Look, I’m jaded af, okay? Very little surprises me, because I think humans are, well, human, and many of them have no business living in glass houses.
But today….color me whatever color “Holy fuck, I had no idea just how many skeletons could fall out of a closet” is.
I had a big family of great-aunts and uncles. My grandma had 9 siblings. One great-aunt, in particular, was perfect. I mean, she portrayed herself as such. Perfect home, perfect job, well-respected. Churchgoing. Educated. My great-uncle (my grandmother’s older brother) was cut from the same cloth. These were the people you “had to behave yourself” around. Their home was pristine, and beautiful. My grandma called her “uppity” and “a goddamned snob.”
They came to blows once, when my aunt and uncle were newlyweds and my aunt got a little too snarky with my grandma. At least, the blows came from my Scots Irish Gram, while my aunt cowered and whimpered. Grandma – she of the strawberry-blonde hair, fierce temper, and no-nonsense countenance, who would go on to attempt to murder my grandfather (you can read about that Here) with a butcher knife before leaving his deadbeat ass to support herself and two children and then marrying another dumbass who was mean to her kids so she had to take the piss out of him before leaving and deciding to use men as playtoys henceforth – did not take kindly to being poked with a stick. My aunt picked the wrong person, on the wrong day. She learned, quickly, but their bickering back and forth was the stuff of family legends. I’d never seen two women love/hate each other quite like them.
I was my aunt and uncle’s chosen favorite. I was showered with gifts, they babysat me, doted on me, and let me do things no one else could. I could go into their guest bedroom and touch all the pretty things no one else could touch, like all my aunt’s dolls and stuffed animals from childhood and her crystal decanters and fragile, porcelain figures. I was my uncle’s designated “train assistant” because their basement was a model train wonderland. They purchased special occasion dresses and shoes for me – expensive clothing my mother could never afford. They let me drink pink catawba at Christmas. My uncle adored me, but he smoked a pipe, and it both comforted/scared me, so it was rare that I even sat on his lap. My aunt spoiled the shit out of me, so much so that my mother was very jealous. She told people that “She has her sights set on my daughter. She would take her away from me if she could.” My grandmother agreed.
I wondered why such a loving couple, who obviously could have given children anything in the world, had never had kids of their own. I asked, and was told that they never had kids because they “couldn’t.”
Well, today, I know that answer to be false; at least partially. My aunt was actually able to have kids; so able, in fact, that she had a daughter in 1944, who was given up for adoption.
My aunt lived in a house absolutely filled with precious glass.
I received a letter, with proof, from that daughter today. She is 75 years old now, and wants to know her mother. She found me courtesy of my family tree on Ancestry. One of her relatives had contacted me about the possibility through Ancestry many months ago, but they were sort of vague so I forgot. She has since done her homework. She sent me a photo of when she was younger. She looked very much like my aunt. She also sent her pre-adoption birth certificate, unsealed by the state of New York. I will, of course, gather my wits about me and provide her with everything I can; remaining relatives are far-flung and may not have the info that I do. And much info, I have. And photos.
I feel conflicted, of course, given my close relationship with my aunt. Will it hurt my newfound cousin’s feelings to know that my aunt lavished so much attention on me, born when my cousin was 22 years old? Or will she realize what I did, almost immediately, after reading her letter: I was a surrogate daughter, given all the love and affection that she could not give to her own child, who she named “Becky,” a name very similar to her own. In any event, I will dig out every photo I can find, and I have a lot of writing to do. I would prefer to give her all the stories I have accumulated, all the memories, in person, but she is 75 years old now, and COVID-19 has effectively fucked up a heartwarming meeting with her.
It’s really depressing to know that I have this information now, when the cousins are scattered to the four winds and all the old people are long gone. I am about 99.9% confident that this was not something anybody, except possibly my uncle, knew about. She was living and working in Buffalo, New York, which was 100 miles away and a major trip back then. She worked in a Defense plant during the war, so her family may not have known, either. She either met soon after, or already knew my uncle (who was also stationed in New York State) because they were married 11 months later. I don’t think he was the father, because why wouldn’t they have married then? Given that we both did DNA tests and do not link as blood relations, he simply could not have been.
If this skeleton had been known, I would have already known this and not have been completely smacked upside the head with this information. This is the stuff that tenuous and volatile relationships, like my Gram’s and my aunt’s, feed upon. Would she have been looked down upon by our family? Certainly not; my mother, uncle, and I learned, the day of her funeral, that Gram herself had given birth to a stillborn daughter at age 16. The birth was attended by my great-grandma at home. I can only guess that the baby was buried, with no real ceremony, by my great-grandfather, who oversaw the cemetary grounds in those days.
However, my aunt’s family put on a lot of airs; they weren’t rich, but they did well. She tended to look down upon her sisters-in-law; she worked in offices, while they were housekeepers, factory workers, homemakers, and farmers. She had the grand, ranch-style home; they lived in apartments, trailers, or worse: still at home with great-grandma.
Still, my uncle was the salt of the earth and devoted to his family; he and my Gram were particularly close. Another family legend had them fighting, as teenagers, in the back yard. The next door neighbor was having a church-type meeting, and the attending minister was leading the guests in prayer. Suddenly, my Gram shouted, “GOD DAMN YOU, Forrie!” and my uncle shouted back, “God Damn YOU, Rhea!” At that point, the minister said “Amen.”
My aunt assimilated. She was a Rose. She, therefore, belonged. She was ensconced within a sacred trust. Even when a Rose daughter married, she did not become a Smith or a Covert or a Barr or a McKinney; her husband was now a part of the Rose clan. As Mando would say, this is the way.
No, if this was knowledge shared within the family, it would have been imparted to me to illustrate that “no one in this family gets to put on airs.” They didn’t know. That was her right. But now, everything about her genuine devotion to me makes so much sense.
I want to impart the fact that she was capable of such love to her daughter, my newfound cousin.
My aunt lived in a really thick, glass house. It did shatter, but at the right time: without anyone of importance knowing about it. I find that I respect her courage and her ability to keep such a big secret. In these days where everybody knows every fucking thing about every fucking body, right down to the ingrown hair on their butt cheek, it’s refreshing to know that I come from a family that knows how to really keep a secret. I’ve learned from the best.
I am looking forward to knowing my new cousin.