My grandfather, a fiercely private man, born in the nineteenth century, could never have imagined his personal life would be posted and available to any yahoo out there for thirty-two dollars a month. I guess at this point he has moved on.
During an innocent search on one of those genealogy websites, an unknown relative appeared. I was only wanting to see my ancestry line like the celebrities on that TV show. Really, I was hoping to find a connection to the Salem witch trials. No witches so far, but I hadn’t finished looking. I know they are out there somewhere. The trouble was, I found an unknown uncle. On my mother’s side. Again. Seems her father had another family she found out about after his death. As an only child, she was thrilled to find her half-sisters still living on the East Coast, odd elderly spinsters, but sisters nonetheless.
The website glaringly exposed my grandfather’s previous wife and listed my mother’s half-sibs with their birth dates neatly typed on the form. No big surprises. I recall seeing the old copy of our family tree with a thick, black band of ink drawn over the previous wife. Ah, those were the days when an inch or two of white-out could solve a multitude of problems.
My only memory of my Grandpa Walter is sitting together on a big, covered porch in Dayton, Ohio. I was about six. I was putting stamps into a child’s stamp book, and he was breathing. He gazed down at the small, green valley in front of us. White horses grazed peacefully. I don’t remember talking to him due to the lung machine the size of a refrigerator he was attached to. Occasionally, he would take the mask off and enjoy a pipeful of sweet cherry tobacco, which I can still smell sometimes. At the age of six, I saw nothing wrong with this and neither did he.
I was conjuring up that rich, tobacco smell when a tantalizing little icon swirled up on the screen asking me if I wanted to see something else. Well, do ya? It seemed a little condescending. Only a middle-aged woman in her newly empty nest would go this far anyhow. The last of my three kids had recently left for college in a blur of loud music and hair straighteners. I really had to find something better to do than plot our family tree. It was that TV show that started the whole thing.
Without hesitation, I clicked the mysterious icon and waited patiently while the screen produced a copy of an old, hand-written record of people and their households in a 1919 census. In tidy, cursive handwriting that you don’t see anymore, my grandfather’s name was listed, along with a wife, Sophia. Sophia. What an exotic name after weeks of looking at Ebenezers and, I kid you not, Ichabods. “Swine Flu” was scrawled under the “died” section for poor Sophia. My heart sank. I had just met her. The date was a few years before his marriage to a second wife, my grandmother coming in a distant third.
I was so excited to discover this wonderful tidbit that I almost missed the sweetest thing of all. A baby. Baby Walter. Another half-sib for my mother. I never thought of these people as related to me. My first thought was to call her. Then it occurred to me that maybe all of these “surprises” were becoming difficult for Mom. My second thought was, he could still be alive.
Feeling like Nancy Drew herself, I entered the baby’s name in a search. A matching result came up so quickly there wasn’t even time to bite my fingernails. There it was, Walter Z. Burroughs, born 1918, Salem, Mass. I broke the news to my Yorkshire Terrier, who showed overwhelming enthusiasm, wagging and panting at the discovery. Now what?
I went to the online white pages and there he was again, 93 years old, from Massachusetts, living in Tacoma, Washington. Tacoma! Really! Not thirty minutes away from my home? What a strange coincidence. With a shaky hand, I wrote down the address and phone number. The site indicated that it was a nursing home in an area I was not familiar with.
When my husband came home that evening I bombarded him with my news. “I have an uncle.” Since both of my parents were supposedly only children, my family tree is an extremely tall, thin one–a towering pine, perhaps. My husband’s is more like family groundcover, so I don’t think he could possibly feel my excitement at this discovery.
“Call him,” he said casually as he stabbed a scalloped potato. I don’t know if he even likes scalloped potatoes. It was the kids’ favorite.
“Is it a good idea to call a 93 year old man and rock his world at this point?” I pondered. I pictured my frail grandfather withering away at the end of his oxygen tube like the last tomato on an October vine.
“I say call him. He’s your uncle, after all. Good dinner, by the way.” He wiped his mouth, gave me a quick smile, and headed for the garage to work on his never-ending wood project. Soon, the sander growled in the distance while I cleared our few dishes off the table.
I thought about calling my daughter, Chloe, at college to see what she recommended, but I knew her answer would be, “Go, go meet this man now!” Which was not a bad idea. He may not be around much longer. I decided I would call her after I did this brave and outgoing thing.
The next morning was a Tuesday, as good as any. I kissed my husband good-bye and rinsed out the coffee press. Walter’s phone number sat on the counter. I wiped down the stove top and then started pulling things out of the refrigerator to be tossed. Enough, I thought, holding a half-empty jar of sauerkraut. “I’m being a wimp,” I told the dog. He heard, “Do you want a cookie?” and started bouncing maniacally up the cabinets toward his treat bag. It was enough encouragement for me.
I picked up the phone, gave the dog a cookie, and quickly dialed the number. It rang once, and I hoped I would get an answering machine to at least try out my voice.
“Sunset Nursing Home. May I help you?” asked a deep, female voice rough with the sound of years of hard work (and maybe a few cigarettes).
“Yes, I am trying to reach Walter Burroughs.” I curled my hair with my fingers, a nervous habit I haven’t done in twenty years.
“Certainly.” The voice sounded curious. “May I tell him who’s calling?”
“OK. My name is Jan Wilmitsky, but he won’t know me.”
“Just one minute, dear.”
I waited while big band music played in my ear. I pictured Walter, in a black suit, with a silver cane, seated in an elegant concert hall enjoying the music when an usher taps his shoulder to inform him of my interrupting call. Instead, another female voice, this one softer, came over the line. “This is Dolly.”
My heart pounded in my chest. “Oh, hello. This is Jan Wilmitsky. I’m trying to reach Walter Burroughs.” He must have refused to leave the concert hall.
“I’m Mr. Burroughs’ nurse. He’s sleeping now. Can I take a message?”
I was afraid of sounding like a crazy person. These women seemed a little protective of my precious uncle.
“Oh, yes, sure. Like I said, my name is Jan Wilmitsky.”
“And I believe I may be Mr. Burroughs’ niece.”
“Really?” The nurse sounded optimistic but quite cautious.
“It shows in the records I have recently uncovered that he is my uncle from his father’s side. I would like to come and talk to him if that’s possible.” I hated how my voice rose up at the end like a question. He was possibly family after all. I lowered my voice, kind of like Oprah’s, and gave her my phone number.
“I’ll give him the message,” Dolly said in a professional manner.
By the following afternoon I had received a phone call back from Dolly and had a meeting arranged for four o’clock the next day. Old people have to move fast. No time to waste. Four o’clock, tea time. Yes, he was definitely one of us.
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