1974.
I was born March 21, 1975.
A jolt of realization takes my breath away. The stranger looks like a male version of me!
I sit down quickly on the bed amid the clutter, my mind scrambling to make sense of this.
The father I grew up with was a large, quiet man with dark, perfectly combed hair and hazel eyes that usually looked past me when he spoke to me. His face was too white and puffy, and when he smiled, which wasn't often, you saw that he had very crooked bottom teeth.
Every evening when he arrived home from work, he would say to me, "Hi there, Poppet," in a deliberate sort of way before he gave my mom a kiss. After he changed out of his suit, he would sit in the living room, watching the news on TV until supper was ready. At least that's what he did until my brother Jonathan was born.
Right before my brother was born, while he was safely tucked inside my mom's swelling belly, she let me listen to his drumbeat heart and watch the ripple of a knee or elbow go across her belly that was stretched so tight I thought a pin prick would burst it open and that's how the doctors would get him out.
He came out—not the way I had imagined—as 8.4 pounds of squalling, wrinkly redness. I had pictured him as a live baby doll, something pink and placid that I could push in my doll carriage. That, he was not.
But it wasn't just my disappointment in the reality of my baby brother—the reality of runny yellow poop and bouts of inconsolable crying. What set my mind firmly against my little brother Jonathan, at least when he was small, was the way my father acted around him.
The day after Jonathan came home from the hospital, my father became a different person.
"How's my little man?" he'd say, dancing around the room, holding Jonathan, a grub in footed pajamas.
As Jonathan grew from grub to a slightly more complex creature, my father became ecstatic over a smile, a new tooth visible through the drool, and often remarked about the thick head of fine dark hair, unlike mine, that was Jonathan's signature from day one. My straight blonde hair, which I have put into a ponytail while I’m working, is different from every other member of the family.
So that explains the barrier between my father and me! I could never make him look at me the way he looked at Jonathan, no matter how hard I tried. Although it makes sense now, I still feel in my heart the failure from all the frustrated efforts on my part to connect with him. If it hadn’t been for my loving mother…
I close my eyes, my mind unable to make sense of this new information and collate it into the memories that were my reality up until now.
There is more sorting to do, yet my world as I knew it has just exploded. I can do nothing more today, physically or mentally. I'll go home, pour myself a glass of Pinot Grigio, and try to rearrange the pieces of my life.
As I leave the bedroom, I tuck the Polaroid into my purse.
I’m on my second glass of wine when I remember the portable metal box that holds my mother’s legal papers. It was the first thing I brought to my condo for safe keeping and has her birth certificate, marriage license, insurance information—all the important papers that she can no longer be responsible for.
Hurriedly I gulp the last swig of wine and go to the closet where I stashed her box behind my ski boots. My hands shake as I lift it out. What will I find?
My mother, like me, is not the most organized person, so all the papers are mixed together. I carefully remove them and examine each one. There’s a speeding ticket—who would have guessed that my demure mother would exceed the speed limit?—an expired mortgage agreement for the house I grew up in, and yes—a marriage license!
The license is dated October 6, 1976. I was a year and a half old. Behind the license and attached with a rusted paper clip is another document—adoption papers showing that Joe adopted me as his child.
The impact of the discovery freezes my mind momentarily. This is proof of what I suspected and feared. Joe Casselton is not my father. My mother was knocked up by a good-looking blond man, whom she never told me about, and I was the result. Why didn’t she tell me? Who is he? Where is he?
It isn't until the next weekend that I have the time and the courage to return to my mother's brown cedar-shake home a block from the ocean. It's a cozy, quaint little house with nooks and crannies, and it used to be my grandparents’ home. I can’t walk in the door without remembering the delicious terror from Poppy’s bear hugs and recalling the taste of Grammy’s walnut brownies fresh from the oven. After Grammy and Poppy died, my mom and Joe moved there. I was busy with my new married life and came only for holidays. At one time, I thought I'd like to move in after my mom had to go to the nursing home, but it would have meant a long, miserable commute through heavy interstate traffic. So I live an hour away in my condo, the one I bought after my divorce.
I return to my mother's house with firm resolve to find out everything I can about the man in the Polaroid photograph. I have told no one about my find, not even Sue Ellen, my best friend from college who’s like a sister to me.
It has snowed since I was here last weekend, and because no one is living in the house, I've stopped the shoveling service. I go up the front steps sideways for more traction in the two-inch accumulation of snow. Gripping the metal railing, I feel its coldness through my glove.
As I open the front door, I wonder, What else will I find here today?
The living room with its rounded stone fireplace has been cleared of personal items. Jonathan and I have civilly sorted through the books and knickknacks, taking what we wanted and boxing the rest to give away. We did the same with the dining room and kitchen. All that is left to be cleared are the attic and my mother's bedroom, where she slept alone for the last year she was here. I agreed to deal with my mother's things in her bedroom as Jonathan dealt with our father's personal belongings when he died. Neither of us has been in the attic since we played there on rainy days as children.
I walk into the bedroom and glance at the bed covered with dresser drawer clutter. Might there be more Polaroids? Or a memento from the mystery man?
Half of me wishes the photo had never shown up—that my life would continue running in well-worn grooves of predictability. The other half of me is intrigued and wants to learn the truth, even though it might leave me vulnerable and unconnected to the family safety net I thought I had.
I rifle through the scattered pile of tangled jewelry, scarves, empty perfume bottles, little ceramic dishes with hand-painted flowers. There are no more photographs. Rather than sort through what is spread on the bed, I open up another dresser drawer full of underwear, nylon stockings, wool socks, pajamas, and feel into their soft depths for paper or something solid. Nothing.
The next two drawers again yield nothing of interest. I walk to the clothes closet, remembering how less than a year ago I had selected clothes from this closet that I thought my mother would wear in her new life in the Alzheimer's unit. It had not been easy then, and it wasn't easy now realizing that all those clothes so carefully chosen are no longer worn. My mom stays in bed all day now, and when I visit, she often has no idea who I am.
I stop to let the feeling of sadness flow over and past me, a common sensation I'm learning to live with. When it passes, I look up at the top shelf to a row of boxes labeled with dates. The leftmost one says "2000–2005." I pull it down and find folders with old receipts. I want a box with records from 1974, but the oldest box is "1980–1985." My father Joe was an accountant and kept meticulous records, a quality I did not, and apparently could not, inherit from him.
The attic. It's the only place left that might contain a clue.
The attic is accessed through a small door off the upstairs hallway. Whatever is there probably hasn’t been touched for years. My retired parents were not very agile, and the stairs have a narrow tread and curve sharply.
Entombed cold air with the scent of cedar assaults my nose. Surprisingly, the attic looks empty. Then I remember my mother’s obsession when her parents died about getting the house ready for renters. She hired people to clean all her parents’ clutter out of the attic, the clutter of old magazines and comic books, empty milk bottles, even an old spinning wheel. I look around in the dim light coming from the dusty window, nostalgic for what used to be there. It appears that the only thing in the attic is a steamer trunk that looks too new to have been my grandmother’s. It’s big and I can’t carry it down the stairs by myself. I’ll have to open it up here and get Jonathan to carry it down later.
Fortunately, the trunk is not locked and I’m able to open the snap fasteners holding it closed. As the top rises, I see clothing. Old dresses, hats, and purses from the seventies. There’s even the orange, green, and black geometric dress from the Polaroid. I groan with disappointment. I was hoping for letters and documents.
“Mom!” I say like I did when I was a teenager. “What were you thinking?”
I’m about to let the top crash down to punctuate my dashed hopes when I see a red clutch leather purse. Very retro. I could use something like that with the red heels I bought on sale last month.
I take the purse out and let the trunk top fall with a satisfying crash. I don’t bother to re-attach the snap fasteners.
So much for more information about my real father. Best to let the whole matter go and get on with my life.
I retrace my steps down the narrow curved stairwell. Back in my mother’s bedroom, I get down to business, sorting and boxing everything. It’s dark when I finally leave the house with my head full of what must be done next—call a Realtor, get the house appraised, perhaps paint the living room a more appealing color, get estimates for updating the kitchen and bathrooms and see if it makes sense in terms of raising the value of the house.
It isn’t until bedtime that I remember the red purse. I bring it to my closet to see if it matches my shoes, and it does. Perfectly! It’s well made, but I can’t find the label. I open it, hoping to find the name brand inside. The cream colored satin lining is in good shape, but I still don’t see a label. A zippered compartment on one side bulges. I unzip it. Inside is a folded piece of letter paper that is worn on the edges. I open it slowly.
June 25, 1974
My tired body is here in the barracks after a 5-mile run, but my mind is floating with memories of our recent two days together. Mind blowing days!
Speaking of floating, I’m glad I decided to "float" on your dad's fishing boat. I saw you selling tickets and I was “sold”. It was the start of the best thing that's happened to me in years! I haven't been this happy since my college basketball team won the division title!
Tomorrow I have to go to Vietnam for a year. Major bummer! The good news is that the war is as good as over and I can see the light at the end of my tunnel. The bad news is that I've been assigned to the transition team and security will be tight. You can't call me and I can't make calls either.
You are a beautiful dream and one that I will treasure until I can wake up with you in my arms again.
Please don't forget me.
After reading it through twice, my shaking hands fold the letter and put it back into the zippered compartment where it was probably kept for over 40 years.
I wonder how many times my mother read the letter. Hundreds? Thousands? I imagine the joy she felt when she read it the first time and maybe even the first twenty times. Did she write him? Did he write her back, and if so, where are his other letters?
My thoughts move from my mother to me and what I want to do next. Do I want to find out about this Steve Nathan? It seems that he is my father, and he obviously loved her. Or was it more of a “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am?” What kind of a man was he? What have I inherited from him?
The questions flow into thoughts of my grandfather, who used his fishing boat for guided tours in the summer. My mom, who helped out during college breaks and afterwards while she was teaching elementary school, was an accomplished fisherwoman. She caught the record swordfish one of those summers. In spite of my heritage, I don’t have the patience for fishing, and rough waters make me nauseous.
My mind drifts back to what I now know about this Steve Nathan, probably my father. He was athletic. He ran five miles and was a basketball player. A good basketball player. He was a smooth talker. “You are a beautiful dream and one that I will treasure until I can wake up with you in my arms again.”
And either he really couldn’t be reached by phone after he went to Vietnam, or he knew how to tell a damn good lie.
I start to feel anger rise within me. How dare he use my mother the way he did! How cavalier and irresponsible! Just who did he think he was? God’s gift to women? Or—and this thought puts a freeze on my anger—maybe he died.
How I wish my mother could tell me more. Why didn’t she tell me when she could? Who can tell me more? I remember that my mother has a younger brother, my Uncle Bob, who lives in Minneapolis. Apparently Uncle Bob left home right after high school and married a woman who refused to leave Minnesota to meet his family. I only met him once when he came to my grandmother’s funeral. And my impression of him was that he was loud and drank too much of our booze.
I search my phone contacts to see if I have a number for Uncle Bob. I don’t. My mother’s old Rolodex is in one of the boxes I’ve stored for her. I rifle through one box then another and finally find it. Robert Groton.
I dial his number. It rings three times, and I do a mental check to see if it’s a respectable time for calling someone in Minnesota. It’s one hour earlier than here in New England, so yes, even though he’s old, he should be awake.
“Hello,” a male voice says.
“Uncle Bob? This is Lindsey. Your niece.”
“Lindsey? Alice’s daughter? Is she…”
“Oh, my mother is fine. Well, as fine as possible.” I hesitate. I can’t just jump right in demanding answers. That would be rude. “How are you doing, Uncle Bob?”
“Passably well, I think.”
There’s an uncomfortable pause during which I hear what sounds like the pop top of a beer can. I decide to stop playing etiquette games. “Uncle Bob. I know this call is unexpected, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m calling you, but you are the only person I can think of who might be able to answer some of my questions. You see, while going through my mom’s things at the house, I came across a photograph and then a letter.”
Uncle Bob says, “I was wondering when I’d get a call like this.”
“You did? You mean…”
“Yes. Go on. Tell me what you found.”
“A Polaroid photograph of my mother with a tall, blond stranger, dated nine months before I was born, and then a letter from someone named Steve Nathan to my mother.”
“That would be the one.”
“The one? What do you mean?”
“His name was mud in our house for a good many months! Not sure how much detail you want me to lay on you, but he sure was one unpopular guy.” Uncle Bob seems to relish telling me this as if he had been holding in the secret for decades and finally was permitted to talk about it. “Let me tell you, you almost weren’t born! Your mom fought daily with our parents over whether to have an abortion, give you up for adoption, or keep you until the golden boy returned from ‘Nam.”
The idea that I might not have been born hits me with sudden force, and I tune out of the rest of the conversation until I hear Uncle Bob say, “Then she contacted the military and found out that Steve Nathan was killed. Right at the end of the war.”
I had thought it was a possibility earlier, but really, he was killed? Steve Nathan was killed?
“Your mom could be stubborn, as I’m sure you know, so in spite of pissing off our parents, she decided to keep you, saying you were the only thing she had left from the love of her life—this Steve Nathan guy. Of course, then she met Joe Casselton when you were a baby and you know the rest.”
I am numb. My dad was killed? I’ll never get to know him?
Uncle Bob stops talking, and I am unable to say anything for several moments. Finally, I say, “Thank you,” but I’m not really thankful at all, only confused.
“Any time,” Uncle Bob says. “Oh, and give my regards to your mother.”
“Thank you,” I say again like a robot.