Ever since I could recall, there was a family photo that intrigued me: It showed my dad at about 10 months old, sitting on the grass, dressed in a fancy outfit, looking up at someone who was torn from the picture. Beside him, all that was left was a set of legs wearing pressed slacks and boots polished to a military shine.
Over the years, I asked my grandmother about the man missing from the picture. Her answers — “he’s no one” or “he doesn’t matter” — betrayed just enough emotion that I couldn’t let it go. Later, when I asked yet again, she said the man was called Lorris and then snatched the photo from me and replaced it with a much coveted, but completely off-limits, Harlequin Romance.
Growing up in western Canada, I had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a plethora of more-distant relatives, all of whom gathered regularly for a progression of holidays, weddings, baptisms, graduations, and funerals. I’m not sure when I started to notice that one segment of my family was entirely absent, but I learned if I asked my grandmother about my dad’s father, I got a blistering silence or a “mind your own business” in response.
One day, when I asked why she became a nurse, she explained that when she was young, women could be schoolteachers, nurses, nuns, or wives, and she hadn’t been in a hurry to marry. When I tried to ask her about a bombshell a second cousin had dropped — that Grandma wasn’t just a nurse but also a nun — she ignored my question by reaching high up on her bookshelf and letting me look through her much-loved book on the royal family. We debated whether Prince Andrew or Prince Edward was more handsome.
Because she was always reluctant to talk about herself, I had to piece together my grandmother’s story through rumor and family lore. She entered the convent as a young woman and became a nursing sister during World War II. Through the war, she was stationed at the University of British Columbia and worked with young soldiers. While there, she wrote her sister that she’d fallen in love with a soldier named Lorris Selkirk. Sometime later, she bore his child. The relationship didn’t last, and she was left with a fatherless son and a harsh bitterness that followed her through life.
She was excommunicated by the church for refusing to give her son up for adoption, and my dad’s early years were a blur of constant movement as she traveled to a series of remote northern Canadian communities under assumed identities. To hide her shame, sometimes she claimed to be a war widow; other times, she posed as a nun and found work in hospitals where the need for nurses was so great no one asked questions. To maintain this fiction, of course, she couldn’t have my dad around. They’d move into a boarding house and, having secretly made arrangements with the proprietors, she would disappear in the middle of the night without a goodbye, sometimes not returning for months. Later, she told my mum she did it this way so he wouldn’t notice and be sad.
As an adult, I visited a Catholic hospital on a remote First Nations reserve were she’d worked for a year or two. Sure enough, I found her name in the records — as a nun. My dad would have been 6.
The complete version of this story appears in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.