By CAITLIN HICKS
Sunday, November 9, 2003
It is a story that began and ended before I existed. All the words were spoken, the songs sung, promises made, kisses exchanged, letters, flowers and telegrams -- all just a memory before my parents even met.
Yet, even after they loved and married and I materialized, six births later, the story was carried in my mother's heart. Even now, long after my mother's heart has stopped beating, the story carries on in mine.
When I was 15, my sister Mary showed me a newspaper clipping she found in Mother's cedar chest in the tool shed. On a smoggy summer day in Pasadena, Mary had lured my sisters and me into the cobwebbed darkness with the promise of a really good secret.
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 my sister Therese's face to relax into stunned disbelief, for my sister Bernadette's 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 fruit cake from "a friend" of Mother's 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.
Our parents were happily married. At age 15, the scandal for me was the meaning of the word "intimate." That our mother had been intimate with someone other than our father was unimaginable. It was almost as if Daddy didn't even know. Surely, our mouths would be washed out with soap if we uttered a word.
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 20th year, my Mother's secret took on a new dimension.