My Average Family
I have looked at these photo albums many times. But it wasn’t until I retired, that I opened them again and saw the pictures in a whole new light.
I came from an average family, or so I thought. Summers as a kid, cars came rolling into our dusty driveway. Relatives poured out and into our spare bedrooms, bellied up to the large dinner table and swam in the creek behind our house. An only child, I reveled in ready-made friends and vacation from school.
“Here comes your dozens of cousins,” Mom used to say to me.
Not until my early retirement and the genealogy craze did I begin to question snatches of conversations I remembered or inquiries I had made about various inconsistencies in family history. These quests for information produced silence, changing the subject, or troubling short answers. My ancestry search and old photo albums led me to twisted branches of our family tree.
As I dug deeper, I even found some rotten roots. One William Edwards from Surry County, Virginia was hung for being part of the Bacon Rebellion. Another Edwards was a notorious horse thief. Army deserters and slave owners abounded. These revelations made fascinating small talk at parties.
However, when old family photographs revealed a shocking secret kept from me for years, I was dumfounded. My ordinary kin? I could not believe what I had unearthed. My parents had died years before, so I couldn’t confront them.
I had moved to California from Nebraska after I started college. I would visit my home on spring breaks and holidays, often with the same horde of uncles, aunts and cousins showing up. When I began working impossible hours as a hospital intern, I seldom traveled that dusty road that led to my parent’s farmhouse. After becoming a doctor and marrying Anne, a registered nurse, the close ties loosened and I failed to keep track of my relatives, except through my parents.
They kept me up to date on my cousins’ lives. “Jean, Sylvia’s daughter teaches school in Minneapolis now. Harvey, Linda’s son, runs his own accounting business, he got divorced two years ago. Fred and Elma’s son, Tom, married the Parker’s daughter. “You remember Shelly, don’t you?” my mother asked.
After Dad passed and Mom followed him three years later, I flew out to Nebraska to be the executor of their will and sell their property. Business concluded, I carried seventeen picture albums back home in a battered suitcase.
A heart attack hastened the end of my practice. I cast around for something interesting to fill my time that winter as I recuperated. Anne suggested the genealogy project and I tackled the research with enthusiasm. I recalled I had put the suitcase with the picture albums at the back of a shelf in the guest room closet.
As I leafed through the pages of memories, voices from the past echoed through my mind. There was Jean, probably around twelve years old, splashing in the creek. I had asked her once, “Where’s your dad?”
“Mama says we don’t have a dad.”
“You gotta’ have a dad.”
“We don’t,” she said, stomping her foot.
That didn’t make sense to me. I asked my mother. “How come Jean and Harvey don’t have a dad?”
Mom drew in a big breath, pressed her lips together hard and then said, “They have both have a father and he pays money to support them, but he doesn’t live with them.”
“Why doesn’t their dad want to live with them?” I persisted.
“Matthew Edwards, that’s enough questions.” She turned and walked away from me.
Once, I spied on two of our neighbors snapping string beans on their porch. I heard my mother’s name, so I sidled up around the corner listening.
“How can Margaret invite them over? She acts like everything is normal. Why, I would never allow such a thing. It’s scandalous.”
However, I didn’t hear what my mother did that ignited this gossip, because just then Walter, one of the lady’s sons, came out whining about his mosquito bites.
I turned another page, a picture of Dad playing ball with Harvey and me. Harvey, three years older than I, possessed greater strength and agility. Jealousy pricked me when Dad would praise his pitching and batting abilities. Sometimes, I felt he liked my cousin better than me because of how athletic he was.
Someone once commented to Linda about how much Harvey and I looked alike. Linda smiled and said, “Cousins often do.”
That evening after browsing through the photo albums, I yearned to go back to Nebraska and see who might still be alive and renew our friendship.
“Anne, what would you say to a trip to Nebraska next month?” I asked her at dinner. “I could look online and get the names of my relatives and see if any of them still live around Omaha.”
“You’re really getting into this genealogy thing, aren’t you? Are you sure you’re okay to travel?”
I winked at her. “I’ve consulted my personal physician, Dr. Edwards, and he says it’s perfectly safe. I’m bringing some of the albums, I’m sure whoever we find will enjoy reminiscing.”
Three weeks later, we arrived in Omaha with three names, Tom Ferris, Harvey Blanchard and Jean (Howard) Jackson. Jean had moved to Spokane, but she sounded pleased to hear from me. Tom still lived in Omaha. Harvey lived in nearby Fremont. I’d called ahead and identified myself and told them the dates I would be visiting.
“Sure, come on by,” Tom said, “Shelly and I would be happy to see you.”
When Shelly opened their door to us, her eyes widened, and she frowned. “You’re Matthew? But … Tom, come here.”
A tall, balding man came up behind her. Instead of inviting us in, he stood staring at me as well.
He shook his head. “It’s uncanny. Of course, you are half-brothers.”
“Half-brothers? What are you talking about?” I said, a little miffed.
“You and Harvey, you look so much like him and your dad, it’s amazing.”
It took me a few moments to digest this bombshell. I looked at Anne and turned back to Tom. “Could I come in? I think I need to sit down.”
“Oh, Lordy, you didn’t know? Yes, by all means, come in.” He stepped aside and let me pass.
I stumbled across the carpet and fell into a chair. Tom, Shelly, and Anne settled into the couch and a loveseat.
After a few moments of uneasy silence, I said, “You mean to say, Dad had an affair with Aunt Linda, and Harvey is their child?”
Tom and Shelly looked at each other. “She’s not your aunt and unfortunately, there’s more.”
“Could I have a glass of water, no wait, do you have anything stronger?”
Tom got up and poured straight Jack Daniels into a glass. I gulped down two stinging swallows and closed my eyes.
“What else don’t I know?”
“Jean is your half-sister as well.”
I sat upright and my eyes popped open. “Is Sylvia my aunt?”
He shook his head.
I swirled the amber liquid in my glass. “So, Mom let them come to the house? They were friendly with Mom. I assumed they were her sisters, since they had different last names.”
“Crazy, isn’t it,” Tom said.
“Are you my cousin?”
“Yes, your bonafide cousin. Your dad’s brother, Nate, whom you met, is my dad.”
“Why wasn’t I told any of this?”
Tom shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe because you were the youngest. Maybe because you were legitimate, and they weren’t. I thought probably you’d found out when you were older.”
I had not drunk that much, but my head reeled.
“No wonder we were so poor. Dad supported three households. The plumbing business should have made us a good living, but Mom always had to skimp and had a big garden to feed the relatives every summer.”
When we looked at the albums after dinner, I saw what I had not seen before. Growing up, the resemblance between Harvey, Jean and I was remarkable. There were photographs of Dad playing with or paying attention to Harvey and Jean. The pictures of Dad sitting next to Linda or Sylvia, kidding around, and laughing took on a new meaning. And in the background, the sad eyes of my mother.
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