Lacey was about nine or ten when Joy, her Mum, asked her to go fetch her gold watch, while she and Robert, her Dad, were getting ready to go out. Lacey ran to fetch it, knowing this was a special sort of night out, as Mum and Dad never had dressed so grandly for ages. She gently slid the chest forward from the top of the cabinet, and let it drift down to sit on the edge of Mum’s bed. Lifting the arched wooden lid, there was the upper tray full of earrings and brooches.
She’d once sneaked a flick through what was under the tray, and knew Grandad’s medals were there, with folded up papers. Now she spotted just the corner of a photo. Before curiosity side-tracked her, she took the gold wristwatch out of its dark green velvet box on top of the papers, and back to her Mum. She watched as Joy swapped her watches. Now her watch matched her golden earrings.
“Have a good time,” Lacey said as Robert escorted her, arms linked, out through the front door.
“Can you put the watch back in the gold one’s case, please?” Joy called back over her shoulder.
Lacey nodded – and as soon as she heard the car engine start, she went to do what she’d been asked.
But as she lifted the tray out to stash the watch away, she gently pulled on the corner of the photograph. It was of a soldier from the United States, sepia toned, and signed on the back by a Jimmy Pjowski. She noted the face, the uniform and the spelling of the name. Then she made sure to put back the photo with the same corner just peeking as she’d found it. She never mentioned it to Joy.
When Lacey was fifteen, she was studying History for the National exams. World War Two was one of the topics, and her Dad let Lacey have a copy of every issue of a serial magazine History of the Second World War from her parents’ little shop.
She remembered the photograph, prompted by a very similar photo in one issue, and one early evening fetched it from its bed among the old papers.
“Mum, who is this Jimmy in the photo?”
Joy didn’t even look at it. She hissed “Don’t you ever touch that photograph again!” Her brow was sternly furrowed, her cheeks had her red spots of anger on them, her eyes were narrowed.
Lacey had never before seen her mum so livid, and for a moment thought mum was wanting to hit her.
“Sorry, Mum,” she said, and scampered to replace the photograph in its hiding place. For the first time, Lacey wondered if Robert knew what Mum kept in her jewellery box.
When Lacey was just eighteen, she too enrolled in Teachers College. On one visit home in the weekend, she chatted with Joy about what her days at teachers’ college had been like. Joy told her she’d been at two – the first in Wellington, then she’d completed her training at another at the other end of our island.
“We girls at training college would be invited to dances to partner with the American soldiers.”
“The dances were held for soldiers who were allowed off their ships for town leave. That was just after the war. Oh we had such fun…”
Many years later, after Joy had died, Lacey, with her sisters Tabatha and Marti and their younger brother Dylan set about sorting Mum’s mementos. After a day of deciding what to do about her big ticket items: furniture, sewing machine, piano, fine china, collected paintings, her own sketches, potted tropical plants, her hand-made china dolls… It was agreed that as Marti and Dylan had settled overseas, and Tabatha lived up in Auckland, they had no way to take anything.
Marti suggested, and Tabatha and Dylan agreed, Lacey could have Joy’s car, as well as the piano, for “being there when mum had been dying of cancer.” Dylan later found a note anyway, from Mum – saying Lacey was to have the piano, to let her boys learn music; so that was it.
They gradually made a lot of decisions, some easier than others. There were piles of things to give to Joy’s sister, her friends, the rest home she’d last lived in – Alzheimer’s a bitch, they all mourned. There were piles to donate to schools where Joy had been on the staff, and a pile of good household items to donate to the Salvation Army for selling to raise funds.
It did not go without tears, hugs and shoulder pats. They were tired and out of sorts towards mid-afternoon, so stopped to have a cup of tea and a snack before tackling the last, rather decently-sized, cardboard file storage box – the final job.
Perhaps they should have had a scotch, or a beer or two. Heaven knows they weren’t ready for what they found among the old bank statements, mortgage deeds, school reports… years of those last.
Decisions were easy – discard the statement and deeds, and all declared “I’ll take my school reports”…
Then, from a plain white, unlabelled envelope in the bottom of the box, Marti withdrew… their parent’s wedding certificate. She read the date aloud, as they listened in stunned silence.
Their Mum and Dad had married nearly two years after Tabatha, the eldest sister, had been born! And only a few months before Lacey was due to arrive.
The outbursts of outrage from both sisters were harsh.
“How dare she?”
“How could she?”
And outcries over what she’d ‘done to Lacey’, who had been banned from the family home.
At nineteen Lacey had had to tell Mum and Dad she was pregnant, with no chance of a relationship that would work as a marriage. Robert had “arranged things”, and Lacey was sent to her uncle and aunty in South Auckland. Joy told her she was to not write letters to her brother and sisters, nor to phone home. Alone and bewildered, Lacey stayed there for the time it took to bear the child, birth it, and arrange an adoption. before coming home. It had broken her heart, but she did it, somehow. The facts had later been learned anyway by the younger two somehow, sometime – no one was sure who told whom.
Through the turmoil of Tabatha’s anger and grief, Marti’s indignation, and Dylan’s complete withdrawal to the back garden to process it all deep inside, Joy’s teachers college memories came together like jig-saw pieces in Lacey’s mind.
She’d known that unmarried and pregnant teachers – who back in the forties had to complete three years’ service to become registered –were discreetly transferred to another college. She’d known that unmarried and pregnant or solo-mum teachers were, for their first postings, sent to isolated rural, small community primary schools.
She knew Joy had been a rural school teacher when she’d met Robert, who had been farming in the best dairy lands in the north end of our island. So they could have met while out in the country. Dad could have taken her for his when Tabatha eldest sister had been born, and they must have stayed together – devoted to each other until first Robert then Joy had passed on.
Sadly, Tabatha felt only betrayal. She was hurt, so hurt. She started to select memories of growing up, and claimed “I never felt as if Dad loved me!”.
Lacey tried pointing out he never had allowed her to have a puppy of her own (a memory dredged up from fifty years before), but had willingly made sure Tabatha had had a pony.
“Guilt!” she snapped. “Or duty! Not love.”
Lord, Lacey feel still so sad about how shocked and aggrieved she felt. She has never said another kind word of Mum again, and has never even spoken of our Dad.
The story Lacy had put together was, still, not known for sure. It lacked facts from someone outside of their immediate family.
It wasn’t until she was in her very late sixties that they came from an unusual source. Their cousin, Ted, from an uncle on their Dad’s side of the family rang Lacey, out of the blue. They’d never been in touch as children, and to have Ted ring her threw Lacey at first. They chatted about insignificant niceties and catching up on uncles and aunts who’d passed on over the years, and Lacey was wondering how to end the call without offending Ted.
He’ll know – ask him!
She plucked up the courage, wanting to know – just, to know. “Ted, can I ask you to remember something from ‘way back? If you can?”
“Well, I’ll try.” He sounded puzzled.
“Do you remember the first time Dad mentioned Joy? Or you met her?”
“Yes, vaguely. I was only a kid, then. What is it?”
He’s eight years older than I am, so… “Did Joy have baby girl, before they got married?” She held her breath.
Silence. Then “Yes, she had a little girl with her. At least, when I first saw her.”
Lacey was surprised at her own reaction. She ended Ted’s call in a friendly way, knowing she’d probably never hear from her again.
Lacey sat on her bedside, her mind blank. She knew – and knew also that she could not mention it to anyone else.
There was no way she would ruffle the waters again, after they’d levelled some years ago. Tabatha still remembered the shock of what they’d learned, still had not forgiven Joy for trying to pretend none of her children had shamed her family.
Why upset her all over again?
Marti and Dylan will think it dreadful if they ever knew I’d had the cheek to come right out and ask.
I can’t tell anyone. I won’t tell them.
The tale ends, right here. Jimmy's gone.