We scurried past Mother on the back porch, standing in the midst of huge piles of dirty laundry, pouring soap into the washing machine. The clipping announced the death of a man named Carl Robert Swanson, killed in World War II. He was survived by his wife, Marcelle Prudell, our mother.
I sat in the corner of the shed, scratching a sharp rock into the cement, waiting for Therese’s face to relax into stunned disbelief, for Bernadette’s crossed arms, her What-could-possibly-be-so-good scowl to melt to wide-eyed silence. We whispered and giggled to dispel the excitement of the absolutely unexpected. Mother was married before? She loved someone other than Daddy?
We put a few things together. Mother’s wedding dress had been a pink wool street suit the day she’d married Daddy. And every year at Christmas, we received a fruitcake from someone named Meta Swanson in Milwaukee.
But we didn’t talk about this man. There was a silence around his existence so strong, that none of us dared.
Later that summer, I visited my mother’s childhood home in Wisconsin. My cousin Bill and I drove to the War Memorial building in downtown Milwaukee on a hunch. We followed names in alphabetical order etched into the ledge around the fountain, and right away, I saw his name: Carl Robert Swanson. This man had lived!
In the summer of my twentieth year, my Mother’s secret took on a new dimension.
I am standing in the kitchen next to a sink full of plates immersed in suds, facing my mother. The usual chaos reigns around us, toast crumbs, coffee cups half empty, bread on the counter, cupboards open, leftover spaghetti in a metal bowl. Strauss’ Blue Danube coming out of the stereo, a child’s hands banging low notes on the piano. The dog barks and Mother asks me, “Can you do a favor?? While you’re in Europe?”
Suddenly I feel important.
“I’d really appreciate it,” she says, putting her hands in her apron pockets. She moves closer to me, leans against the cluttered counter, speaking in undertones, and in the midst of this, we’re somehow alone. “Will you get me a photograph of Carl Robert ‘s grave?” I’ve never spoken his name to her, but Mother doesn’t squander these secret seconds on explanations. She knows we know! She speaks of a French cemetery she’s never been to, near the border of Alsace Lorraine. “Just bring me back a photograph,” she says. I want to hug her, to say I’m up to the task, but I only nod, and she turns and puts her hands back in the soapy water.