Clara sat at her mom’s desk. It had been over six months since her mom died. She knew she was overdue cleaning out her mom’s house. She picked the perfect day for it. The sky was an obnoxious grey and the clouds were about to explode at any minute. She opened the first desk drawer and riffled through the array of papers, pens, pencils and old stationery. At the bottom of the drawer was an old photograph. Clara didn’t recognize the older woman in the picture. The black and white picture with an attractive woman probably in her early 30’s.The woman was dressed in a long dress and a silly sun hat, haunting black eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. Clara turned the picture over hoping to find a clue as to who the woman was. On the back of the picture was written. “Circa 1920” nothing more. Clara set the picture aside and continued rifling through her mom’s desk drawers, throwing away old papers and keeping old stationery for herself. She had gone through all 4 drawers and looked at the picture again. She was drawn to that picture. The woman's eyes had a story to tell. Clare could feel it and she needed to find out who this mystery woman was behind those deep eyes. There was only one person who would know.
“Hi Aunt Bea, this is Clara. How are you?” Clara asked her aunt when she answered the phone.
“Clara, dear, how are you? I’m hanging in there. I can’t stop thinking about my sister, Rina. I miss her so much. I still cry every day. Does that sound dumb? I just wish she was here. And the horrible way she died. Killed by a drunk driver.”
“I know. I think about Mom every day too. I still cry almost everyday also. But, I was over there at mom’s house the other day and I found a picture of a woman that I don’t know. It’s a woman in her 30’s I think. The picture was taken before you guys were even born. I was wondering if I could bring it over and you can look at it and tell me if you know who she is. I can swing by around noon. Is that okay with you, Aunt Bea?”
“Sure Honey. I will be here all day. I will make some of that tea you like and we can have some cookies with it. I can’t wait to see you.” Aunt Bea said, hanging up the phone.
Clara couldn’t stop looking at the old photograph and wondering who the woman was. The woman looked a little like her grandmother but this woman wasn’t her grandmother. She hoped that Aunt Bea had the answer.
Aunt Bea tied up her long grey hair in a top bun and tucked in her light brown plaid shirt into her matching pants. Everyone thought Aunt Bea was younger than her years and she liked that. When she was younger she would say she was ten years younger than she was when she met men and none of them ever figured out her real age. Back then Aunt Bea was the life of the party. She was tall, curvy and had waist length red hair. She could out dance anyone and out drink most people. Her mom often wondered how she even finished college with straight A’s. But she knew how to study hard and party hard. After college she met her husband, Roman. Roman was the complete opposite of her. He was quiet and shy and loved to read mystery books. She had to make the first move to talk to him and almost thought she would have to propose marriage to him. But, he came around a year after they started dating and got on one knee and popped the question. They have been married for 53 years now.
The doorbell rang and she grabbed her cane and walked to the door.
“Hi Clara. Come on in. I have the tea on the stove and the cookies are on a plate on the table.”
Clara gave her aunt a big bear hug before they went to the kitchen table. She noticed that Aunt Bea had similar eyes to the woman in the picture. Maybe they were related.
“Where’s Uncle Clarence?” Clara asked, looking around.
“He’s out with his friends. They still play golf every Saturday at noon. I expect him back in a few hours. After golf they go and get something to eat and then he comes home and brags about his golf game.” Aunt Bea laughed.
“Aunt Bea. Look at this old photograph. Do you know who this woman is?” Clara handed the picture to her aunt.
Aunt Bea looked at the picture and turned it over and read the back. She held the picture closer to her eyes and put on her glasses. She turned it over again.
“Well, do you know who it is?” Clara asked.
“No.” Was Aunt Bea’s one word response.
Clara wasn’t sure if she believed her aunt. Something in her gut told her that she was lying. Aunt Bea never answered a question with one word. But, why would her aunt lie to her about an old picture? It didn’t make sense. Aunt Bea was the most honest person she knew. Clara decided to drop it for now and sipped some hot tea and ate a couple of chocolate chip cookies.
“Aunt Bea, do you mind if I look in your guest room? I think I left my earring on the dresser the last time I was here.”
“Sure. Go ahead. I will be here when you get back.” Aunt Bea said, blowing on her hot tea.
Clara didn’t go to the guest room, she went to Aunt Bea’s bedroom. She hated to lie and hated even more that she was about to search through her Aunts things without her permission. But, she remembered something when Aunt Bea was looking at the photograph.
She opened Aunt Bea’s dresser drawer but not the one where she kept her clothes, the secret one she kept behind the closet behind a secret door. Only a few people knew about it and Clara was one of the few. She pushed the button and the wall turned and the dresser was exposed. Aunt Bea kept things in there she didn’t want anyone to see. She told Clara about the secret room right after her mother passed away. She told Clara that if something happened to her go to the secret room and look in the dresser and there she would find her most important papers, jewelry and cash she put away. She instructed Clara only to open this room after her death and tell nobody. But, Clara couldn’t wait that long. She had to find out who the mystery woman was and she knew that the answer would be found here.
Clara carefully looked through each drawer. She made sure that she put things back in place exactly the way they were as she moved through the contents of the drawer. The first two drawers there was the usual stuff Aunt Bea told her about. She noticed some old pictures of her and her uncle on the day they got married, some old stationery, a will, some old checks she hadn’t cashed, some old love letters from old boyfriends, her college diploma and a wad of cash wrapped in a yellow rubber band. It wasn’t until she got to the last drawer that she found what she was looking for. Now that she found it, what was she going to tell her aunt? How can she bring it up now? Does she confront her and ask her why she lied? Clara didn’t know what to do so she put everything back and closed the drawer. But, she held on to what she found. That she put in her pocket.
Clara found her aunt sitting at the kitchen table where she left her sipping her tea. Clara sat down across the table from her and picked up her now lukewarm tea. She drank it and filled up her mug with more hot tea.
“Well, did you find what you were looking for?” Aunt Bea asked Clara.
“What do you mean?”
“Clara, I know damn well you didn’t leave anything in the spare room. You haven’t spent the night here for 6 months. The maid has cleaned that room at least twice after you left and she never told me anything about an earring or anything else left there by you or anyone else. So, I know you were snooping. Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Aunt Bea. I’m sorry. I was snooping.” Clara responded.
“Well, did you find it?”
“Aunt Bea. I am so sorry. I looked in your secret room and I went through your stuff and I found it.”
“Clara, I can’t say that I am surprised. You were always too nosey for your own good sometimes. What you saw was everything to see.” Aunt Bea said, walking towards the kitchen sink.
“Why didn’t you tell me that you knew the woman in the photograph, Aunt Bea?”
“I didn’t tell you because first of all I didn’t feel that the time was right. Second of all it is not like I was not going to eventually tell you and I was surprised that your mom didn’t tell you but I supposed she was embarrassed. She probably was just as embarrassed as I am right now. But, I guess it is time that you know that truth. Sit down cause it is going to knock you down if you aren’t sitting down.” Aunt Bea said.
Aunt Bea led Clara to the living room and they sat side by side on the flowered sofa with the plastic covering.
“I don’t know where to begin. But, okay, let me start from the beginning. The woman’s name as you now know is Eartha Fields. I am sure you found that when you were snooping and found my picture of her in my drawer right? Well, Eartha was our great aunt. She was Aunt Hattie’s sister. They were twins but couldn’t be different from each other. Eartha was more like me. She liked to have fun and she had a strong head for business. Hattie was more of the homebody type and got married and lived a simple quiet life with her husband, Major and their five kids. Eartha never got married. People used to call her an old maid. But, that is not what she was. Eartha danced to the beat of her drummer as they say. Eartha didn’t want to get married. She wanted to be single and free to do what she wanted. She didn’t want kids either. She thought all that would tie her down. Eartha moved away after her sister got married and she didn’t really keep in good contact with the family after that. Of course, they would receive the occasional Christmas card or a phone call every now and then but nobody really knew how she was living her life after she moved. She never went into details about her life. She would send money to her mom and sister twice a year. She sent it on Christmas and on Easter. It wasn’t a ton of money, around a hundred dollars. When they asked where she got it from or what kind of work she did she wouldn’t say. There was a reason she didn’t say.” Aunt Bea explained while holding Clara’s hand.
“What was the reason?” Clara asked.
“The reason was that Eartha was a lady of the evening to put it mildly, and later she became a madam. That’s how she made her money. Eartha ran a brothel for about ten years.” Aunt Bea said, looking at the ground.
“Really?” Clara didn’t know what to expect but she didn’t expect to hear this.
“Yes, we didn’t find out about it until long after she passed. One of her girls came looking for Eartha. She didn’t know that she had passed. Well, she found Eartha’s sister, Hattie, who told her that Eartha was gone. The woman came to give her something. She gave her that picture that you found in my drawer and $2,000. Eartha had told the young woman that if she didn’t hear from her in a year, please find her sister and give her that picture and money. The young woman did just that. I don’t know how my sister ended up with a picture of Eartha. Maybe she got it from one of the family but nonetheless she had one and I had one. Hers didn’t have the name written on it but mine did. I honestly wasn’t trying to keep a secret from you. I was going to tell you about Eartha and all the rest of the family history some day soon but just not today. But, I guess today was the day after all.” Bea said.
“Oh Aunt Bea. I understand. And I am not judging anyone for their life choices. Hell, nobody on this earth is a saint. Like my mama always said. Now, when are you going to tell me about the rest of the family? Our family seems to have a lot of “colorful” people in it.” Clara laughed.
“How much time do you have?” Aunt Bea laughed.
“I got all day and all night.” Clara said.
“Well, did I ever tell you about my cousin, Herman’s goat?” Aunt Bea winked.
“No, but, I am anxious to know.” Clara also laughed.