A/N: Sometimes the people we think we know the best keep secrets from us.
She looked around the room. It was stark. There was nothing on the cinderblock walls except gray paint. She focused on the single table holding what looked like shiny metal instruments of torture. Her attention was diverted by a pungent odor which she couldn't identify, burning her nose and making her eyes water. Two strong men unceremoniously put her on a metal bed and strapped her down making it impossible for her to move either her arms or legs before leaving her there alone. Soon three people wearing masks entered the room and stood at her feet speaking only to each other. But she was too terrified and in too much pain to talk to anyone.
The bright lights were searing her eyes and her brain. She was exhausted and in pain but there was no relief. She heard a distant scream. Did she make that sound? Then she heard other sounds: the crescendo of voices of the masked people, a smack, and another cry. That did not come from her. Finally, gratefully, the pain was subsiding and was replaced by total exhaustion. The leather restraints were removed but she was too spent to move. She closed her eyes, seeking the sanctuary only sleep could provide.
A few minutes later a stranger shoved a set of papers at her and put a pen in her hand. "Sign them," he commanded. She struggled to focus on them, then handed them back to the man without signing them. He was angry and roared, "SIGN THEM!"
"No." She turned her head away and once more closed her eyes.
"Of course, Daddy. Yes, I'll talk to Fritz and let you know what we can work out. I love you too. Bye." Brenda hung up the phone.
"How's your father?" Fritz asked.
"He seems to be doin ok. He's still lonely, of course, but it sounds like he's tryin to get thins organized. I think he's turnin a corner." Brenda went to sit back down next to Fritz on the sofa. "He wants the attic cleaned out next month. But Bobby and Joyce are drivin down to Joyce's parents for their anniversary dinner on Friday and both Clay, Jr. and Amy have to work. So I'm wonderin if you could come with me and help me."
"I think so. I still have some time on the books that Dave wants me to use up before my anniversary date. You said you wanted to go early next month?"
Brenda nodded. "The first weekend. But I wish I had known that the rest of the family wouldn't be available to help. Well, no matter. Daddy asked that we come."
Fritz was pulling his calendar from his vest pocket. "You know, getting flights with so little notice is going to be tough."
"I know but the first weekend is the only time I can be gone. And since I've got a new job I've got to be careful not to overstep."
"If we can get flights this late, we can do it."
"Can you check and see if you can book the tickets?"
"No time like the present," he said as he got up and moved to the computer. A few minutes later he said, "Well, I can book seats but we won't be sitting together on the second leg going down."
"Thank you, Fritzi. Go ahead and book them. Maybe we can negotiate a change. I can take a middle seat if I have to."
After breakfast Brenda and Fritz headed up to the attic. Since Clay no longer trusted himself to climb the ladder, he said he'd go get some more black plastic garbage bags and some boxes. "Just put everything in the living room and let me check it first, though," he'd said as he put his cap on and opened the back door.
"Wow. Look at all this stuff. I don't know where to start," Brenda said looking around.
"Let's start at the front and work our way to the back," Fritz suggested. "I think I can start by moving that dressmaking dummy out."
"Ok," Brenda agreed. "I doubt Daddy will start fashion designin any time soon. He doesn't have an eye for it," she said dryly. She turned around and started to open boxes while Fritz took the dress dummy downstairs.
When she opened the first box the sickly smell of mold and mildrew, like urine baked on brown paper, hit her and she wrinkled her nose in defense of the smell. But she knew from her experience in dealing with dead bodies that the best way to deal with strong, objectionable odors is to just persevere and give her body time to adjust. "Everythin in here is ruined," she said and shoved the box over to the ladder for Fritz to take to the trash.
Soon she came to an old trunk that she knew once belonged to Willie Ray's mother. She didn't want to throw anything away without examining each item first so she dug in. On top she found two old-fashioned dresses and remembered wearing those for dress-up tea parties when she was a child. She turned her attention to a box containing some childish Mothers Day gifts from her and her brothers, and a package of love letters from Clay. Brenda wanted to read them but she didn't have Clay's permission so she set them aside. Then she put the other things in a box with some other items for Fritz to move.
Underneath the letters she found another small box and pulled it out to open it. She smiled when she saw her and her brothers' childhood report cards and vaccination records as well as county fair ribbons. Next she saw a perfectly awful set of cheap plastic "pearls" she had won at a carnival game and then given her mother. She fingered them fondly as she remembered how Willie Ray had oohed and ahhed over them as if they'd been as precious as the crown jewels. She had even gamely worn them to church a few times.
Brenda was being swept out to the sea of childhood memories in a boat fabricated from trinkets, ribbons, and old school photographs. She smiled with pleasure as she examined her First Prize certificate for her fourth grade Spelling Bee and a red, white and blue boondoggle keychain she'd made for Daddy in summer camp. She next saw the valentine Kenny Brewer had given her when they were both seven. She smiled as she remembered thinking she'd never have another love as great as Kenny Brewer. After a few moments she returned to the shore of the present and placed everything in a box with other items for her father and brothers to share.
She then found several yellowed and faded onion skin papers folded in the bottom of the box. When she opened them and read their contents her hands started to shake. She felt like the bedrock of her life was crumbling.
Trying to push everything she'd just read out of her mind, Brenda folded the papers back up and set them aside. She tried to banish thoughts of what she'd read by continuing to work and was determined to focus her attention on sorting through more boxes. But her thoughts had been captured by the content of those papers, and those thoughts were gulping all the oxygen from the air.
She heard Clay calling her to come down for lunch so she picked up the papers, folded them again and carried them downstairs. Before washing up she went into her bedroom and zipped the papers into her suitcase pocket.
Brenda was unusually withdrawn throughout lunch. Fritz noticed and asked, "Are you ok, Brenda? You're awfully quiet."
Clay nodded and said, "Yes, you are. Anything wrong, darlin?"
Brenda forced a smile. "I'm fine. It's just that everythin up there brings back memories of Mama."
"Do you want to call it quits for the day?" Clay asked.
"No, no. I'm fine, really. And it will feel good to get that attic cleaned out," Brenda reassured him. Continuing to work in the attic would give her some more much needed alone time. But she also wanted to talk to Fritz.
After lunch, Clay said, "I'll put everything away here and do the lunch dishes so you can go back upstairs and finish the attic."
"Ok. Be sure you go through everythin before we get rid of it, though."
"I will. I want Bobby and Clay, Jr. to look at everything first and I'm going to call Jimmy and see what he wants."
And with that she and Fritz headed back up the stairs. As Fritz once again lowered the attic ladder, Brenda signaled to him to follow her. After closing the bedroom door she pulled out the sheaf of papers, sat on the bed and motioned for Fritz to sit down beside her.
"I found these in the bottom of Mama's old trunk," Brenda began in a low voice. "Look, Fritz. They're carbon copies of surrender papers. Mama had a baby girl when she was sixteen and put her up for adoption. That was years before she met Daddy." She handed the papers to Fritz.
"You didn't know about this?" Fritz asked as he read them.
"No. She and Daddy never said anythin to me."
"Do you think your brothers know?"
"I don't know. I'm pretty sure Jimmy doesn't. We're close enough that I think he would have said somethin. But I don't know about Bobby and Clay, Jr."
"These say she was born in 1953 so she'd be almost sixty years old. But nothing here says what happened to her," Fritz added.
Just then they heard Clay calling saying he had more empty boxes so Brenda quickly folded the papers up and zipped them back into her suitcase. "Let's talk about this later," she whispered. As Brenda continued to work she couldn't get her head around the fact that her mother had had a baby and never told her. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became.
That night, lying in bed, she needed to talk about the yawning sinkhole which had opened up in her life. "I can't believe it. I feel like I didn't know Mama at all," she said as tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. "She was a fraud. She was so strict with me growin up. She kept preachin right and wrong all the time but it was all a lie. I can't believe she was such a hypocrite."
Fritz turned to her and said, "I think you need to get some more information before you judge her, Brenda. You don't know everything that happened. Don't you think you should ask Clay about it?"
"Not yet. I don't know if he knew about it and he's still grievin. Same with the boys. But you're right. I do need more information. Maybe I could call Aunt Bobbie Sue tomorrow mornin. She's older and they were really close. I'm sure she would know and I'm pretty sure she'd tell me what she knows."
After breakfast, Brenda read the papers again committing their contents to memory. Then she grabbed her jacket, and her cell phone before tiptoeing down the stairs and out the back door. She waited until she was around the corner and seated on a bench at a bus stop before dialing her aunt.
After she had exchanged some pleasantries, Brenda said, "Aunt Bobbie Sue, Fritz and I were cleanin out the attic yesterday mornin and I found some papers I want to ask you about."
"Sure, honey. You know you can ask me anything."
"I found surrender papers. It looks like Mama had a baby when she was sixteen. Did you know about this?"
Her aunt was quiet for a moment and then said, "Yes, I knew about it. Willie Ray never told you?"
"No, she didn't. Would you tell me what happened? Please. I need to know." Brenda's voice had become thin and was cracking.
"All right. I guess it can't hurt anything now. Your mama had just turned sixteen. Her boyfriend had been drafted and was being shipped out to Korea. Willie Ray was young and thought she was in love. Maybe she was in love. I don't know. But I do know that she was upset and scared for him, what with him going off to war and all. One thing led to another, I guess. She did the only thing she could. She had the baby and gave it up for adoption."
"I can't imagine her givin up a baby."
"Our parents didn't give her a choice. You have to remember that it was the 50s. Abortion wasn't legal and Willie Ray would never have had one anyway. Back then an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was a shameful thing. Our parents didn't find out until she started showing, and when they found out they sent her away..."
"To a home for unwed mothers out of state. She told me about it when she came home. She said that she was in a dormitory with fourteen other girls and that if they were caught talking about anything having to do with their pregnancies they were severely disciplined. Willie Ray said that they went to school and church, worked at their assigned chores and that was it. They weren't allowed off the property. And when a girl went into labor she was taken to the delivery room on the property while someone packed up all her things. She was never seen by the other girls again."
Bobbie Sue paused but since Brenda was silent she continued, "Your mother came home about a week after the baby was born. She had to change schools, though. It wouldn't do for the other kids to figure out where she'd been for four months."
"Do you think Daddy knows?" Brenda needed to know.
"Yes, he knows. Willie Ray told me once that she told Clay about it before they got married. But I doubt she wanted to talk about it in detail so I don't know how much he knows."
"Well, thank you, Aunt Bobbie Sue. I appreciate you sharin this with me."
"You're welcome, honey. I know this is shocking. Just don't let it change your opinion of your mother. She did the best she could. She had a horrible experience. Why, she told me that she wasn't allowed to see the baby. And no one was even going to tell her whether she'd had a boy or a girl, or even if it was normal. She said that a lawyer shoved papers in her face while she was still in the delivery room and tried to force her to sign them but she refused because they were blank. She stuck to her guns and kept refusing to sign them until they were filled in, despite the fact that everyone was yelling at her. That took real determination, Brenda Leigh."
"Thank you, Aunt Bobbie Sue. I needed to understand what happened. Thank you for explainin it all to me."
"I know how upsetting all of this must be and how disappointed you must be in Willie Ray. But just remember that she really loved you. In many ways you were her favorite."
As she walked back home Brenda was still angry and confused. Maybe she could understand why Mama hadn't told her when she was young but she'd been an adult for years. Having an older sister somewhere was pretty significant, after all.
"How could she keep this from me? Didn't she think I had a right to know that I've got a sister somewhere? And how could she keep tellin me that nice girls didn't allow boys to touch them? She was such a hypocrite," she said to Fritz once they were alone.
"Maybe she just wanted to save you from what had happened to her," Fritz replied.
"I don't know. I just don't understand any of this. I could believe it about anyone else. But not Mama. And I'll never get to talk to her about it. It feels like the Mama I knew never really existed."
"I know it's a shock. It'll take time but you'll get through it." Fritz took her in his arms and held her close.
"Aunt Bobbie Sue said that Daddy knows about the baby so I'm gonna ask him about it early tomorrow before the rest of the family gets here," she said.
The next morning, Fritz got up from the breakfast table intending to give Brenda and Clay some privacy. But Brenda grabbed his hand to stop him while asking her father if they could talk. So Fritz sat back down.
"Sure, Brenda Leigh. What do you want to talk about?" Clay answered as he poured everyone another cup of coffee.
"Daddy, when I was workin in the attic I found a set of surrender papers."
"Oh." Then after a long pause Clay sighed and asked, "What do you want to know?"
"Why didn't Mama ever say anythin to me about it?"
"I think she was ashamed. She didn't know how to tell you."
"She was so much harder on me than on the boys and..."
"Brenda Leigh, that's because she was so afraid for you. You were a beautiful, loving, trusting girl. You were everything we could have wanted in a daughter. But you were also a wild child. And she was afraid that the same thing could happen to you. She was only hard on you because she loved you so much and wanted to protect you the only way she knew how."
"She lied to me, Daddy. How could she do that?" Fritz heard the pain in Brenda's voice and took her hand in his.
"No, she didn't lie to you. She just kept something personal, something painful in her past, to herself."
Brenda shook her head and put her hand up and rubbed her forehead to shield her father's view of her eyes. She didn't want him to see tears.
But Clay saw how upset she was and continued, "Look, I know you're upset. But you need to know that her experience helped you, too."
"Helped me? How did it help me?"
"When you came home for Christmas that first year you went to work at the State Department, I found birth control pills in the bathroom."
Brenda blushed and lowered her head once more but Clay continued. "I was ready to kill you but Willie Ray told me not to jump to any conclusions. She told me that young women are often put on birth control pills to straighten out their hormones. She said you'd had a lot of problems with your time of the month so that was probably why you were taking them. No matter the reason, though, she told me that you were a grown woman and she said that if she'd had birth control pills she would never have been put through hell.
"And another thing. When I found out that Fritz had moved in with you, I was really angry. But Willie Ray helped calm me down. She said that he was a wonderful man and she understood why you wanted to live with him. And she kept telling me how good he treated you and how much better things are today than they were when she was a girl."
This time it was Fritz's turn to smile. Brenda smiled too and said, "I always wondered why Mama was so acceptin when she found out that Fritz had moved in."
Fritz agreed. "I was surprised, too. I didn't know her well then, of course, but I would never have expected her to be so accepting of me."
Clay nodded. "Of course I can never completely understand what it was like for her. But I think that's why she wanted to have you so badly. I was ready to stop after the boys but she wasn't. She insisted on trying one more time to have a girl. I think, in a way, that she thought having another girl would give her a second chance. And maybe she was right. You always were her favorite. I know you got your strength and your independent streak from your mother."
"And my stubbornness from you."
Clay smiled and continued, "And I know that's why she wanted Charlene to spend time with you. She knew that you wouldn't give up on her. You see, when she found out that Charlene was having sex with her boyfriend she was afraid that Bobby and Joyce would make good on their threat to put her in foster care. She knew how it felt to be sent away from family and everything familiar to her at a young age. She was sure that you'd be the best person to help Charlene get her head back on straight. And she was right," Clay smiled at Brenda.
"I talked to Aunt Bobbie Sue and she told me that Nana and Grandpa sent her away to a home that sounded more like a prison. I can't imagine why they would do that and what that must have been like for her. No wonder she was afraid for Charlie."
"That was the way teenage pregnancies were handled back then. It was hard on everyone but I suppose people thought it was better than a shotgun wedding," Clay explained.
"It's hard to think about treating a teenage girl that way," Fritz commented.
"Yes, it is nowadays. And I remember Willie Ray telling me in no uncertain terms when you started dating that if you were to get pregnant, that she would never permit you to be sent away."
"Funny. I always figured that if I got pregnant that you and Mama would kill me. You were both so strict and so religious."
"Make no mistake. We both would have been upset. But more upset for what a pregnancy would mean for your future, not for embarrassing us in the church. We both would have loved you, no matter what."
Brenda was fighting back tears. "Poor Mama. I can't imagine Nana and Grandpa sendin her away like that. How could they do that to their own daughter?"
"It was the times. It was either that or a shotgun wedding. But since her boyfriend had shipped off to fight the war in Korea that was impossible. And I for one am very happy that there was no forced marriage."
That drew a smile from both Brenda and Fritz. "Did you and Willie Ray ever try to find her?" Fritz asked.
"No. Adoption records were permanently sealed in those days. Nowadays I guess it's easier. You hear about adopted children finding their birth parents all the time. But that wasn't the way it was then. And your mama felt that what was done was done."
Clay continued to explain. "And besides, she apparently never tried to find us, either. Why, she may not even know she was adopted. You know, in those days it was considered best not to tell children they were adopted. So we just assumed that she was raised in a loving family and that she has her own life now."
Clay was interrupted by the sound of a pickup truck coming up the driveway. But Brenda still had one more question she had to ask. "Do the boys know about her?"
"No. And don't you tell them. I'll find a way to tell them myself at some point." Clay was emphatic.
Brenda nodded as the back door opened and the rest of the family trooped in.
"All right, everybody. Let's get busy and go through everything Brenda and Fritz cleaned out of the attic. We've got to decide what to do with it," Clay ordered. Everyone busied themselves with their mother's belongings. Brenda watched everyone reminiscing about Mama and evaluating each item knowing that there was so much her brothers didn't know about their mother. She wondered if learning the truth would be as jarring to them as it had been for her.
Fritz saw the look on his wife's face and whispered to her, "Come on." He helped her into her jacket, took her hand and they walked out the back door.
Once they were outside and out of earshot, Brenda turned to Fritz and asked, "What is it, Fritzi?"
"I figured I'd better get you out of there before your brothers caught on that something was wrong."
"I still can't get my head around this."
"You want to know what I think?"
"I think you started out being angry at your mother for forcing you to live one way while she had lived another. And, even though your aunt and your father gave you a very good explanation for what happened, as well as your mother's motive for being strict with you, you still want to hang onto that anger."
Brenda bristled, "Well, Dr. Lucy, I see you have me all psychoanalyzed. Do you want your five cents now or are you just gonna let me have a runnin tab?"
"You can run up a tab if you need to. But really, all I think you need to do is give yourself time to come to terms with it."
When she heard that, Brenda turned around and headed back into the house with Fritz trailing behind.
After her brothers left with the items each had claimed and with some items set aside to send to Jimmy, Fritz and Clay loaded the remaining boxes into his pickup truck and took them to the Salvation Army. As he drove, Clay asked, "How is Brenda handling this baby business? I think she was trying to hide how upset she was."
"She's upset, all right. She had a pretty big shock. But she just needs time. She'll come to grips with it."
While the men were out of the house Brenda took the broom and dustpan up to the attic and finished cleaning up. As she worked she kept mulling over what her aunt and her father had told her. Then she tried thinking how she would have handled the same situation. She tried to think how she would have felt as a young girl if she'd been pregnant and sent away from everyone she knew and held in a prison for four months. And when she finally came home she had to change schools so she had no further contact with any of her friends. Brenda had to admit that she wasn't sure that she could handle it any differently than Willie Ray had, and probably not as well.
That night, lying in bed, Fritz held Brenda as she whispered, "There was so much more to Mama than I realized. I think I'm gonna need that tab to sort it all out."
Fritz nodded and kissed her forehead. "You have what it takes to do it. You come from strong stock."
"I still don't know how I feel about all of this. My emotions are all over the place. But I'm not sorry I found out about the baby."
"Your mother was no hypocrite, honey. Today her family probably would never make the decisions that they made way back then. But since she couldn't change the past I think she did the best she could."
Brenda shrugged. "Maybe. I tried but I just can't put myself into Mama's shoes. Thins are so different now. But you know, today I was watchin Bobby and Clay, Jr. go through Mama's thins and I realized that those boxes represented who Mama was. But not everythin she was. She was a much more complicated person than any of us realized. It's a lot to think about."
Fritz just held her close and kissed her forehead again. "Your mother was a strong lady and a wonderful woman. And so is her daughter."
Brenda smiled, kissed his chin, and snuggled into his chest. She closed her eyes and thought about her mother's strength and her journey before finally falling asleep.
A/N: And now, please review. Thank you.