By Beth Armstrong Leahy
One night, a patron waves me over to her booth in the restaurant where I am working my second job as a waitress. She’s blonde and attractive and dining with her husband. We are both in our early fifties. Her face is square, her hair wavy, almost curly. She introduces herself as Debbie. She has six children and three grandchildren. She shows me a photograph. And she tells me that she is my cousin. Her mother and my mother are first cousins. I have never heard of this person before now.
This isn’t the first time I’ve learned something about my family that has been kept from me. Just after my father died thirty-two years ago, when I was twenty-one years old, I picked up the ringing phone at the same time that my mother picked up another extension. I eavesdropped. It was the life insurance company needing to know if there were any previous wives or children who might make a claim on the insurance payout. To my complete surprise, my mother said yes—he’d been married before but there were no children, and it had only lasted a year.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I shared this bombshell with my sister, Sarah, who at twenty had already been divorced. She wished she’d known, she told me, so she wouldn’t have felt as ashamed to tell my parents of her own impending divorce.
What other family matters did I know nothing about? What about that uncle in Oregon who no one ever talks about? Are there other secrets, a collection of skeletons in the attic closet? When another uncle was divorced I never saw his boys—my cousins—ever again. All this uncertainty and mystery in one small family. Was this just the tip of a family iceberg, an iceberg with pieces breaking off to float away from us?
A few years later, when I was thirty-two years old, my older brother told me that our maternal grandmother, who died when I was three and he was ten, had died by her own hand. Or as he put it, “She blew her head off.” Wow. Just wow. Quickly scanning my memories for any clues that I might have missed, I couldn’t come up with anything. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandfather had never slipped. I recalled the only time I’d asked about her, when I realized that I didn’t know how she had died or much else about her for that matter, my mother’s answer was “cerebral hemorrhage,” spoken in a tone that didn’t invite further probing. This answer was not a lie but neither was it the whole truth.
To this day, I have never revealed to my mom that I know the real cause of death. I feel that if she didn’t want Sarah and me to know, then I should honor that wish. I did, however, tell my sister. We both, along with my brother, have been diagnosed with and take medication for clinical depression. Since learning of my grandmother’s suicide, I have spent no small amount of time pondering this information, wondering how she could have done it to her family. I know that she and my mother were close; we lived next door to her and my grandfather. She had eleven grandchildren; some of us were toddlers and have no memories of her. They had horses. Why did she do it? Once, I heard my mom arguing with my brother on the phone—we were middle-aged by then—and she vehemently said, “My mother was the sanest person I know!” My brother could only have expressed doubts about her mother’s sanity to evoke this response.
So now before me is this lovely woman who has just revealed our relationship. And I believe Debbie instantly—she looks like us. I, too, have a square face and blonde, wavy hair. In the middle of this restaurant, with my co-workers rushing by me and customers gobbling up their lobsters, I learn from her that my grandfather’s half-brother, Kingsbury Bragdon, engaged to another, walked into the family home after some absence, saw their young housekeeper for the first time and was completely smitten. He broke his engagement and married the housekeeper, Eleanor—Debbie’s grandmother.
The Bragdon family was one of the founding families of this town here in Maine. My great-grandfather was one of three men who founded York Hospital. The Bragdon Insurance and Real Estate Agency, started in 1901, is still in business all these years later. The Bragdon clan belonged to the Country Club, owned horses and boats and fancy cars. Even today their children go to private schools and to the best colleges, and they vacation in tropical locations. There are buildings all over town that bear the Bragdon name.
The turn of events with Kingsbury was apparently not taken well. This suspicion is borne out by the rest of the story. When the lovely former housekeeper was pregnant with their sixth child, Kingsbury dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of forty. Our family splintered. Eleanor and her children were not taken in by the rest of the family. They were nudged aside, not included in family gatherings, and eventually pushed to the far fringes of the family. A very few slender threads were left to tether this woman and her children to the clan she had married into. When I asked my mom about this, she told me that she and my grandmother did bring Eleanor and those six children hand-me-down clothes on occasion.
I feel ashamed and outraged at this news. How could they do that? How could they be such class snobs? How could they dishonor Kingsbury that way? How could they basically turn their backs on those fatherless children? I feel like, so many years later, I should apologize to this descendant of theirs. And what do I do with this information?
Apparently her branch of the family has been well aware of what happened two generations ago all along and has come to accept it. Why I have never been told of these people, I am not sure. Clearly, that generation had a problem with the housekeeper’s family background and pedigree, or lack thereof. Maybe, once that piece of the family was pushed away, the following generations couldn’t find a way to repair the breach and their shame about what had happened made it easy for them to just let them keep drifting away. And so it would have been simpler to not bother telling my generation anything at all about it.
Debbie certainly doesn’t seem angry or hurt or resentful. She is just telling me, very matter-of-factly, what happened and why we don’t know each other. She plucks a photograph from her purse and proudly shows me her grown children and young grandchildren. They are all smiling and beautiful, and I feel pride, too. She named one of her sons Kingsbury. We make promises to keep in touch. I want to hug her, this woman, this stranger with whom I share bloodlines and history and secrets. And, as it turns out, an occupation: just as Eleanor did, we work as house cleaners.
BETH ARMSTRONG LEAHY still lives in York, Maine. She has two grown children and tries not to keep any secrets from them.