I asked my mother about the letters shortly before her death. She was living in Phoenix at the time, recently widowed. After I graduated from Northwestern and it looked like I would be making Chicago my permanent home, my parents had - like the Warnocks - left St. Louis for sunnier climes, going first to Dallas and then further south to Houston before finally fetching up in a retirement community outside of Phoenix.
"I burnt them," was her response to my question.
"You burnt them? Why?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Because … because they're all that you had to remind you of Tom." Because I wanted to read them after you died, was my unstated thesis.
"They're not all that I have." She tapped the side of her head. "I have my memories. I have what they gave us when they brought him home."
One side of her mouth curled up; I saw Tom in that smile. " You wanted to read them, didn't you?"
Better to fess up to it, I thought. "Yes. Of course."
She said nothing for a moment. Together, we listened to the steady hum of the air conditioner, trying to keep up with the climatic exigencies of the Sonoran desert. Then, "They weren't yours to read, Timothy." The Timothy was new; in the past, only in anger had she addressed me by my full name.
"He was my brother."
"If he had wanted to tell you these things, he would have written something to you."
"'These things'? What things?" Knowing that I was trying to get my mother to say it, to say what he was.
"Things about … about … about why he joined up."
"He joined up because he was running out of options."
"It was … more than that."
She studied me. "Your brother was a very … troubled young man."
"I remember. Very well."
"Yes, I'm sure that you do. It was more than that."
All in, I told myself. "It was because he was gay, wasn't it?"
She looked away, held her hand up to her face, ran her fingers over her mouth. She then levered herself up and out of the recliner and tottered into the kitchen. I heard sounds that I couldn't easily identify, and then here she was with two glasses of wine, one of which she handed to me before getting back into the chair. I remembered seeing the box of wine in the refrigerator, a vintage that was probably two weeks old, at best.
"How long have you known?"
"Since I was fifteen." I could tell that that surprised her.
"Yes. I … well, I assumed you knew. Or figured it out."
She shook her head. "Not until I read those letters." She looked at me with eyes just on the verge of tears. "How would we have known?"
"You never asked."
"What would we have known to ask?" she insisted, her voice ratcheting up in volume. "That never entered our minds, to think that he …"
"Well, that's why he was - oh, what did you call it? Troubled? "
"You're angry with me."
"No, not really." At her obvious disbelief I went on. "Seriously, I'm not. Tom and I made our peace a long time ago." A kind of cold war, in retrospect. Trust but verify.
"Why didn't you tell us? "
"Why should I have? What do you think would have happened to me if I'd said anything?"
"It would have devastated your father, if he'd known."
And you, I thought, even though you're too afraid to admit it. Easy to blame the dead husband. "Do you remember Paul Warnock?"
She frowned. "I - oh, wait. Your best friend back then, right?"
I nodded. "Until Tom stole him away." I waited until she understand what I meant, watched her face change with her understanding.
"No …" she whispered.
"It was a different time, back then. Now? Who cares, right? People aren't afraid, any more. These days, it seems like every third person is one thing or another, and isn't ashamed to tell the whole world. Which is how it should be, maybe. Fear makes people do terrible things to each other."
"I always wondered what we'd done, your father and I. What mistake did we make with him? What made him that way? What could we have done differently?"
"Do you think you raised him any differently than you raised me?"
"No. I don't know. But, well … he was the first-born. Sometimes they say that makes a difference."
"He was always your favorite."
At that, she shook her head. "No. He was your father's favorite. You were mine." She smiled. "I know parents aren't supposed to admit that, but it is true. We do play favorites. I don't know what your father saw in him, but I don't think he could have understood that about Tom. It would have been just too much."
"He was a lot like you."
"Tom? Yes, he was. I had a temper, and so did he. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to you. I could see your father at work in you and I loved you for it. Tom kept making the same mistakes I made when I was his age, and I couldn't do anything to stop him."
"Can I ask you a question?"
She smiled. "Of course."
"If you could do it all over again, would you do it any differently?"
"You mean with you and Tom?" She paused, sipped her wine. "I would have tried, I think. But, you said it yourself. It was a different time, back then. I don't know if we would have been allowed to do it differently. Do you understand what I mean?"
The truth was, I did. It was easy, in the clarity of hindsight, to criticize the choices our parents made with us, as every parent did with their children back then. Even now, parents made mistakes that would shape their children's lives for a long time. I knew that I had made mistakes with my children, as they had done - and would continue to do - with theirs. Perhaps the best that one could hope for was to not screw up too badly, to win them back over time.
We tried to overwrite the past with the present always; perhaps that was one thing that made us human: we willed ourselves to forget pain. Even as we strove towards a better future, we seemed to strive for a better past, one in which we were never wrong, never at a loss for the right thing to say or do, and always the heroes of our own stories.
I leaned over and embraced her, and kissed her, not trusting myself to speak, letting that be the answer to her question and her plea.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Gymnastics at Ila school By Leif Ørnelund / Oslo Museum, License: Attrbution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
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