Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Secret In A Handbag

Aunt Re grew African Violets, old-fashioned and predictable, like her. Or so we thought. Until she died and my mother found, in an old handbag, a secret kept tucked away for three-quarters of a century.

Re was a feisty young woman, quick with a sharp comeback. She had many brothers and held her own with them. She taught herself to play the piano and loved it, spent hours picking out tunes, singing and playing ragtime, jazz.

Then tuberculosis struck. There was no cure then. Far out in the country, where the air was clear and clean, she stayed for a year in bed. She got better. Then she relapsed. But the second time the medicines existed to finally whip the scourge and she fully recovered.

But she was never the same, my mother said. The nervous energy was gone. She was sweet and loving, infinitely patient. She had wanted children, but couldn't have them. So she and her husband, who had also survived TB, became surrogate parents for their many nieces and nephews. She always seemed so happy when we were around. Laughing, joking, loving. She had a childlike quality, clear, wrinkle-free skin that just did not age. Flawless, like her African Violets.

But she grew quiet at times, too. Staring into the distance with deep blue eyes. It took several tries to break through that silence. A touch, a child's embrace.

She was the weakest physically of her large hearty clan. But lived until age 96, finally beaten by a series of strokes that left her unable to speak, hear, talk. She drifted into a coma, finally, and then was gone.

It took months and quite a few relatives to clear out and distribute her possessions. She was a saver, sentimental. She kept so many pictures of us, old letters and notes. I was quite prolific and had no memory of that. "DEAR AUNT RE: I love you. J. was outside when she wasn't supposed to, fell and hit her head. Please can you come visit? I really want you to. PLEASE!" I scrawled these in childish hand.

Even so, my mother, her younger sister, wasn't prepared for what she found in an old purse tucked away in some boxes. Inside this handbag was a book that concealed an envelope. Inside was a letter. A very old letter.

It was written by a man my aunt had known when she was young. My mother vaguely remembered the man's name. There had been talk of this man, but she was 10 years younger, so the information had not really stayed with her. Until she found this letter.

My aunt and this man, so young then, had planned to marry. But times were hard, it was the Great Depression, and he was unable to find work. So he had to leave their small middle Tennessee community. He was determined. He would find something, anything, and would settle down there. Then he would send for her. They would marry, start a new life.

But the letter said it all. In a few short lines, the man reported finding work. But he also found someone else to love. He was sorry, but it couldn't be helped. He was marrying this person. He was sorry. But he was saying goodbye.

I can see my beautiful, delicate aunt now -- thick black hair, small-boned. Her big blue eyes, fringed with black eyelashes, filling with tears. Then carefully refolding the letter, inserting it into a book and putting it away. Getting on with life, as she did always.

And never forgetting the silent ache concealed in a handbag deep within a closet. Evidence of a broken heart that endured for nearly a century.


  1. This is a sad post. Broken hearts hurt for a long time. A trust is broken too. I'm sorry for your aunt. And I'm sorry for the loss of what might have been.

  2. Me too, Syd. I spent weeks with her at a time and we talked about everything, I thought. We used to fantasize that she would adopt me and we would be best friends as well as mother-daughter (my initiative, which totally annoyed my mother). But never once did my aunt mention this man to anyone after that letter. Then she got sick...