I was sitting at the dining table, minding my own business, that is, struggling to read a novel too tricky for a fifteen-year-old girl like me, when the doorbell brought me back to reality. My older sister, who had been watching some noisy opera all evening, jumped up from the couch to open the door. With my older brother and sister out at their part-time jobs, I knew it must be my parents arriving home. I rose from my seat to greet them. Mom and Dad marched in, bringing a cold draught full of damp and rain inside. It seemed as if a storm was approaching, so I was happy my parents were home.
They took their muddy shoes and heavy coats off. Dad, looking very sad, sat down on the sofa while my mom whispered something quickly to my sister before vanishing to her bedroom. I could only catch some ominous words like, “...dead…. wake…. we got to go.” My sister did not ask any questions. In no time, Mom came out of her room dressed in black, kissed me on the cheeks, and left. Dad, who up to that moment had been silently gazing at the brown carpet, robotically stood up and followed her. On his way out, he reminded my sister to lock the door.
My sister turned the key twice as if the Big Bad Wolf might knock on the door in a minute. Then she turned off the TV-custom dictates that there is no music or laughter in a mourning house. We sat there looking at each other in silence. My sister looked pitiful, so I gave her some time to digest whatever Mom had whispered to her. Meanwhile, I started to decode what my little radar had caught.
Someone is dead-no doubt about it. Since the news was given sotto voce, it had to have been a shameful death like committing suicide or being shot while stealing. Or, God forbid, it might be an awful death like being crushed by a train or chopped to pieces by a revenge murderer. Since my parents were grieving, it probably involved somebody significant to us. Could it be one of their coworkers? A relative? At this point I grew so anxious I knew I would explode if I did not ask. “Who is dead?” I asked in a trembling voice. “Dad’s stepmother,” my sister answered matter-of-factly.
The answer took me by surprise because I did not know Dad had a stepmother. I knew he had lost his mother suddenly at age six and had lost his father ten years later. I sensed a mystery concealed before me and I could have sworn my sister knew more. The question was how I could fish out the secrets my sister’s heart held so faithfully.
My sister, an ordinary eighteen-year-old, was nice to me most of the time except when I asked too many questions and messed up her drawers. She would never repeat what she knew about her friends and acquaintances, so at times I felt my sister was a mysterious person and I imagined her heart was full of secrets.
“Dad’s stepmother?” I repeated it in my mind over and over trying to define what it meant to me. I knew of only one stepmother, a pretty infamous one for that matter: Snow White’s stepmother. She was mean and cruel. Some people would rejoice at such a person’s death. Yet, everybody was sad. I made up my mind to go ahead and ask my sister no matter what the consequences. My assumptions were taking me nowhere. “Where did she live?” I asked, expecting to be hushed. “In our town,” my sister answered. “Is she nice?” I asked, then corrected myself. “I mean, was she nice?” My sister nodded. Seeing her handle my interrogation calmly, I was encouraged to ask more. Mercifully, my sister spared me all the sweating by revealing the story on her own.
“Dad was six years old when his mother died. Grandpa married again right away so that somebody would take care of his little boy. He chose to marry a close relative of his first wife. Apparently, everybody was surprised that an attractive man with a high standard of education married someone so plain and uneducated. But I guess he only cared that a relative of Grandma would treat his son nicely. He had three more children with his second wife, two girls and a boy.”
I stood there all ears, almost forgetting to breathe, listening to this astonishing revelation. Not only had I a step-grandmother, but a step-uncle and two step-aunts as well. I forced myself to stop wondering and focus on my sister, who, after taking a deep breath, went on:
“Grandfather was right. She took care of Dad so well that she didn’t make any difference between her own children and him. She continued to be good to him even after Grandfather died ten years later. She never remarried. She worked hard to make ends meet, and Dad, because he was the eldest child, helped by dropping out of high school to work full time. That was when he took evening courses and learned to be an electrical repairman.
“At twenty-six, Dad married Mom. I heard that his stepmother loved Mom and boasted to her neighbors about what a fine lady her son had married. In the beginning, everything was fine and they all lived happily together in the same house. After a while, Dad started to give less and less to the family budget and spent more and more from his pay on gifts and movie theater tickets. Mom and Dad used to like to go to the movies every week in those days.
“One night Dad’s stepmother apparently complained. She reminded Dad that she was having a hard time paying the bills. Dad accused her of being interfering and jealous of his love for his wife. His stepmother must have felt humiliated because she vowed that unless he apologized and changed his ways, she wouldn’t speak to him again. Dad insisted he had done no wrong and saw no reason to apologize. Both of them must have gone to bed feeling sore and angry at each other.
The next day, when his stepmother came home from work, most likely hoping that the new day might have helped him to see things in their true color, she found that Dad and Mom had packed up their stuff and moved out. She must have felt betrayed. The sting in her heart, I reckon, made her swear an oath that she never broke. She sent word to Dad telling him that from now on she would have nothing to do with him and warned him never to come back.” My sister stopped her narration and it felt as if time had stopped, too.
“This is too awful to be true,” I mumbled in disbelief. “Did they ever speak again?” I asked, hoping against hope. My sister shook her head. “Neither she nor her children ever spoke to our parents.” My sister continued, “They saw each other almost every day on the street, in the shops, at the stadium, at the hospital, at the post office, you name it. But they changed paths or ignored each other.” She shook her head. “Pride is such a terrible thing sometimes,” she concluded, and I could not have agreed more.
“You know, you met her once!” My sister startled me with this exciting remark. “I did? When? Where?” I impatiently looked into her eyes. “Remember the day when you hurt your knee in the park and when we were on our way back home, and you were limping, two old ladies stopped us in the middle of the road?”
“Yes, I remember,” I interrupted her. Although it had happened almost five years ago I recalled the incident clearly because that peculiar encounter had made quite an impression on me. The intensity with which one of the old ladies looked at me, the way my sister looked around as if she did not want to get caught doing something wrong, had naturally not escaped my curious eye.
“I remember, one of the old ladies kissed you on the cheeks. Then she looked at me and asked her friend, ‘Is this his youngest daughter?’ Her friend said yes and then the first lady hugged me, wiped tears from my face with a tissue, and gave me two candies. Then you pulled me away. You said we were late and our parents would be worried. I followed you but I was looking behind, waving back at the nice lady because she made me feel so special. Later, when I kept asking you who she was, you hushed me. You were angry and sorry at the same time. I even saw you wiping your eyes. I thought you were crying because she didn’t give you any candies.”
“No, silly,” my sister tried to laugh, though I sensed that the same mood of anger and sorrow had overtaken her. “I was crying,” she explained, “for all the things we missed. Every day I came home from school with our neighbor’s son, passing by their door, stopping by just to breathe in the wonderful smell of baking bread and to envy the big smile of his grandmother, knowing quite well that a cold and empty home was waiting for me to turn the key. I was angry with Dad because his pride was depriving us of a God-given right-the wonderful presence of a grandmother. Why did everyone in town just stand by and watch this tragedy? Everyone was pretending to mind their business. No one had the courage to intervene and bring it to an end.”
My sister started crying and I felt pity for us my eyes watered too. Who knows what beautiful bedtime stories she might have known, who knows what delicious meals she could have prepared, and whether she would have had the ear to listen to me-the ear my mom, who worked full time, never had.
“But why did she kiss me twice and give me two candies?” I asked, almost to myself, fearing that my sister would reprimand me for such a stupid question. “She…,” my sister sniffed trying to collect her voice, ”she worked in the only day care our town had. So she practically took care of me and our big sister and big brother as a part of her job for four whole years each. When you were born she had retired. I guess she was sad that she never got to hold you as a baby.” I could hold the tears no longer. Her soft kiss on my cheeks and her compassionate, intense look lingered in my mind. She would have made a wonderful grandmother.
The doorbell startled us, and we hurried to open the door, wiping the tears on our way. Surprisingly, my parents had returned in much worse shape than they had left. Usually close relatives of the deceased stay at the wake until dawn. My parents had been gone for barely an hour. This time Dad, soaked to the bone with rain, his face swollen red from crying, went straight to their room. Mother looked distressed too. She sat on the coach and took several deep breaths.
“What happened?” asked my sister when she realized that Mom was not going to tell us without prompting. “We were not wanted there,” Mom managed to say before she broke down in tears. I shivered as I imagined someone yelling at my parents, “Get out of here!”
“Who told you that?” my sister demanded.
“Her son,” Mom said. I could not help but note that “her son” would have been our uncle, had all this not happened.
“He shoved us out,” Mom continued, sniffing. “He told us that it’s useless to honor the dead when we had shown her no respect in her lifetime.” That made sense to me as much as I wished it did not.
“What did Dad do?” asked my sister. I was becoming annoyed with Ms. Detective. I was afraid of what was coming next. “What could he do?” Mom took a deep breath. “Your Dad stood there speechless for a few minutes. He couldn’t confront his stepbrother. No one at the wake came to his defense, so we left the house in humiliation. He wept all the way home,” Mom said breaking into tears again.
A deep sadness flooded my heart as I realized that our step-grandmother had taken with her to the grave any chance of reconciliation and that I would never come to meet my uncles and aunts. I left Mom to my sister’s questioning and went to check on my dad. The door of their room was ajar. He was sitting on the bed, his back bent, his gaze fixed on the floor. I wished I could read his mind, but more than anything I wished I could console him. But how could I?
There sat my dad, a middle-aged man, proud father of a son and three daughters. There sat my dad, a diligent follower of politics who never missed the evening news in the election season. There sat my dad, a faithful patron of the coffee shop, and a big fan of soccer who could never get enough of the Brazil team at the World Cup. There sat a man sobbing like a child with his head between his palms. I wondered if he felt like a loser. For some unknown reason I could not side with him, although my heart was breaking with pity. And suddenly, I realized that I had spent the whole afternoon utterly fascinated by my sister’s account of my parents’ sins. Immediately, I felt sick and afraid. Did disloyalty flow in our veins? Was that to be the inheritance in our family?
Right at that moment Dad raised his head and looked at me with an expression pleading for something neither I nor anybody else breathing on earth could grant him: forgiveness. Avoiding my reproachful look, he raised his fists and started hitting his graying temples, shouting painfully to himself, “Ungrateful, Ungrateful!”
I could not stand watching him any longer. I backed out and closed the door. And at every rapid beat of my heart I prayed to God to have mercy on us all for what we had done to our parents and to show us a way of atonement.
Mirkena Ozer had her major in Turkish language and literature. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.