Thursday, March 25, 2010

Beautiful Red Hair - #fridayflash (critiques welcome)

By Susan Cross

My older cousin spoke first. “Can you believe that your mother never told you?” she asked me.

I sat silently, processing the information and then smiled. “Your mother was my mother’s sister. When this happened, you lived three houses away from us. Grandma and Grandpa lived upstairs. That means they all knew. So, in my mind the real question is how could they all have kept this from all of us for a lifetime?”

Both cousins were thoughtful. They obviously had not considered that. Their mother and father were also guilty. Our grandmother was part of the conspiracy. Our grandfather had a stroke three years after it happened and lost his speech. We were all toddlers then, and my younger cousin hadn’t even been born.

Then there was my father. He was a good man. Mother had divorced him when I was three. My memory was cloudy but I remembered another man moving into the house right after my daddy moved out. He loved me very much. In retrospect, maybe too much. I remembered him treating me with hugs and kisses but not bestowing the same affection upon my mother.

My memory is very good. Sometimes that’s a blessing, sometimes a curse. When I was four, I remember, this man and my mother got into the old two-toned Ford Galaxy. I was in the back seat. Mother drove in silence. It seemed like a very long ride. The car stopped in front of a house with a wrought iron fence around the front yard. There was an unusual pattern in the fence—circles with lines going up through them, pointed and sharp at the top. He got out. My mom was still and silent and I could hear the sound of the engine running. He took his grocery bag full of clothes and such, got out of the car and walked toward the gate. The car pulled away from the curb and started driving.

“If you ever mention his name again I will kill you. You understand?” she said. I was silent, holding my breath.

Back in the here and now, these thoughts were racing through my mind as my cousins sat silently watching for my reaction. Then one of them spoke. It was the older one.

“Don’t you want to know? I mean, if it’s true aren’t you curious?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I mean, what good could come of it?”

The cousin stood up and crossed the room. She had an envelope in her hand. There was writing on it. “Eleanor’s baby boy.” Three words. She opened the envelope and inside was a small piece of paper. Hamilton Park Hospital, Hamilton Park, New Jersey. April 27, 1953. Mother: Eleanor Hanson. Father: Marty Johnson. Adopted by the Zimmerman family.”

This was the evidence that I had a brother—no, a half-brother. As far as I knew, the only thing I had in common was our mother. I was evaluating the situation.

“Don’t you think he’d want to know that he has a half-sister?” my younger cousin asked. “Really, it makes sense to at least try to contact him. I found him on the Internet and he still lives in New Jersey. You could at least email him.”

My younger cousin was very rational and pragmatic. She looked at me and said, “Out of all of the cousins, we are all women and none of us had children. In fact, we are the end of grandpa’s bloodline.” She paused and looked down at the floor. “If his is your half-brother and he has children then it would mean that our bloodline will continue. I’d kind of like to know.”

“Well,” I said, “if you would like to follow up on it, feel free, but please keep me out of the whole thing.”

The expression on my older cousin’s face was somber. “You really wouldn’t want to make contact with him?”

“Let’s do some role playing,” I said. “I’ll be him and you be me. Okay?”

She hesitated.

“Hello?” I said as I positioned my hand by my left ear as if clutching a telephone.

“Hi,” she said. “I’ve been doing some research into my family’s genealogy and I think that we may be related.”

“Really? Who is this?” I said, playing my role as him.

“I found some papers after my mother died and found out that she had a baby boy that was adopted. According to your web page, you already know that you’re adopted and are interested in knowing more about your birth mother,” she said, acting as me. “Is that true?”

“Yes. Are you saying that you know my mother?” I asked.

“If your name is Marc Zimmerman and the birthday on your site is accurate, I think I might,” my cousin said.

“I can’t believe this! Who is this? What was she like?”

And that’s the point where I laughed. It was not a ha-ha laugh. My cynicism got the best of me.

I looked at my cousin and asked her, “And what do I say next? How do I answer that question? She was crazy? She was married and divorced three times? She never told anybody about you? Her judgment was terrible? She was an abusive, cruel mother? She was diagnosed with mental illness and refused to take her meds? Oh, but she had beautiful red hair and she was really pretty.”

Again, I laughed. What would be the point? What purpose would that serve? That was all so long ago. Our mother was dead. I stood by my decision not to contact him. If I had the only words I could think of to say to him were, “You were the lucky one.”

Copyright © 2010 Susan Cross – All rights reserved


... Paige said...

a sad tale, well put and very plausible

I would suggest to name the narrator and the older cousin making them into real people, and leaving the mother and half brother nameless as they are less than real. I hope that makes sense.

Susan Cross said...

Good point. Question: Does it work in 1st person? I went back and forth between 1st and 3rd.

Jai Joshi said...

I winced at the end of this. I can well imagine it happening.


... Paige said...

I liked the 1st person approach, made it very personal. It's like sitting on the floor in the corner. 3rd person, in this case, I think would put the reader to far away, like overhearing someone at another table and being only half aware of the emotions.

mazzz in Leeds said...

First person works particularly well for me because the narrator is at odds with the cousins.

Poignant tale, and the ending is very strong. For what it's worth, I agree with the narrator, although if I were the adopted one I'd probably want to know everything!

Susan Cross said...

Paige, I preferred it in 1st person, too. Glad you agree. It's the "fly on the wall" approach. I've heard so often that 1st person is a 'no-no' but I disagree. In some cases it's more effective.

Jai, I needed to have that zinger at the end, otherwise I was afraid it would read like an essay more than a story. You're right, though, ouch!

Susan Cross said...

Hi Mazz, Before posting this piece I actually asked an adopted woman how she felt about this issue and she said she would not want to be contacted. I presented it as a hypothetical on my part (narrator) and was surprised by her response. I'm sure others feel differently and would want to know. I guess it may depend on how that person's life was growing up with their adoptive parents. Sometimes curiosity does kill the cat or at least injure it a little.

Marisa Birns said...

This is an intense story. 1st person was the best choice for it to unfold.

So very well written!

And the last sentence was powerful.

Really sad, but very good story in how you tell it.

Susan Cross said...

Thank you, Marisa. It is so infrequent that I write for fridayflash. I find it hard to 'write on demand' each week. This one took a little time and developed in my journal.

Cathy Olliffe said...

I loved the image of all the cousins hanging out and chatting... very homey and comfortable.
I was wondering where your title came into play and loved how it finally did.
The story built strongly and finished very well. Enjoyed it! Thanks.

ganymeder said...

"You were the lucky one," was a good way to end the story. Well done.

Tomara Armstrong said...

I love how this story ends on a bit of a sad note, but you picked the postitive string of the mother's characteristics to name this piece.

Survival of the great optimist, and how she is thinking of the greater good (by not contacting her half brother)...great story!

Michelle said...

1st person take talent to do well - I think you've done a great job - very enjoyable.

Susan Cross said...

Thank you Michelee. It's funny because I find myself writing stories in my journal in first person. Then when I try to change to third, I can't think of names that fit my characters. I thought I was being a coward, but I'm happy you think it worked on this piece (I said as my head was swelling with pride). ;-}

~Tim said...

I agree that first person works well here. And I really like the way the last line explains the narrator's attitude.

Cecilia Dominic said...

This was a powerful piece. It sounds like the narrator has some deep wounds of her own that she needs to address before she can make a rational decision. I agree with the others that the first person works really well.


Laurita said...

The only part I had trouble with, and went back again to read, was the part about the second husband and the hugs and kisses. Maybe it was meant to sound innocent, that he loved her like a doughter but couldn't get close to her mother, but it sounded ominous.

I loved the very last line. Great ending.

Susan Cross said...

It was meant to sound ominous. There was a shadow of doubt in her mind about whether he loved her more and the mother was jealous or if she might have been sexually abused by him. I think a child that young might remember how he acted toward her but not understand why.

Chris Chartrand said...

This is such a well crafted piece. The foggy memory of the stepfather, the mother ditching him, presumably to protect her daughter, then the protection's ripped away by her threat of "I'll kill you". Great foreshadowing for the stellar last line.

Susan Cross said...

Thanks Chris. You "got" it exactly as I intended. Glad to see if worked for you.

Man Island said...

very real. I am a bit of a genealogist and I have reunited some people who came from similar (well worse) circumstances. It actually went surprisingly well ... but had the potential to be horrible.

Nice work ... carefully crafted.