If Hailey had been standing, her legs would have gone weak—as it was she felt numb and tingly all over. She stared at Birdie, unable to speak.
Birdie is Clare’s daughter, was all she could think.
Horror spread across Birdie’s face as she realized the impact of her words.
“Oh, Miss Hailey, I’m so sorry. I thought you knew—I thought everyone knew.”
Hailey shook her head in bewilderment. How can this be? Why would Mother withhold this information from me?
Then it hit her. I just don’t matter.
She knew nothing about the family, nothing about her relatives and she as began to realize, precious little about her own mother. She felt incredibly tired.
“Are you oaky, Miss Hailey?” Birdie’s eyes were huge and filled with concern.
“I’m fine, Birdie. It’s not your fault. I just don’t understand why Mother would withhold something so significant from me.”
“Your mother always tried to shelter you.”
“Shelter me—From what, my own family?”
“There are dark sides to the family, Miss Hailey. Your mother probably felt you were better off not knowing.”
“But Birdie, all these years I thought you were a servant hired by Mother—I had no idea that you were family.”
“Your Aunt Clare—my mother, created quite a stir back in the day. Your aunts were scandalized that a McAdam would marry a Jew, never mind, have his child. The way I heard it, your mother had to move heaven and earth just to prevent your aunts from exiling her from the family.”
“Exiling her from the family—who do they think they are—controllers of the universe?”
“You’ve been protected from all that, Miss Hailey. Your aunts can be quite vicious—you have no idea.”
“But trying to ostracize my aunt because she married a Jewish man? I can’t believe the intolerance.”
“It preyed upon her mind. She was institutionalized for some time because of the stress.”
“You mean in a mental hospital?”
Birdie nodded gravely. “She was never the same after that—gave her shock treatments to cure her depression and destroyed most of her memory.”
“Did she and your father stay together?”
“They tried, Miss Hailey, but it was hard. I grew up scarcely seeing Mother. She was in and out of institutions until she died.”
Hailey struggled to wrap her mind around what Birdie was saying.
“I was nine years old. All I remember was Papa coming home one night and waking me from my sleep. He just held me and cried and cried until he couldn’t cry any more. After that, he was a changed man. He traveled a lot —running away, I suppose—left me with your mom while he was gone.”
“That must have been so hard on you.”
“It was. Miss Beatrice tried to console me, but she found it hard to reach out—never seemed to be able to express what was inside her,”
“That’s Mother,” Hailey sighed, torn between sympathy for Birdie and self –pity for her own upbringing.
“She did her best, Miss Hailey. After Papa died, your aunts wanted her to send me away to foster care, but Miss Beatrice wouldn’t hear of it. She told me, ‘Birdie, as long as I’m alive you’ll always have a home here with me and Hailey.’ It made your Aunt Alicia and Aunt Ev quite angry—they didn’t speak for years, but eventually they came around.”
Hailey dimly recalled some tension between her mother and her aunts, but she was too young at the time to really understand.
“It was your Aunt Alicia who insisted that Mother get shock treatments. Miss Beatrice was opposed—said it might affect her memory, but Alicia snorted and said that might be a blessing in disguise.”
A white-hot anger swept through Hailey as she pictured her aunt’s sour expression.
Did she hate Clare so much that she’d willingly subject her own sister to such a risky procedure? And why—because she dared to defy an unspoken taboo causing a blot on the family escutcheon?
Obviously, there was something in her mother’s private papers that Alicia did not want her to see—was it the fact that Birdie was Clare’s daughter, or was there something else? Whatever that something else could be, she had no idea, but it must be something so potentially damaging to the family that Alicia would go to great lengths to try to prevent her from finding out.
Then again, this could be her over-active imagination running wild again.
“Whatever are you thinking, Miss Hailey? You seem lost in your thoughts.”
Hailey realized Birdie must have been staring at her. “Oh, it’s nothing Birdie—just a lot for the mind to take in all at once. I must confess to feeling overwhelmed.”
She stared into space. “Mother was certainly able to keep a secret.”
She uttered the phrase with undisguised bitterness.
“Now don’t go blaming your mother—as I told you, Miss Beatrice always had very good reasons for what she did, even though they weren’t always apparent. In time, I’m sure you’ll come to that conclusion too.”
Hailey stood up and yawned. “Perhaps I will, Birdie. Someday this may all make sense, but right now I have to go to bed. Maybe things will look different in the morning.”
Birdie stood and impulsively threw her arms around her. ‘I hope I haven’t upset you, Miss Hailey, by saying things I ought not to have said.”
“Nonsense, Birdie. You said what had to be said—what should have been said many years ago.” She stopped and looked at her directly. “We haven’t really ever taken the time to talk and really get to know each other, have we Birdie? I hope to remedy this, now that I know we’re family.”
“Oh, I hope so, Miss Hailey.” Birdie’s eyes glistened.
Hailey kissed her cheek. “Thank you Birdie, for being so honest—it’s a trait not often seen in the family, but it’s a quality I really admire. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“I’d like that Miss Hailey. You have a good night’s sleep now, and remember, I’m not far away, just down the hallway.”
Hailey blushed at the allusion to her childhood fears.
“Thanks, Birdie, but I think I’m past that now.”
Birdie smiled. “Nevertheless, I’m just down the hall.” She turned and made her way to the stairs.
As Hailey watched her ascend the staircase, she felt a pang of regret.
Many times during her childhood she’d wished she had a sister—someone to be a confidant and share feelings.
Could Birdie have filled that role? She’d never know. Her life always seemed filled with backward glances and vain regrets.
Add one more to the list, she smiled sardonically, trying not to give in to creeping cynicism that was dogging her lately or to the hatred of everything McAdam.
‘This family will grow on you,’ Mother would say—she forgot to add that it would attach like a fungus or spores of mold.
© 2017, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.