We drove home from the cemetery, mom and I, with heavy hearts and silent thoughts. The graveside service was unlike any I have ever attended. Normally, funerals are full of grief and unstoppable tears, those left behind filled with pain and loss. But not this one. In attendance, were just myself, my older brother Josh, and my mother, Clara. Somber, yes, we were that. But not from grief. No, not because we were sorry.
See, grandma Livia was one of the meanest, rudest people you would ever have the misfortune to meet. Cantankerous and cold, she gave my mother and her twin sister, my aunt Kate, one of the worst childhoods one could ever hope to have. She raised my aunt and my mom alone, working two jobs just to make ends meet. More often then not, the twin sisters were left to clean and cook, getting a sound paddling if even one of the chores not done to her standards. She was a daunting task master, often keeping the twin girls up till all hours of the night cleaning. The word ‘grandmother’ held a whole new meaning to my brother and I. There were no story books, no cookies or treats, only the feeling that you were not liked very much.
After dropping my brother off at the airport, mom and I headed over to grandma’s house. We got the daunting job of taking care of her estate and business affairs. I looked over at my mother, admiring her in the smart, black skirt and white top she choose to wear today.Her chestnut gold hair was pulled back into a loose braid, and the breeze from the window gently coaxed little tendrils to come free, making her look a little younger then her 52 years. She was everything her own mother was NOT.
“You ok, mom?” I asked, concerned. I could see the strain on her face as we drove back to grandma’s house.
She looked pensive before she answered, and with a sad little smile, she told me, ” Well, Jess, I was thinking about when Uncle Josh called me with the news about your grandmother, thinking of my reaction and how I felt. My first thought after he told me was, ‘Ding Dong the witch is dead’. Now I’m wondering how I feel about that, about the fact that there is no real feeling for my own mother. How can you not feel sadness over your own mother’s death?”
I took her hand, offering what little comfort I could for her inner torment. “Mom, considering the circumstances, my God, it’s a wonder you even attended at all! Don’t beat yourself up over this. The fact of the matter is, grandma was a very mean and cruel lady who did nothing to deserve your love. I love you, mom. You’ve been such a great mother to Josh and I and you can at least take solace in the fact that you are not ANYTHING like her!”
“You know what, Jess? Your absolutely right. How did I get such a smart, beautiful daughter, anyway?” She smiled at me, giving my hand an affectionate squeeze.
“Before we go to the house,” she said, “why don’t we grab some Chinese so we don’t have to worry about cooking. I’ll pick up some breakfast stuff, too. This way, we don’t have to worry about one more thing. We have enough on our plates right now and I’m NOT looking forward to this.” I agreed wholeheartedly.
My mom and I have a great relationship. My brother Josh and I, one year apart, had the best memories a kid could ever have. She doted on us, but trust me, she was not afraid to deal out the dire consequences for bad behavior. But in a more constructive manner then her mother, for the desired results. Dad died 4 years ago in Iraq after his unit drove over a hidden IED, killing him and 3 others.
We pulled into the driveway of grandma’s house, a rather large Victorian home set on 4 acres of wooded property. The ancient oaks in front of her house were a testament to it’s age. Those tree’s were at least a couple of hundred years old. I wasn’t looking forward to staying there, and I could just imagine how mom must have felt. Upon entering, the first I did was cover my nose with my hand. God, it smelled. The combination of neglect, filth, and closed up conditions made it almost unbearable. I knew we had a huge job ahead of us.
“Whew!” exclaimed mom. “The Hilton it’s not, holy cow!”. My grandmother was a collector. You couldn’t quite call her a hoarder, but it was pretty darn close. I headed into the small living room off of the foyer, and took a quick inventory of my grandmother’s things. Not much had been added or taken away since I was a child. The old organ still stood unused, collecting dust as it always did, in the same old corner of the room. I never remember her playing it, and she never let my brother and I touch it. The one thing that I always wanted for myself was her grandfather clock. Amazingly, it’s pendulum still swayed lazily back and forth, keeping perfect time.
“Wow, mom, that’s pretty incredible. Thanks, I really do love it, and I promise I will take good care of it.” |
“I know you will, Jess, your a good girl.” she looked at me, then, and added “Have I told you lately how proud I am of you? ”
“Oh mom,” I blushed. “You don’t have to tell me because if it wasn’t for all of your support and guidance through the years, God only know’s what I’d be doing.” I laughed, “probably barefoot and pregnant!”
She laughed at that, and together, we did a walk through of the house. Accessing each room quickly, tallying up what pieces of furniture to sell and which to keep, we became more overwhelmed by the minute at the enormity of the task that lay ahead of us. Her belongings seemed endless.
After we finished downstairs, we headed up to the bedrooms. There were only two bedrooms, the master and the guest room. I chose the guest room because as a child, I was always fascinated by the wallpaper. It was black, with hundreds of pure white orchids entwined with green leaves from top to bottom. My mother hated that room, but I adored it. Not much to get rid of in here, just a bed, dresser, a standing closet, and a nightstand. I put my night bag on the bed,then joined my mother in the master bedroom.
The master bedroom was just that. Huge, and full of the ‘masters’ clothes, toiletries and one of those gigantic steamer trunks that all people of my grandmothers age seemed to have. The bed, an ornate, 18th century four poster made from oak, was a beautiful piece of furniture, flawless. My grandmother hadn’t used it in years, because, as she aged, it was difficult for her to navigate the stairs.
As my mom looked through the closet, I noticed there was another door I didn’t recall ever seeing before on the other side of the room. It almost blended in with ugly, paisley wallpaper.
“Mom,” I said, pointing to the mystery door, “Where does this go?”
“It’s the attic door,” she answered, making a face of disgust. “Your aunt Grace and I were forbidden to go up there. One day, out of sheer curiosity, we did. We thought she had left to go into town, but she forgot something and came back without us knowing it. She must have noticed that we were not where she left us, which was downstairs. She found us, just as we were opening the door. She told us that if our great grandfather had been here, he would have skinned us alive. Apparently, SHE wasn’t allowed up there either.”
By the look on my mom’s face, I knew that it didn’t end well. She continued,”We were terrified when she came in the room, and we knew that we were in BIG trouble. Do you know what she did? She got rid of our dog. My beloved Pomeranian. We came home from school one day and he was just gone. I looked at my mother’s smug smile and KNEW that was our punishment for being in the attic.”
My mom’s eyes filled with tears as she relived that day, and I was horrified, and put my arms around my mother. At that moment, there was a little role reversal as I held her.
I had all I could do, then, to stop myself from bawling like a baby for the hurt my mother suffered at the hands of my grandmother. I hated her, then, hated everything my grandmother stood for. I wasn’t even sure I even wanted her grandfather clock anymore, I was so damn mad. How dare this woman treat my mother so cruelly! She was a mean and miserable witch.
“Ok, enough of the bad memories, Jess, let’s just forget about it. I NEED to forget about it. ” she said softly, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “We have to up there tomorrow whether we want to or not, and to be honest, I’m just a little scared of what we’re going to find.”
“Maybe she had a lost lover up there that she kept as a prisoner, ” I said, to lighten the mood a little bit.
Mom laughed at that and added, “Or maybe she’s a vampire by night and her casket is up there. It would explain why she never slept in her bed!”
We both yawned, then, the day catching up to us all at once, power slamming us with fatigue. I knew I could just fall into that bed and fall into sleep in seconds flat.
“Yeah, I think it’s about that time.” mom said, “Let’s hit the sack early and tackle that damned attic first thing in the morning.” I agreed, and went into the bathroom to wash up, not even sure I had the strength to do that. I was asleep before my head even touched the pillow.
I stood at the graveside of my grandmother, a light rain gently caressing my face as it fell. A blanket of fog swirled around me, blanketing the area eerily. I didn’t know why I was here, but something drew me to this spot. Looking up, I thought I saw a shadow move behind one of the taller tombstones. Curious, I watched as a man came from around the other side, and stood staring in my direction. Nervous now, I thought that this would be a good time to leave. The man started walking in my direction, and panicked now, I walked a little faster. But something stopped me. I turned around again, and he was closer then he should have been. I screamed, backed up, and tripped over a low lying stone, landing painfully on my bottom. He stood where he was, and I noticed that even though he was close, maybe 10-15 feet away, I couldn’t really make out any facial features at all. He pointed, then, to my grandmothers grave, then, again, in the direction of her house. “Find them”, he whispered as if he were only inches away. “Find them….in the attic”. I shuddered, thinking of the attic. The ground was cold, and it was seeping into my bones like a icy serpent. I looked up and the man was gone, as if he had never been. Standing now, with the strangers words echoing in my head, I woke…
…..To find that the window was open a crack, but enough so that the room was chilled. The dream left me feeling anxious and disorientated. I knew that I didn’t leave that window open, so how was it open now? Bit’s and pieces of my disturbing nightmare rolled around in my head, and all I kept hearing was, “Find them”. Find them. Find who? And why in the attic, of all places to find someone? I wasn’t sure I wanted know. I glanced at the clock and was surprised to see that it was already 7 am. Wow, I just slept for 10 hours straight! A delicious smell came wafting up through the floorboards, then. Bacon. There’s nothing more delicious then the smell of bacon. My tummy growled in response to the aroma, and I hurriedly threw some old clothes that I brought with me to wear during our impending clean up. Today was NOT going to be fun, but the food would help to fuel the day.
I entered the kitchen to find mom already dressed, and sipping a cup of wonderful coffee.
“Morning, mom.” I greeted her with a kiss on her cheek. “Your up early. How long have you been down here?”
“Oh, since about 5 am. I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing really strange noises in the house.” she complained. “I could have SWORN I heard someone on the attic stairs. Of course there couldn’t have been, but still, it made me uncomfortable to hear.”
“Mom, I had a nightmare last night.” I told her as I poured my coffee. “And it was really strange, so real..”.
She looked up from her coffee, curious. “Really? You haven’t had nightmares since you were little, Jess. Can you remember it?”
“Yeah, unfortunately.” I sat down with my coffee. “I was in the cemetery at grandma’s grave. It was really foggy and this man stepped out of the fog. He started coming closer, but in a weird way, not like person really moves, you know what I mean? It was like, well, creepy. I remember how scared I was, and I started backing away and tripped over a headstone. I thought for sure he was going to get me right then and there.
“Oh my God, Jess. Sounds like real bad one. What else happened?”
“It WAS bad, mom. Well, after I fell, he pointed to grandma’s grave and said, “Find them.” Then he pointed in the direction where this house is and said, “In the attic. Find them”. Mom, I don’t think it was a dream.”I said looking at her.
“What do mean, like he was trying to tell you something? You think a spirit was talking to you in your dreams? Come on, Jess, for real? It was just a dream, nothing more.”
“No, mom, I mean it. He was trying to tell us that SOMETHING is in that attic. Something we need find.”
She put her cup down and just looked me, not knowing what to say. I could tell she was skeptical, but by the look on her face, curious as well. She stood and rinsed out her cup. “You almost done? We’ll just have to go up there, that’s all. If there’s something to be found, hopefully it won’t be bad.”
We cleaned up our breakfast mess, got a bunch of garbage bags, and went upstairs to the attic door, stopping in front of it.’
“Well, this is it. You ready, Jess?” my mom asked. I could see how stressed she was, and I could also see she was afraid.
“I’ll go first,” I volunteered. I opened the rusty door and it creaked like a door in a Hollywood movie. I looked back at my mothers pale face, and started up the dark, musty staircase. It was HOT up there. I started sweating right away, and using my flashlight, I found a the light switch. The light was dim, but at least we could see.
“God, it’s hot up here,” mom said, wiping the sweat out of her eyes. I went over to a small, round window and cracked it open.A small breeze floated in, easing the heaviness and making easier to breathe.
I turned to my right, and there it was. Tucked way in the corner of the attic, was a small steamer trunk that looked like it hadn’t been opened in years.
“Mom! Over here! Look!” I called. I started to drag it out of it’s hiding spot as my mom watched, and then she, too, helped pull it out into the open, under the light. We sat and stared at it, her and I. Afraid of it’s contents. What if it were a little skeleton? Or a cut up body? I shuddered at the thought. The chest had a shipping invoice on the top. The sender, a Michael J. Seton/Care of The United States Army. The receiver, my grandmother. I looked at mom, curious. “Have you ever heard of him mom?” I asked her.
“It sounds so familiar. When you said the name, I felt like this deja vou come over me.” she told me.
We dusted off the top, and just stared at the unopened trunk, both of us weary of what would be waiting inside.
“Well,” my mom said softly. “Are you ready for this?”
I looked at her. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
She lifted up the little latch on the front, and swung open the top of the trunk. To our amazement, it was filled with unopened letters. Not just one, but hundreds! I picked one up, examining it. A love letter. Each letter was addressed lovingly to my grandmother and each love letter was sealed with a hand drawn heart.
“Mom,” I said softly. “What are these? Why aren’t they opened? Who is this man,” I looked closer at the name in the top, left hand corner of the envelope. “Michael Seton”. Looking up at my mother, I noticed she was deadly pale. “Mom! Are you ok?” I cried.
“Oh. My. God.” She kept staring at the name on the love letter. Looking up at me, horror and sadness in her eyes, she explained. “We were 4 yrs. old at the time. She always spoke to us about a man named Michael. How he broke her heart. My grandfather, whom we lived with for a short time, hated this man Michael, she told us, and forbid my mother to speak with him. But she managed to send him letter after letter, waiting desperately for some kind of returned correspondence. This was before we were born, but I think that she was carrying us. She heard nothing from him. Day after day she would stare out the window, down the drive, like she was waiting for someone or something. Finally, she just gave up. She stopped looking, stopped waiting, and then she changed. She became bitter towards ALL men, and then, towards all people in general.”
“Oh, mom, that’s so, so sad.” I said softly, looking at a letter. “Mom, can we open one? They’re in order, see?” I showed how they were separated by dates. “Let’s look at the last love letter and see if it can tell us WHY she never got them.” She nodded in agreement, unable to say more. I gently opened the love letter and unfolded it. It was dated, June 5th, 1944.
“My dearest Sharon,” it started, “This will be my last letter to you. We are being deployed to Normandy in the morning, and should arrive at about 6:30 am on the shore. We are hoping that the decoy works and Hitler will be expecting us farther up the shore. It’s a huge operation. I write this with a heavy hand, as every letter I have ever sent has found it’s way back to me, unopened. Why, my love, why? I just do not understand after the plans we made and of course, the baby. Did you tell your father yet? Surely the baby is born by now. You told me you’d love me forever, at the train station, remember? Why, then the silence? Have I done something wrong? My love, please tell me so I can make it up to you next month when will be returning home on furlough. I am counting the days, no, the HOURS when I can look into your beautiful eyes again. I pray with all of my heart that you and the baby have been well.
Please remember, I love you with all my heart and soul, dearest Livia. Godspeed till the time we can see each other again.”
All my love forever,
There was also a Government issued letter, starting with the words ‘On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, we regret to inform you….’
I didn’t need to read the rest. I saw my mother weeping openly now, understanding. I, too, felt hot tears streaming down my face as I held the love letter. Not only did Michael J. Seton never make it home to her, but my grandfather hid this box. He didn’t want his daughter to see the wrong he had done, so he hid the chest and the returned love letters.
My mother cried a lifetime of tears up that attic. Tears for the love denied her and her sister. For now she understood her mothers pain. I wrapped my arms around her, and let her weep for all that had been lost. My mother and aunt must have been constant reminder of the man whom my grandmother thought abandoned her. He said ‘baby’, so that meant he didn’t even know that she had twins.
“WHY?” my mother screamed. She was screaming at the monster who was her grandfather. “Why did you do this to her? To US? I HATE you! Do you hear me? I hate you!” I was weeping openly now for the pain that this wicked man had caused. He deliberately took a cruel satisfaction in destroying his daughters life. I knew then, that monsters walked this earth. He seemed to have gotten great pleasure from taking away the love of my grandmothers life.
Finally, my mothers tears stopped, as did mine, and we put the letters back into the trunk. An air of heaviness hung darkly over us now, and we wanted nothing more then leave the depressing confines of the attic. Impulsively, I grabbed a bunch of the letters before we headed down the stairs.
The love letters changed everything. She saw her mother in a whole new light. She wasn’t just a mean, uncaring woman. She was a woman who had her heart shattered into a million pieces. A woman who thought that the man she adored had abandoned her with a belly full of babies. And the babies, a constant reminder of her pain, became her misguided targets.
“Mom, come downstairs with me.” I said softly. “Let me make you a cup of coffee.”
Her eyes red and swollen, she smiled through the tears and took my offered hand. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.” she answered.
In the kitchen, I poured her a steaming cup of brew, and sat down. My mom had finally calmed down a little bit and now we needed to figure out our next step.
“Mom, I have a really good idea.” I offered. “How about we stop what we’re doing right now, just forget about trying to do all this by ourselves, and hire someone else to do it.”
Mom agree, and getting our things together, we got in the car and started the long drive home. I asked her to stop at the cemetery on the way, there was one last thing I needed to do.
We pulled into Fairview Cemetery, and with a bundle of the love letters in my hand, we went to grandma’s grave one last time. I laid the bundle on her fresh grave, and my mom burst into tears.
She wept tears of loss for a mother who resented her very existence, and then, tears of understanding why.
Feeling like a burden had been lifted and something better replaced, we left for home. Love followed my grandmother to the grave, and hopefully, wherever she was, Michael was there to greet her with open arms…