Details of Omission
Unlike Dad, who rendered his pre-parent life by way of embellished stories that flowed like parables awash in deeper meaning, Mom never spoke much of her past. When she did, they tended to be concise, straight to the point, maybe three to five sentences long, and followed a swift, discernible pattern, like the year my Uncle was born the night before Christmas, and how badly she wanted a doll, and how happy she was to see one under the tree, and how her pure joy turned to utter surprise when she knelt to hold it and it began to move.
While dad had no problem recalling every imaginable detail, right down to how startled he was as a newborn feeling cold holy water poured across his brow during his baptism, mom never dreamed of speculating as to how she might have missed the arrival of the midwife that Christmas Eve or slept through her mother’s labor pains that surely echoed through their tiny stick-framed house until near the stroke of midnight. She simply ended that story with the mild admission of mistakenly thinking Santa delivered a real baby instead.
And unlike Dad, who was never shy about holding court after dinner, seamlessly stitching one retold story to the next, Mom was outright diffident, sparingly sprinkling details here or there into the stories of someone else’s telling, sharing few of her own, and if she did, it was only after a great deal of prodding.
“Hey kids!” My Uncle shouted towards the kids table during one such occasion.
I was among a gaggle of siblings and cousins all too young to anticipate dinner by the number of “coo-coos” coming from the clock on the wall in our Aunt’s living room or by the warm smell of food drifting through the house by way of her busy kitchen. Still needing to be herded like cats we’d emerged from various rooms to take our seats on metal folding chairs placed on either side of a series of card tables pushed end to end and draped beneath a checkered red and white plastic table cloth in the living room.
The big-people’s table, as it had come to be known, was set with cloth napkins, delicate china, polished silverware and matching crystal wine glasses, and had been occupied in a far more orderly fashion, with my Uncles pulling out chairs for my Aunts and Dad pulling out one for Mom. But I could tell by the red faces and laughing taking place there, that our Uncle wasn’t trying to settle us down for the requisite mealtime prayer – a formality that always preceded our digging into chunks of turkey, slabs of ham or piles of mashed potatoes, sweet corn, buttered green beans and dinner roll already sopping up what gravy hadn’t yet soaked into our flimsy paper plates.
“Hey kids!” he called again, this time as my aunt, red-faced and clearly laughing, pulled on the back of his shirt in a feeble attempt to have him sit down. “Your mother’s never told you the chicken story?!”
A roar went up from some of my cousins making it known that my Uncle had already told them the story we were about to hear. I could see the back of mom’s shoulders heave on whatever she’d been trying to swallow, before attempting to cough into a napkin, all the while, trying as best as she could to shake her head, no!
“Oh, come on, we’re eating!” my Aunt said, still laughing and tugging on his shirt but with far less intensity.
By then it was too late. All eyes at the big-people's table, teary from laughter, joined with all eyes at the kids table, clear with anticipation, focused in on Mom.
“Okay!” she said, clearing her throat with surprising authority and pausing a few more seconds for effect.
“When we were kids, Papa raised chickens.”
Another round of laughter exploded from the big-people's table, giving her time to twist far enough around in her seat to get a better look at all of us kids staring back at her from our spots in the adjoining room. Her flushed cheeks matched her cardigan sweater, and her eyes, dark as pearls, glistened under the dim lights of the dining room chandelier. She raised her right hand long enough for the adults at the big-people’s table to hush and for my Uncle to reclaim his seat, a mischievous smile still embracing his face.
Resting her left arm over the top of her chair, she continued.
“One day I was helping your Grandma in the kitchen,” My Uncle cast a last quick chuckle. “when we happen to see your dad,” a clear reference to my Uncle, and said in a way to emphasize the instigator that he was, “run past the window screaming like crazy. Then a couple of seconds later your Uncle Louie goes flying by, running the same way. Then they both come running back, this time waving their arms high in the air and screaming ‘Help! Papa! Help!’ at the top of their lungs.”
She stopped, for what seemed like forever, needing to join the steady stream of laughter once again flooding her table.
“That’s when we saw the chicken!” her punch-line nearly lost among the cackling and coughing preceding her every word.
By this time the kids-table was erupting too, with the absurd and vivid image of what happens to young boys when the archaic act of harvesting the main course of an evening’s meal mistakenly ends with letting go of the bird as soon as the blade strikes block.
The story of our poor Uncles, running around the yard like chickens with their heads cut off, chased by an unfortunate flightless bird in that same condition, became a classic, retold often and with the same effect at countless family gatherings over the years. But despite my mom’s apparent talent for storytelling, even that experience wasn’t enough for her to share more stories of her past.
“Your father’s the one for stories,” she’d say, if we ever asked. Over time, her reticence taught us to stop asking, and we learned to just leave it at that.
“Well if you’re ever going to ask, you’ve got the perfect excuse,” my wife said as she gathered up her coat. She was on her way down the street to the neighbors where we had made plans to have dinner. “I can’t believe you haven’t already. I know if it was me I’d have asked a long time ago.”
She was right, of course, on all counts and she’d been saying as much to me ever since I first mentioned to her that I didn’t know my older sister was adopted until I learned of it while visiting relatives in Germany ten years before – some fifteen years after she died.
At the time, my brother and I’d been backpacking through Europe seeing the people and places our parents only knew by way of family lore and old photographs that had somehow found their way into someone else’s photo album or slide show. After dinner one evening we moved to the parlor, where my Dad’s cousin’s husband, as if holding an ancient and sacred text, removed a cloth tie and unfurled a stiff parchment. He placed objects of sufficient weight upon each corner to prevent it from rolling back into itself as it lay slightly curled upon a well grained oak table.
I could tell he had done this before. We weren’t the first American cousins to visit in this way and he’d become well practiced in translating the family tree. In a deep German accent he began to explain how easy it was to grow out the branches from its roots by simply looking through local church records, all of which were within a half-day’s drive away.
“Before the war, that’s how families proved their Aryan roots,” he said, his voice trailing at the end, mindful of all he was revealing.
“Here,” he said, pointing to one of the limbs. “That was the spelling of your last name before it was changed at Ellis Island.”
His finger then slid away from the extra “S” and past a fine line depicting ground level, to the lowest deepest root, but I did not hear what he had to say about my great-great so-and-so, born in such-and-such. My eyes had wandered too far out on my family’s limb where they’d become fixed on an asterisk that floated like a strange and solitary flower near the end of my older sister’s name. At first I mistook it as a memorial marking her untimely and tragic death. But then I saw the word “adopted” printed neatly and in a slightly smaller script in parentheses beneath it.
“Did you know?” I asked my brother later that night. I had just opened a window hoping any cool breeze might replace some of the hot August air trapped in the second story bedroom we were assigned to sleep in.
“Of course,” he said, as if that was enough, before turning off the table lamp on the night stand next to his bed.
I’m not sure if he did in fact know or if he went right to sleep after turning off the light, or if he laid awake as I did staring at the ceiling through that dark humid night. I only know I never asked and we never spoke of it again.
When I was younger I didn’t pay much attention to dates. If not for my brother and I sharing the same birth month I would have never given a thought to my parents’ anniversary, or that they probably celebrated that occasion intimately on at least two occasions, with one of them resulting in my brother’s birth a week before his expectant due date and the other resulting in mine a week late. But until confronted by what I saw that day on that parchment, I never clued in to my sister being born nearly a year before my parents ever married, a detail of omission now as present in me as the tiny star-like mark on that familial chart more than a decade and an ocean away.
To my wife’s frustration, I had lived with that knowledge without ever mentioning it to my parents, let alone asking for any details. Dad was no longer with us, but now that we were adopting, that unrevealed truth left us both feeling a new bond with my Mom. We were hoping she might be feeling the same. Yet we knew she’d known of our intentions for nearly a year but had still not revealed to us any details of their experience along the way.
“So, what do you think?” I’d coax after calling with the latest update.
Over the months of our adoption journey I began to understand that question less as a form of inquiry and more as my way of avoiding the only question I wanted to ask.
But the time had now come for me to tell her we’d been selected, that there’d soon be an addition to the family tree. I was hoping our news would be enough for her to share her story with us. My wife, far more practical than me, was hoping our news would finally be enough to get me to ask her about Roseanne.
I chose the wall phone in the kitchen for the call. Its long cord allowed me to pace from the window over the sink to a spot just past the dining area into the living room. Mom, as expected was thrilled about the news, but as was her custom she asked for few details, other than how soon it might happen and when we next planned to visit. But in that moment between her saying goodbye and me saying likewise, I caught myself saying something very different instead.
“Can you tell me about Roseanne?”
There was no response. I moved from one room to the next, one hand on the cord, the other on the receiver pressed against my ear. The moments of silence began stacking up, one on top of the other, until almost heavy enough for me to buckle under the weight of not knowing if she heard me, if I should ask her again, or if I should have never asked at all. Now in the living room, I began searching every object in it for a clue of what to say next.
There was a way out and I knew it – the accident. A story I’d long since known, but now as I was becoming a parent I might convince her of my desire to hear from her its deeper meaning.
“How did you and dad ever survive losing a child?” travelled briefly between my ears. It was the perfect question to ask if I wanted to steer our conversation to the tragic end of her life while safely avoiding her beginning.
But, before I had the chance to say anything at all Mom broke the silence.
“What is it you’d like to know?”
I think I began by filling Mom in on how I came to know – the trip to Germany and seeing the asterisk on the family tree – but I’m not certain of any of that. All I know is I wondered back into the kitchen, faced the middle of the wall half way between the refrigerator and the entry to the dining room, and then asked the question I’d been rehearsing for years.
“Why’d you and Dad decide to adopt?”
I waited, prepared for the silence I was sure would follow. But she answered right away, as if her lines had been long rehearsed as well.
“Only your dad had to adopt.”
“Only Dad. Roseanne was my baby.”
Mom didn’t need any more prodding and I didn’t need to ask any more questions. Over the next hour, as our neighbors fired up the grill, turned the chicken as it sizzled over the heat, peeled back the foil over roasted and seasoned vegetables before spooning them onto serving dishes, pulled up the patio chairs to the patio table and tilted the umbrella so the right amount of shade covered the gathering, shared with each other how work or most anything else was going, took odds over whether the city would replace the old swings, slides and monkey bars down at the park or ever make Bluff and Blackhawk a three-way stop, and cut into the apple pie my wife brought over for dessert, I listened to Mom tell me about Roseanne.
She said her birth-father owned the local tavern and the hearts of all the ladies who entered. She said she stayed for half a year at a home for unwed mothers and learned to hate the nuns there for making her pray twice a day to accept the plan God had laid out for her and surrender her baby to them. She talked of her deep fear of telling her parents and how she felt when they welcomed the news. She told me of another man she met around that same time and in that very same tavern who stayed with her every step of the way and how the two of them always planned on telling us kids, but when Roseanne was struck by a car and killed there never seemed to be the right time or reason, so they never said anything at all.
“We figured, when you wanted to know, you’d ask,” she said and I thought of all the times I wanted to and all the times I never did.
“Who else have you told?”
“No one,” she said. “No one’s ever asked.”
As the years passed, Mom reminisced more frequently, allowing me to believe I’d become more brave about asking about her past. Still, she rarely embellished or rambled on, leaving me to imagine details she omitted like the songs she said she heard, sung spiced with Jamaican accents, rising with the sparks of bonfires to the evening stars during her summer working a cherry Orchard in Door County, or the trauma she must have felt after watching from her favorite front seat window a woman she recognized from her very own stop, running along the curb, sliding on some ice and disappearing beneath the bus’s moving frame. Mom boarded that very same bus after her shift ended later that day. She said, she didn’t want to, and without me needing to ask, went on to explain how she relied on that bus and how it made her mile commute to her job at Oster so convenient it was the reason she never bothered to learn how to drive.
Like dad and his stories, mom, too, is now gone. But even as the years pass, the questions I dream of asking still pile up. Lately, I’ve been wondering whatever happened to the girl-friends she lived with when she first moved to Milwaukee. She never talked too much about them but when she did I got the sense she relied on them, too. They were all single, pretty much the same age, eating meals and sharing dreams in a women’s boarding house on a busy street in the heart of that city. But, she never mentioned how they reacted to her pregnancy, what they thought of the nuns or if they ever had the chance to meet Dad. It was the mid-1950s. Did any of them shun her? Did any of them hold her as she cried in her room after dinner or into the lonelier hours of night? I know I cried the night she told me, unable to conceive of all she must have endured, wanting anything to know it wasn’t the end but the beginning of her world.
About the Author: Joe Oswald was born in Franklin, Wisconsin and holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University. After a career in political and labor organizing, Joe now enjoys writing, traveling and volunteering with local non-profit and civic organizations. He lives in Madison with his wife, son and cat, Romeo. His stories have appeared in Compose Journal, Hippocampus, Furious Gazelle and Soliloquies Anthology.