Alice Digs in Her Heels
August 15, 2012
Yesterday, Alice received a message from her 80-something second cousin. We’ll call this woman Lucille. It caused Alice such concern that she forwarded the message to me.
First, Lucille had written a few words about Alice’s 97th birthday coming up (August 24th) and sent her good wishes. Then this appears:
I have been getting vibes about my real father and the only one I have (sic) is that my father is Toby Gunderson. Do you know my other one and any health issues he might have had?
I went to my heart dr. for a checkup yesterday …my blood pressure is under control. So good news that way.
We have been making jelly/jam from rhubarb & blueberries & huckleberries. Fun but tiring. Much love, Lucille
Of course, the part that alarmed Alice is the sentence about Lucille’s “real father” because Toby Gunderson is not her biological father and Lucille knows it.
Alice asked me what she should write back.
Both of Lucille’s fathers are long dead, but I know that Alice knows who her biological father was. In fact, I know who he was. I heard the story several times growing up. It goes like this:
Somewhere in the late 1920s, two teen-age cousins, Essie and Joy, found themselves bedazzled by the same young man, Wim Pederson, a newcomer to town. He was twenty-two. They didn’t mention this infatuation to one another.
Wim Pederson owned a car and he drove out nightly to the outskirts of the little prairie town to secretly meet either Essie or Joy and drive them around in the car and park somewhere to look at the stars and do other things they should have been doing only if properly educated and equipped, but they were neither.
Each cousin thought she was the only one Wim was picking up and parking with in secret. It must have been thrilling to sneak out a farmhouse window and run across damp fields and down the dirt road until headlights appeared in the distance and a night of romance began.
Essie was the youngest of the two cousins and ever since she was small she’d spent occasional days and nights at her Aunt Martha’s house. Martha and Louie and the whole family loved her. She ate at their table and spent peaceful nights in bed with her cousins. (Every night there were four sisters in one bed and three in another, so with Essie staying over that meant four in each.)
Also, they visited her at the farm.
Essie grew up around them all.
Essie was a gentle girl with a ready laugh, always eager to help out, full of plans. About her slightly older cousin Joy, they knew little. She was shy and kind, but remote.
Later, when Alice and her sisters told me (one at a time) about what happened, each would marvel at how little they understood about the female bodies they owned. Here was their cousin Essie skipping through the summer days with them that year she was fifteen, hunched next to them on one of the apple crates at their crowded dinner table, squeezed in amongst them in their crowded bed, and not one of them had an inkling that her belly was swelling day by day or, if they noticed, why such a thing would be happening.
Meanwhile, her cousin Joy’s belly was swelling too, and finally some heretofore oblivious adult caught on.
Chaos. Hysterical conversations behind closed doors at Essie’s farm house and at Joy’s farm house. Wim was summoned. Options were given or straws were drawn or firearms appeared or something. Soon, Wim and Joy were married, and sweet Essie was left to give birth to Lucille in shame. Not long after that, Essie married Toby Gunderson, a neighboring farm boy who knew the story but didn’t care, and he gave Lucille his name.
Little Lucille called Toby “Papa,” but it wasn’t long before she heard from another child or a neighbor or a shopkeeper in town that Toby was not Papa. Everybody in that town knew what had happened. The children knew. Alice, who was thirteen when Essie gave birth to Lucille, also knew.
But Essie is gone now. Joy is gone. Toby and Wim are both gone.
And here is Lucille, who, some eighty years later, still wants that piece of information that all those men, women, and children had way back then. She, who has never brought herself to ask the question of Alice before now, notices the clock ticking and the deep age of 97 approaching for her mother’s Cousin Alice, so she slips her query into an e-mail with a seeming casualness, positioning it between birthday tidings and huckleberry jam.
Poor Lucille, daughter of Essie and Wim Pederson. Tell her!
But in a string of e-mails to me, Alice instead started testing out ways to avoid divulging Wim Pederson’s two-timing, selfish ways. Alice wrote: “Can’t I say that I have no idea?”
“That is not true,” I counter. “Tell her.”
“Maybe I could say that I was too young to be paying any attention to that.”
“You said you found out when you were thirteen.”
Finally, she called me. “I am NOT going to tell her.”
“No. NO! No.”
“Everybody’s gone,” I said. “Doesn’t that mean the shame can die too?”
“Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about. No. Huh-uh. I’m not going to tell her.”
I pleaded with her. Why can’t she know? For the sake of her curiosity at the very least? Wouldn’t you want to know? There’s nobody else left to tell her.
“Let her husband tell her,” Alice said. “He grew up there.”
“But he didn’t grow up with Essie and Joy. He grew up with Lucille.”
“Lucille’s husband is her own age, not her mother’s age. Why would he know who was sneaking around back roads twenty years before he was even born?”
“Oh,” she said. “He knows. It was just a small town. Everybody knew.”
“Mom, Lucille doesn’t know. Why would she ask you to tell her if she already knew?”
“Oh, she knows. Once when Lucille was in the fourth grade a little boy came up to her and said, You have a nose just like Wim Pederson’s.“
I thought about this but, assuming Wim Pederson’s nose was a regular Scandinavian nose and not upside down or otherwise strikingly unusual, I couldn’t imagine how little fourth grade Lucille would give this strange announcement any credit. Did she even know about genetics then?
I pressed on. “I don’t think that counts. Anyway, she obviously didn’t believe it or doesn’t remember it. Can’t you say something to help her?”
In my rising frustration, I realized this was one of those moments when my mother’s stubbornness is super-glued to her generation’s moral values and certainly nothing a young whippersnapper like me has to say is going to split the two apart and crack open a new vista on the past.
i tried one more angle. “What about Lucille’s health issues? She wants to know what she might have inherited, what to look out for.”
“He had thirteen children with Joy, and then he also fathered Lucille, so that’s fourteen children he had altogether,” Alice said. “I don’t think he had any health issues.”
Now our two trains of thought were not only running on different tracks, they had arrived at a junction and sped off in separate directions entirely.
“What difference does it make how many children…?” Picture these words floating out from the engine of my train, picked up by a gust of prairie wind, and wafted off over the wheat fields and beyond, into the vast Dakota of Times Past.
But I had one last shred of defiance. Damn these damn small towns where women cannot get the most basic information eighty damn years after the fact about their own damn lives.
“Maybe I’ll tell her,” I said. “You forwarded her letter. I have her e-mail address.”
“Anyway,” she said, ignoring me, “I already know what I’m going to say. I’m going to thank her for wishing me happy birthday and tell her I think it’s nice she makes her own jam, and then I’ll put it like this: About your father, I cannot help you there.”
“Really? It’s not true!”
“I’m not lying because I can’t help her,” Alice said.
She hung up.
She called back a few minutes later to tell me pleasantly that someone had brought her some bean soup, which she thought was very nice because a server at lunch time had slipped up and Alice had missed out on her portion.
“Soup,” I said flatly. “Good for you.”
“Oh yes, it was very good. Your father always liked bean soup. And now I’m going to take a nap.”
Dear Reader, enlighten me. What should I do? I met Lucille once about fifteen years ago and (just to maintain this silly train metaphor) our opposing politics and her religious fervor derailed any real conversation. But should she continue to suffer not knowing? And if I tell her, and she then tells Alice that I spilled the beans right out of the soup…oh you get the idea. Your thoughts?