It’s All Relative
August 26, 2021 § 18 Comments
By Victoria Waddle
On Christmas Eve, as my extended family chatted over dinner, my good news about having a story published in a highly regarded journal was upstaged by my nieces’ 23andMe discovery of a previously unknown cousin, Tom.
Soon afterward, a bit of sleuthing revealed his parentage.
Tom was seeking relatives of his estranged father, but as it turned out, our link to him was through his mother, Sarah. My half-sister.
Dad was nineteen when Sarah was born. Back then, he lived in the California desert, on his parents’ failing farm. His lover’s parents owned a motel, creating opportunities for clandestine meetings. However, he had neither a phone nor a car. After learning of the pregnancy, it took Dad two weeks to reach Sarah’s mother. In that time, she’d married her “official” boyfriend, a high school sweetheart. Dad never tried to contact her again. In the Korean War era, breaking the silence could have destroyed the life she was building.
After decades of privately wondering whether the child was his, Dad expressed relief in airing his secret. Our ostensible values, our family history, were built on illusion. Now we were pulling back the curtain.
At the urging of my sisters and me, our Dad spoke on the phone with Sarah for the first time, sixty-five years after her birth. Frail and mostly deaf, he needed assistance. Sarah, quavering into tears, confessed to not speaking to her parents for decades, though they were still alive. Unable to convey more, she assured Dad he wasn’t the cause. She’d always believed the man who raised her was her father.
My sisters and I exchanged emails with Sarah, including photos and information about our families, careers, and hobbies. Sarah had majored in English, been a copyeditor and was an avid reader. Photos of her resembled our much-loved and much-missed grandmother. However, a childhood trauma survivor, she was wary of us. How would we create a bridge of connection?
Surprisingly, the first thing she expressed interest in was the online literary journal where I was the editor. She read the annual teen issue.
“That’s kind,” I said, “but you don’t have to read the teens.”
“They write about wounds I can relate to. Thank you for giving them a voice.”
Sarah was slowly recovering from a knee injury, homebound. Dad would die before the two could meet. Carrying a letter he’d written along with a high school yearbook that included photos of Sarah’s mother in journalism class and our father on the football field, my sisters and I flew from Southern California to the Oregon coast to visit. Entering Sarah’s sage-infused cabin, we wept. Her resemblance to our grandmother was uncanny; our sense of stepping into the past surreal.
Sarah’s story was pitiable. When she saw how much she looked like our dad, she understood her paternity had to have been known. She had been punished for being the family outsider. Now she wanted to be understood as a person in her own right.
“I just want to be seen,” she said.
“We’ve come here,” we affirmed. “We see you.”
While hoping to offer connections in place of the ones she’d lost, we understood her use of sage as a ritual of protection. We explained our burst of emotion upon our arrival. Sarah mused, “I wish I had known that grandmother.”
Previously, I’d hesitated to share my writing with Sarah. Returning home, I sent her a creative nonfiction piece. Published in a small journal, it reflected on our grandmother’s death and my first encounter with grief. The essay explores the shock of that experience—one that, as a teen, I was naive enough to believe would be the worst of my life. A few days later, Sarah wrote back:
I’ve nearly memorized the scene in the family room and the ‘bowlful of jelly’ paragraph…the description of a younger you carrying the weight of your grief home through the dark night…I have no words, just hand gestures, which don’t serve well in an email.
Sarah is working through a lifetime of grief. Trusting strangers—even ones who are family members—is difficult. I’m grateful I had something meaningful to share, words that thread the connection between us. Since then, my essays and stories have helped Sarah understand who we are as a family. Who I am as an individual and a sister.
Writers like me, who publish in literary journals and other small venues, hope for a larger audience. Yet, the opportunity to share with the perfect reader, one who recognizes herself in my work, served as an opening in the best sort of way. Our conversation began.
Victoria Waddle is the author of Acts of Contrition, a short fiction collection. She is the managing editor of Inlandia: A Literary Journey and contributes to Southern California News Group’s “Literary Journeys,” which celebrates writers and their work. Connect with her on Twitter (VictoriaWaddle1) or Instagram to chat about books, nature, and dogs.