The seating hostess led Emily and her mother, Amelia, to a booth. In due course, a waiter took their luncheon order and delivered drinks and salads. When he disappeared again, Amelia opened the conversation.
“I am growing weary of that measured look you’ve been giving me since we met outside, Emily. You have something on your mind. May I know what it is?”
“Do you know what the Herald has been doing over the course of the last several years, Mother?”
“That’s a rather oblique answer to my question. No, I don’t believe I do know what the Herald has been doing. Does it have anything to do with your unusual mood?”
“Indeed it does,” Emily said. “The Herald, bless its editor, has been steadily working to put all its past issues – the newspaper’s morgue, as it’s called – online. They’ve gotten at least as far as 1957.”
Amelia swallowed a forkful of arugula dressed with raspberry vinaigrette. “Have they?” A silent moment passed, and Amelia sighed. “Dear, if there is some point to be made here, please make it. I’m too old to play guessing games.”
“Nothing about that year rings a bell?”
“That was the year the Russians launched their Sputnik, as I recall.”
“And you launched something else.”
Amelia speared a crouton mercilessly. “I have always loathed computers.”
“And you – as well as many others, I am certain – have good reason to now. Long-buried secrets are being released from that morgue.” She reached into her purse and withdrew a single sheet of paper. “The Herald’s archive can be accessed for a nominal fee, and any page or part of a page printed at home.” Emily had kept her voice low, but she dropped it a few more decibels for the sake of privacy. “Your granddaughter found this while searching that archive for family news: Preston’s birth notice. You and Father are listed as the happy parents, and I am the elder sister eagerly welcoming him home. But I had no answer for Mila about her unknown uncle.”
Emily placed the page next to her mother’s salad. The older woman gave it a scathing glance.
“You and Father,” Emily continued, “made me believe that my baby brother was, instead, an orphan you had taken in until his relatives could be found. How very selfless.”
“I do not care to discuss this.”
“And I do not care to stand on the table and make a scene at the top of my voice, Mother, but I assure you that I shall do so if you do not provide the answers I demand and deserve.”
The conversation became nonverbal. Amelia rolled her eyes, indicating she gave no credence to her daughter’s wild threat. Emily replied with a raised eyebrow, daring her mother to call her bluff. Now Amelia’s own eyebrows knit in concern. Emily kept her eyebrow at full mast and gently placed her hands on top of the table as if to stand. Amelia’s face fell.
“Not here,” she whispered.
Emily nodded once, acquiescing.
“You have your father’s contemptible melodramatic flair.”
“And were Father still alive, I would simply have barricaded the two of us in his study and yelled at him until I learned what I wish to know. Since that pleasure is denied me, I have to use other means to learn about my brother.”
Amelia picked up the printout and handed it back across the table. “Please put that away.” Emily refolded it along the creases and replaced it in her purse. Then she went to work on her salad as though it were an ordinary luncheon.
An hour later, in the stately home Emily had grown up in, she sat at one end of a couch and waited for her mother to begin.
“I don’t suppose you could be persuaded that all has been done for the best,” Amelia said, “and that the past should be left alone.”
Amelia sighed, and Emily took note of how old her mother looked, as though she had aged since sitting down in the restaurant.
“That birth announcement should have never gotten into the Herald,” she said at last. “There was an understanding with the hospital administrator. Unfortunately, he failed in the simple task of editing poor Preston’s birth from the list before it went to the newspaper. Your father saw to it he lost his job soon thereafter.”
“Why suppress the announcement?” Emily asked. “And why ‘poor Preston’? What happened, Mother?”
Amelia sat at the other end of the couch. Her eyes gazed across the room and, Emily thought, across the decades.
“Pregnancy was not easy for me,” Amelia began. “I suffered terrible, ravaging morning sickness with you. When I became pregnant again three years later, Dr. Valdsen thought to give me something that would ease the sickness and make the pregnancy go more smoothly.” Amelia’s jaw tightened, and she halted her explanation.
Emily had the clues she needed, though, and her eyes began to fill with tears.
Amelia nodded slightly. “It worked. The pregnancy was much easier, which has always seemed perverse. Had I known what the result was going to be, I would have happily spent those months regurgitating crackers and milk, and I would have counted myself blessed.”
“So Preston was … deformed.”
“The medical term is phocomelia, from the Greek words meaning ‘seal’ and ‘limb.’ I have lived with that word ringing in my ears. Poor Preston had misshapen flippers with varying numbers of fingers and toes. A quiet word to our friends stifled all but the most vicious society gossips. We kept Preston well covered when you were around him, so that you wouldn’t see and ask questions and speak out of turn.”
Emily’s sympathy for her mother evaporated in a flash of hot anger.
“And you took him somewhere, well out of sight so that he could be well out of mind. A malformed child would have brought permanent shame on the family, had he remained.”
Amelia looked up and met her daughter’s accusing eyes. “That is correct. We took him to an institution where such children were cared for – where they were very well cared for. His name was changed, and he never knew about his family.”
Emily shot up from the couch and prepared to lambaste her mother, but a word diverted her attention.
“ ‘Knew’? Past tense?”
“I’m afraid so. Your father lavished money on the institution. So when Preston – or whatever he was called – died in an accident a few years ago, we were informed. His death, and a lifetime of regret, broke your father’s heart, and I shall always believe it led to the stroke that killed him not long after.”
“I scarcely remember Preston,” Emily whispered.
“Emily, I know how you are judging me, and I won’t deny you that. I don’t suppose you would have sent Mila away under similar circumstances, and I feel confident Mila would never reject her own child. But given our social status, given your father’s prominence, keeping Preston was simply not an option. It was a different world, then. Perhaps it was more cruel, in some ways, but it was all we knew to do. I don’t ask that you understand, but I … beg you, when you tell Mila about her uncle, that you not make monsters of her grandfather and me in her eyes.”
Emily sat again. “I can never excuse what you did. You robbed me of my brother, and you robbed my brother of his family. You did it for reasons that were pathetic and disgraceful. But I grew up in that stifling atmosphere, so I do understand why you did it. I’ll try to make Mila understand, too.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“Are there any other devastating family secrets waiting to be discovered?”
Amelia thought a moment and shrugged. “Not unless you would care to hear how your father profited handsomely from double-charging the government for helicopters during three wars.”
Emily put a hand to her forehead; a headache was fast taking root. “Another time, Mother.”