I sat on my mother’s pristine leather couch, second-guessing why I’d even come. We never got along much when I was growing up and lost touch when I went to college. She thought I should have stayed at home and worked at the family brewery with her and my brother; I couldn’t think of anything I’d want to do less.
When I’d told her I wanted to be a writer instead, she’d all but disowned me. She had no respect for such careers and was determined to convince me that it was foolhardy and that I could never make a living at it.
It had been a year since I’d so much as talked to my mother but certain...circumstances had made me break my silence. My mother hesitantly allowed my request to visit for a couple of days. When she’d asked me why, I’d told her that I was homesick. She’d bought it.
We’d had an awkward supper together after I’d arrived and I excused myself to bed early.
So I sat on the couch the next morning, pretending to read the newspaper while I waited for my mother to leave for work. She called out a quick goodbye as she finally left. I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard her car leave the driveway.
I made my way upstairs, feeling guilty for sneaking around my mother’s house, but I had good reason; and it was the reason I was there in the first place. I pulled down the ladder to the attic and began my search.
A week beforehand, I had received a letter from an aunt I never knew existed; it was in her will that I receive it upon her death. It contained so much information that it had my head spinning. My Aunt Camilla was my mother’s sister who was outcast from the family because she’d moved out of home young, wanting to explore the world with her boyfriend instead of working at the brewery. She wanted to be a journalist. While they were saving up money, Camilla wrote a book and was planning to get it published. My mother learned about this and stole the printed manuscript from her - the only copy. She tried to get it back on a number of occasions but my mother always insisted she’d never taken it. This was relevant now because it had become my mission to find this manuscript. Camilla believed that my mother would have kept it close because it held so many truths yet hidden for the same reason.
My aunt had stumbled across some of my work on a writing website she also used and recognized my name. After some research, she learned who I was and began to follow my work. She must have felt some comradeship in our similarities as I had unknowingly been added into her will to inherit her cottage. It was her writing retreat and, having no children of her own, she decided to pass it on to a family member who would use it for its intended purpose.
The catch was that the key to the cottage had been left with her agent and the only way I would receive the key would be if I could retrieve her lost manuscript and deliver it to her agent.
I loathed the idea of going back to my mother’s and playing nice with her but I also hated the thought of snooping through her house. Being an honest and upfront person, the entire charade made me entirely uncomfortable, even if the item I was searching for was stolen in the first place.
The day passed quickly as I searched meticulously through the countless boxes and totes in my mother’s attic. A lot of the boxes were filled with old paperwork that slowed me down and I found a whole section of totes filled with old holiday decorations and children’s toys that I’d long forgotten. It was mid-afternoon when I found a box with a heavy lock on it. I was intrigued and yet, where was the key? I could only surmise that the manuscript must be in this old box as I’d found it nowhere else. Of course, there was the possibility that the manuscript simply wasn’t there which led to multiple levels of disappointment for me. It would have meant a fruitless and meaningless visit with my cold mother. I also couldn’t deny that I would be disappointed in missing my opportunity to have my own cottage.
In my searching, I hadn’t found a key, so I was left to wonder where in this large, empty house it could be hiding. I figured if the box held something important to my mother, maybe she would keep the key close - her bedroom perhaps.
I made my way to the bedroom, fearing my mother coming home and catching me. Going against every fiber of my being, I took a deep breath and began rooting through her dresser drawers. I cringed as I went through a lingerie drawer. When I found nothing, I moved on to an ornate jewelry box on top of the dresser. The bottom drawer revealed a tarnished silver key and I sighed in relief, hoping this was the key I was looking for.
I was becoming increasingly anxious as time went on so I hurried back up to the attic and clumsily fitted the key into the lock. I let out a long breath as I heard the click and the key turned, allowing me entrance to the mystery box.
On top were piles of photos from my mother’s childhood. There were three children but I only recognized two - my mother and my Uncle Tom. My mother always told me she had no pictures from her childhood. Did she hate her sister so much? I then found a family photo. I didn’t know what my grandparents looked like, but I still recognized them immediately. My mother looked just like her own but carried the scowl of her father.
I continued digging through the countless photos until I finally came across a large, thick envelope and felt my heart skip a beat. I opened it and tugged the papers out just enough to see the title. It read, My Life Behind Brewery Doors by Camilla Eastman. I hugged the envelope tight and replaced the box to where I’d found it.
As I hurried down the ladder and replaced it into the ceiling, I heard a car pull into the driveway. With all the speed I could muster, I ran to my mother’s room to replace the key then to my own room to hide the manuscript. I just made it to my room when the front door opened. I fell back onto my bed, heart hammering, feeling like I’d just pulled off a heist.
The evening was another quiet one. I was glad I would be leaving this life-sucking place the following day. I was sure I acted as jittery as I felt, but my mother didn’t seem to notice. Knowing I wouldn’t be disturbed, I shut the door to my room as soon as the sun set and pulled out the manuscript. I had to know what it held.
I flipped through the pages, skimming through them, and found myself more and more shocked as I went through. The book seemed to be an account of Camilla’s childhood and it rocked me because it was also my mother’s. According to this book, my mother and her siblings were beaten by a drunk man and were made to work at the brewery as soon as they were able to walk. Their mother never stood up for them and they lived an unbearable lie of a happy family.
Learning this new information made me see my mother in a new light; I understood a little more about why she was the way she was. I could also understand why my mother had stolen the manuscript when she’d learned of it. I might ruin the brewery and affect her reputation in the process.
Now I was in a conundrum. Should this book be released to the public? I didn’t want to hurt my mother but it was my aunt’s dying request that her book be found and finally published. I couldn’t sleep; I stayed up all night thinking about it.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, when I thought my brain was all but broken, I came up with the solution. Aunt Camilla may not have thought it the best option, but at least her story would finally come to light.
I allowed myself a couple of restful hours of sleep before I called her agent to let her know I’d found the lost manuscript. I would bring it to her but I had a few conditions; all of the names must be changed and it must be published under a pseudonym. I felt such relief that I’d found a way through this mess and that the woman on the phone agreed to my terms. I would drive to her immediately to make the exchange for the key to my new cottage.
I turned the key in the lock and opened the door to my new retreat. It smelled of herbs and books and I instantly felt at home. I rummaged through everything, unable to get enough of the place.
There was a library stocked to the ceiling and I found original manuscripts to all of my aunt’s books (which I’d never gotten to read but put them at the top of my list). I found old journals and, best of all, I found unfinished books. I felt saddened that she was unable to finish them but I knew then that it was my task to do so.
I wished I had been able to meet and get to know my Aunt Camilla but reading her works and living in her cottage made me feel as though I knew her intimately. I wrote her letters to tell her about my life and how I felt so connected with her. I kept them hidden away in a box that I labelled “Letters to Camilla”. They were my story. And perhaps one day someone would find them and feel as I did when I found Camilla’s lost manuscript. Maybe I could make someone feel loved and comfortable as she had for me.
A year after the fact, I approached my mother and told her what I’d done. The guilt of stealing from her was too much to bear. I apologized and even forgave her for my childhood now that I knew more about her past. My mother, however, could not forgive me for my transgression. I forgave her for that too. She had lived a life of lies for too long. I vowed to live differently; inspired by the courage of my Aunt Camilla.