It rolled out from under a steamer covered in dust and other detritus found in the attic. My father Vernon Hattford had passed away a week ago in hospice, leaving me as executor of his estate. He had lived in this house since getting his Veteran Administration loan to buy it after the war in 1946. I grew up, learned to drive, got my first kiss and a whole bunch of other memories in this neighborhood before leaving for college. It shames me to admit, I have never looked back until my dad got cancer. I helped set him up in a hospice where he hung on for about a month.
He liked the nurses. He said they reminded him of mom, but then she died years ago, leaving me with a shortage of memories. He never liked to talk about her when I was growing up. I was one of the few kids who did not have his mother pick him up on the first day of kindergarten.
When I was ten, he remarried to a woman named Lily who treated me as if she had given birth to me. She would have two sons when I was in high school, but I never really got to know them very well.
“Shelby, she wanted to go to Hollywood and become a star of stage and the silver screen.” He would tell me as he hid behind his newspaper after coming home from work down at the factory. All his life he was a blue collar union man and proud of it. When I went off to college, it was the only memory I had of him shedding tears, but they were brief and with dry eyes he waved goodbye as I pulled out of the driveway.
In all his time on this earth, I always thought he told me the truth about my mother, but I was about to find out I was wrong. When I pulled the small container from under the steamer, I held a container of undeveloped film.
I took it to Zack who worked the counter at the local pharmacy where he developed Kodiak film for the customers.
“Wow, this is an antique.” He smiled as I handed him the container.
“So can you do it?” I asked while rocking on my heels.
“Sure, shouldn’t be a problem.” He sniffed, then his expression changed, “Sorry about your dad. Vern was a good guy.”
“Thanks, man.” I nodded, still feeling a little emotional about his passing.
I own a single photograph of my mother. Her name was Trixie according to my father and they married in the celebration of victory over Japan in World War Two. My dad was a gunner on a battleship and he would tell some of his war stories when I was older.
“Your mother was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. She was working at the U.S.O. in New York City when I got my discharge.” He once told me in one of those moments that will live in my memory.
But he did not speak of her other than that. It was almost as if talking about her would bring on an unwelcome spirit or curse the house in some way.
“Dude.” It was Zack’s voice on my cell phone.
“What’s up?” I sat on my couch with the phone pressed to my ear.
“These photographs are really old. I had quite a time getting an image to form from this old film.” He sounded victorious, “But you need to come look at these pictures I resurrected.”
Resurrected? Sounded like he had raised these photographs from the dead.
He placed four black and white photographs on the counter when I came in the next day. I knew one of the people in the picture was my dad still dressed in his Navy uniform with a woman standing next to him with strawberry blonde hair and a skirt that was much too short for the times. She was probably in her early twenties if I were to take a guess.
“Whadda think?” He said proudly.
“Any idea who she is?” I bent over to take a closer look.
“If I were to guess, I’d say she’s your mother.” He said with a flare of his hands.
He knew my story. He knew how I had no memory of her. How the only evidence left of her, lived inside of me. Growing up, I did not resemble my father as my facial features seemed sculpted and formed by the hand of a master artisan. I am sure this must have been a great disappointment to him, but he never once said anything.
Scanning the photographs there was no doubt that I was her son as even the shape of her eyes, the roundness that was pinched off at the ends, was a perfect match of my own eyes. While dad had dark brown eyes, I had often wondered why mine were so pale blue. The photograph completely answered any question of where I had gotten my eye color from.
“Like looking in a mirror, eh?” Zack winked at me.
“I just wish I knew more about her.” I pulled out my wallet.
“No, no, this one is on me. Not everyday I get to see old photographs come to life in my dark room.” His smile was framed by his curly red beard. “Vern told you nothing about her?”
“Not a thing except they met at a USO dance.” I shrugged, returning my wallet into my hip jeans pocket.
“He was a talker.” Zack nodded, “Seems strange he didn’t tell you anything about her.”
“My dad was not always the chatterbox you think he was.” I sighed.
“Special on cleaning supplies on Aisle Three.” He pointed.
“Got plenty.” I smiled as I held up the photographs, “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” He waved as I left the pharmacy.
I spent most of the day looking at the photographs I spread out on my kitchen table. I could not believe how attractive she was. Her smile seemed to light up the room. Finally I said aloud, “Dad, I wish you had told me about her.”
Using the internet at one of those Y-5 coffee hangouts on my block, I kept feeding Google any details I could remember, but the information was limited when I entered her name, Trixy Hattford. It took me a few attempts before I figured out Trixy was not really her name. After a morning of fruitless searches, I decided to go for a brisk autumn walk along lower Manhattan when I happened to see St. Mary’s Hospice where dad spent the last few days of his life.
Sister Margaret greeted me at the reception area where I had spent a lot of my time the past month. During my father’s time at St. Mary’s, she made sure he was comfortable and free of pain.
“Shelby, good to see you.” She was always so cheery and cordial in this place where her patients waited for their final hour to come. She was a firm believer that the final moments of someone’s life should not be filled with sorrow and grief.
“Sister.” I bowed my head to her.
“What can we do for you? It appears you have a lot on your mind.” She nodded. I placed the photographs on the counter in front of her. “What do we have here?”
“It’s my mother.” I managed to croak.
“You look just like her. What happened to her?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I know she passed away when I was still an infant, but beyond that it’s all guesswork.”
“Hmm.” She put her finger to her lips. “I do have some people I can get in touch with who are good at tracking down information.”
“That’s why I came in, to tell you the truth.” I nodded.
“Well, let me see what we can do.” She winked, “May I use one of these photographs?”
“Take your pick.” I put my hand on the counter.
“Alright.” She smiled again.
Three weeks later, I got a call on my cell. I had almost forgotten about my trip to St. Mary’s, because things had been busy at the bank where I worked. I was an account manager which is another way of saying that my life belonged to First Savings and Financial Institution. My day would start at seven and I might leave, arming the electronic security and locking the big double doors at the front of the bank.
“Allo.” A gruff voice greeted me when I walked into my apartment.
“Who is this?” I asked a bit harshly.
“Alton Wynickvich.” The voice answered.
“Do I know you?” I shook my head, “I don’t have time for this nonsense.”
“Dis is not nonsense.” He shot back.
“I just got home from work and-”
“I am your uncle.” He interjected.
“My wha?” My jaw dropped open.
“Look it, kiddo…I am Tatiana's younger brother.” He said as if I was supposed to know that.
“Who?” The name was completely foreign sounding.
“Your mother, Tatiana.”
“My mother was not named-”
“What makes you so sure?” He sounded angry this time.
He was right. What proof did I have of what her name was? My father never told me. I never heard her voice. Who knows where she was from.
“I wan ta meecha.” He stated.
We met at the coffee place. It was not hard to figure out who he was, dressed in a faded navy pea coat and jeans with a heavy graying beard, looking around as if someone was watching him. I decided to meet him at my neighborhood coffee place.
As soon as he saw my face in the nearly empty establishment, he walked right over.
“Your name Shelby?” He asked with one eye cocked like a loaded gun.
“Are you Alton Wynickvich?” I asked, already knowing the answer to my question.
“Da, Uncle Alton.” He forced a smile.
“Uncle Alton.” I corrected myself.
“I was younger broffer to your mama.” He tilted his head.
“Who was she?” I asked with my eyes tearing up a bit.
“One of the bravest women I know. My sister.” He nodded his head like a bobble-head.
“Why?” I held out my arms.
“For many reasons.” He coughed. “She saved my life.”
“How?” I shrugged.
“We were from a small village in Belarus.” He started as he removed a pack of unfiltered cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “I was only six at the time the Germans came looking for Juden people. We were Jewish, so these dogs were looking for us. She was seventeen, but she worked for a farmer a few miles from us. Every morning before the sun came up, she would walk to this place. There was a shed where the farmer kept his tools and she took us there to hide.”
He smoked just about the entire pack of cigarettes as he told me their story of evading the Gestapo while they set up an office in the small town. She joined the resistance along with her father Josef who had a head of silver hair at the time. Supply vehicles were blown to bits by the roadside explosives they planted on the back country roads. It was known that traveling through the countryside of Belarus was dangerous, but soon it became a death sentence to those who did it.
Soon Tatiana's picture appeared on a wanted poster with a sizable reward attached. She was fearless like a badger and she was feared among the Germans who traveled in supply convoys.
One of the commandants planned to set up a trap using the German trucks as a decoy. As the trucks bounced along the rugged country roads, a small unit of resistance fighters appeared at the edge of the woods. Suddenly the canvass was pulled back on the trucks to reveal .50 mm machine guns. All of them opened fire at once killing and wounding many of the fighters before they had a chance to react.
Tatiana was wounded and taken prisoner. As she suffered in jail, the commandant came to her cell. He put his boot on her open wound and stepped down. She screamed out in pain, but all he did was laugh.
“So you are the bitch who has been killing all my men?” He sneered.
“Go to hell, pig.” She spit in his face.
Removing the pistol from his holster with one hand and wiping off the spittle with the other, he put the barrel to her head, “I should press this trigger and end it right here.”
“Do what you must, you swine.” She clenched her teeth.
“I will have much more satisfaction watching you beg for death.” He laughed and left her cell.
During the night, her father led a daring raid to rescue her, but he died in the raid. It was a hard time for us all. I don’t remember many of the details, but I do remember her tears. She shed many of them. One of the raiders managed to carry his body back to the camp. They put him on a pyre and set it on fire so the Germans could not claim his body. She held me as the flames reached the stars in Heaven.
The next day she and some resistance fighters raided the headquarters where she put a bullet between the commandant’s eyes that were wide with terror.
In the spring of 1945, she took me and my mother west along the shell riddled roads until we came to a camp where they were flying a flag with a red cross in the center.
“You Alton, promise to take care of your mother.” She knelt down in the melting snow and looked me in the eyes.
“Yessum.” I said, holding my mother’s hand.
“Where are you going, my dear?” My mother asked as she kissed her daughter for the last time.
“To find others in our fight against the Germans.” She answered as tears ran down her cheeks.
“Stay with us.” Her mother begged, but she just shook her head and disappeared in the trees. Planes filled the sky. You could hear gunfire.
“So my mother was your sister?” I asked.
“I do not lie. I am your uncle.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Your father met her when she immigrated with a ship full of refugees. She got a job in the USO, because she was pretty. Your father was enchanted by her beauty as I was told.”
“Why didn’t you come to see me sooner?” I asked, feeling a bit angry at his hesitancy.
“Your father would have forbidden it.” He shook his head, “He did not want everyone to know he married some poor peasant girl from a poor village in Belarus. He called her Trixie, because it was as if she was a movie star of stage and silver screen. He told all his friends that she was once a famous actress.”
He looked around and then back at me, “I wanted to make sure he was gone before I came to you. Sister Margaret was working in the hospice when I brought my mother back thirty years ago. She treated my mother like she was a queen. I love that sister.”
“She knew?” I was nearly speechless.
He nodded his head as he lit another cigarette. He coughed, “She wanted me to tell you the story, because she felt it was my story to tell. Many times the story of those days are told by people who have no idea what we went through. How after the Germans left, the Russians filled the void left behind, trading one monster for another. She would have loved you. Before she died she wrote me a letter and told me all about you.”
“How did she die?” I managed to ask him.
“The wounds she had never healed properly. She took pills to help ease the pain until one day she could no longer bear it. She took a full bottle and waited for her heart to stop beating. She did not have long to wait. It made your father very angry. There was a small service which I managed to attend without being seen where he told his own parents that he would never speak her name again. Your grandmother was holding you. You were nearly two years old at the time.” He reached over and wiped the tear from my cheek, “And now you know.”
“If I had never found that roll of film…” I would never know.
“Ack, I would never let that happen.” He grabbed my cheeks with both hands and pulled our heads together until our foreheads touched. “She was the star of the stage and screen.”
“Yes Uncle Alton, she was indeed.” I nodded.
It still amazes me to this day that something as inconsequential as discovering a roll of undeveloped film, could have changed the course of my life so dramatically.