A secret in plain sight



St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

    My youngest sister told me a secret she'd kept for 40 years. We were on the telephone, me in my condo in Miami, she in her house in Arkansas.

    She said, "I used to drive Annie to the bus after work, and I'd see Daddy's car parked in front of Mildred's."

    "I never knew that."

   "I never told anyone. I wanted to protect Mother."

    "You mean all those nights when he said he was going to the office . . . ? Do you think Mother knew?"

    We didn't have an answer, but in a town as small as ours, how could she not?

    Our father loved the law, or so we were told. He loved it so much that he went back to work every night after dinner. He worked Saturday mornings and Sundays instead of going to church.

    Mildred was his secretary, the fastest typist in the state of Mississippi. She'd won a contest to prove it. In court with my father, she'd take down every word said by both sides and have a transcript ready for him to go over before court the next morning.

    That's all I knew. Daddy worked a lot, so Mildred saw more of him than my mother. What do children know of intrigue, betrayal and hopeless love? Not much, nor do we want to. Do not disturb this family. No surprises, please. Children are deeply conservative.

    The summer I was 13, Father gathered us in the hall outside my bedroom. I remember because it was dark out there. The scene is all in grays. "I'm moving out," he said. "It's not because of you. I love you girls."

    Mother stood behind him with her arms crossed, looking grimly triumphant as we cried and asked why, and begged him not to go. Entering high school that fall, I had to fill out a form, which asked if my parents were living, dead, married or divorced. In the blank provided, deeply humiliated, I wrote separated.

    I needn't have worried. My mother went after him with the full weight and disapproval of the family (they were each the youngest of five, so there was plenty of kin to weigh in). When that didn't work, she turned the Episcopal priest on him. He was reminded of his responsibilities, his vows, and above all, of what he was doing to us - the children.

    He came back, though not willingly. As far as the three of us saw, he never touched our mother again. No hugs, no kisses, not even a pat on the arm. They slept in the same room, side by side in twin beds with a single headboard, giving the appearance of being together without the necessity of touching.

    We were old enough to recognize a loveless marriage. She liked to drink, he wouldn't touch a drop. She longed to travel, he took one trip a year - to Biloxi for the Bar convention. She wanted a new house or at least to remodel the old one, he said we couldn't afford it. Over the years, as she grew giddier from afternoons of cards and bourbon, he got silent and more serious.

    I confronted her one day in my bedroom. I was maybe 18, wise in the ways of love.

    "Why don't you leave him?"

    "Because."

    "You could find someone else, someone more like you, a man you could joke around and have fun with."

    "I stay for you. I'm doing this for my children."

    I'm sure I rolled my eyes to show her how wrongheaded and unnecessary this was.

She looked at me. "You don't understand. I love him."

    In the car one day, I gathered my nerve and asked my father for the truth. "Why don't you love Mother?"

    "Because she had that operation while I was away in the Navy."

    I was confused.

    "She gave birth to your sister and let that doctor give her a hysterectomy. Wouldn't wait until I got back, and I lost my only chance for a son."

    I sat there burning for what I couldn't change, what all three of us were: girls. "When we're finished with school, will you leave her?"

    "I don't know."

    He didn't have to. My mother drank herself to death at 59. He sat beside her hospital bed, holding her hand, saying, "I love you, Norma." When it was too late to do any good, he loved her. I think he did - maybe for setting him free.

    What of Mildred all those years? I never gave her a thought. She was pretty in a plain, old-fashioned way, a tall, shy spinster, growing old as my father's efficient secretary. She hung back at family events, speaking when spoken to in a soft, flat country accent.

    One proper year to the day after our mother's death, our father announced his engagement to Mildred. My middle sister, the most proper of us, the stickler for rules, manners and our place in the community, was furious.

    "She's not in our class. She's nobody. You could have any woman in this town."

    Daddy didn't care. He ignored her, ignored us all and eloped with Mildred. They bought the new house my mother longed for. He took up social drinking and carried Mildred off to Hawaii and London. He bought light-colored suits and learned to cook steaks on a barbecue. He was openly affectionate.

    Of course, as his wife, she could no longer be his secretary, so she didn't see as much of him. She'd worked since the age of 18 and never developed the leisure habits of a Southern lady: bridge, canasta, good works and gossip. She spent her spare time in the kitchen watching the soaps with Annie, the cook.

    They had 10 years, and even my snooty sister had to admit they were happy. One Easter, as we gathered in their back yard by the lake for the annual Egg Hunt (gold egg worth 20 dollars, silver 10), he slumped against the brick wall and slid. We caught him. He couldn't speak and never spoke or walked again. A massive stroke.

    Mildred nursed him for 10 years, leaving the house for groceries and to have her hair done once a week. God meant her to do it, she said. She wouldn't have it any other way.

    Nursing like that can kill you, and when she was dying, when the breast cancer moved to her liver, she made my youngest sister promise to take care of him and never put him in a home.

    Going through her things after the funeral, we found newspaper clippings and invitations marking the events of our lives: high school and college graduations, engagements, marriages, birth announcements and christenings. It was as if she'd lived with us all those years, invisible and off to the side, unnoticed and unloved - except by our father.

    In the kitchen one night, shriveled and yellow from the cancer, she had told us how she'd been hired at the law firm by our grandfather. She was 18 and just out of high school. "Your father come back from the Navy and the first time I laid eyes on him, the first day he walked into that law office, I fell in love. I felt terrible for your mother, but I've loved him every since, and God finally gave him to me."

    Three years later when he was dying, he let us know, by gesture and sounds, that he did not wish to be buried in leafy Greenwood beside our mother. We were to follow his body 150 miles south to Picayune, so that he could lie beside Mildred in that flat, treeless cemetery next to her country church.


***

Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.

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