My older brother, John, lives in Arizona on the east bank of the Colorado River in Lake Havasu City. He moved out there from Minnesota in the mid seventies and got in on the construction boom as an inexperienced laborer hauling two by fours and buckets of nails around for the guys who knew what they were doing. John worked hard, liked the business of building homes and decided to become apprentice carpenter. He also kept his eyes and his ears open, learned everything he could about the building trade and eventually worked his way up to owning his own company, Wide River Builders. He’s seventy-one now, and has been confined to a wheel chair due to complications from diabetes for the last four years. He and I have always been close but now with him being crippled (a term he doesn’t like to use, but he is, no matter what he says), I try to fly out from my home in Long Lake, Minnesota, to visit with at least once a year.
I was out there in February. Our mother had passed away nearly three months earlier, just after Thanksgiving. She had been in an assisted living facility in Phoenix, about a three hour drive from John’s place, and he ended up with a dozen boxes of her belongings. We were in his spotless two car garage doing an inventory of what the contents were: Everything from her old grade school assignments and artwork (and form us kids, too, I might add which was both sweet of her to have kept as well as embarrassing for us to look at), to collections of Time Magazines from back in the sixties. The memorabilia of life as I called it, much to John’s chagrin. We had set up a card table in the middle of the floor and were carefully going through one box after another, numbering them while I kept track of their contents in a spiral bound notebook. Occasionally we’d take a break and go out back on his patio and chat a bit about what we’d found, commenting on how different things were back then compared to now, reminiscing a little; stuff like that. Then we’d go back to the garage and get to it some more. It was taking us a while but we didn’t mind, and we were having a good time, this being the second day of our project.
The second to last box was filled with journals detailing various vacations to Europe that Mom had taken with her hiking club when she was in her sixties and seventies. It also held a number of old photographs that were taking in what looked to be the 1940’s. They were bound with either string or rubber bands although some of them were in worn and frayed envelopes. They were the kind of photos that were a treasure to come across and it was fun to look at pictures from way back then. They captured Mom’s growth all the way from when she was baby and a toddler right up through grade school and high school. What John and I both found interesting was that they captured the day to day life of the person Mom was becoming and they gave us each an especially warm feeling, seeing those old images of her growing up. In fact, there were photographs that were taken right up until the day she married our father. To say they touched us would be putting it mildly. Both my brother and I cared deeply for our mother and we were both in our own ways still processing her death. (She died suddenly of complications due to congestive heart failure in her nursing home. She had been ninety-one.)
We were talking quietly back and forth, looking at one old black and white photo after another when we came across a faded yellow envelope. John carefully opened it up, took a look and said to me, “Hey, Eddie, look at this.” Inside were five pictures of Mom taken at what looked to be a formal dance of some kind. John’s eyesight is awful and he was using his magnifying glass to get a good look. He passed the photograph to me. Mom was dressed in a long sleeve, sleek, shimmery, floor length dress that was trimmed in lacy white material around the neck and the cuffs. Her hair dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders and she was wearing a corsage. She was also standing next to a tall, good looking man decked out in a black tuxedo with a fancy boutonnière affixed to his lapel. John held the photograph for a few moments, studying it through his magnifier. Then he turned it over. On the back was written, ‘Forever – Beth and Benjamin, 1943.’ The handwriting was quite masculine and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it had to have been written by the guy she was with – this Benjamin. John flipped the card back and we both looked at the image of the two of them more closely. The top of Mom’s head came to the man’s shoulder and she was looking up at him happily, smiling a radiant smile, a smile he casually returned. I tried not to read into what was passing between them but felt myself coming up short in that department. For some reason I got flustered, not being prepared to see Mom having what looked to be obvious feelings for someone other than our dad. Mom and Benjamin seemed very comfortable and familiar with each other. He wore his tuxedo well and projected an air of quiet confidence along with a self-assured demeanor. The question I had was this: Who the hell was this guy?
My brother and I passed the old photograph back and forth between us a few times, speculating as to its origins. Overall, John seemed less perplexed about the guy was than me, saying, “He’s probably just a friend, Eddie. I wouldn’t get too worked up about it.”
“A friend who felt close enough with to Mom to have written, ‘Forever?’ I said sarcastically, “To me that’s more than a just a friend.”
John laughed, “What, you thought Mom was a chaste little girl right up until the day she married Dad?”
“No, of course not,” I stammered, hoping I sounded convincing. Unfortunately, I could feel a red flush begin to work its way up my neck, betraying my true feeling and announcing I was thinking that, yeah, I sort of did.
Mom grew up in southern Minnesota in the small, prosperous town of Fairmont, the county seat for Martin County, a county known then (and now) for growing corn. Her father was the treasurer of the county, was well respected by all, and taught our mother, Ann, from a young age to be courteous, truthful and above all honest – traits she tried to pass on to me and John and our younger sister Megan (with varying degrees of success with each of us, I might add.) Those traits, though, held her in good stead her entire life, and in her early twenties during the war years she was able to secure a job working in Washington DC.
“For the government,” she told us when we were young and growing up and really didn’t care one bit about our mother’s past, being concerned instead with kid’s stuff like playing baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter. It was only much later when we were older and curious enough to probe for the more details, that the truth finally did come out: She worked with a team of other young women decoding messages for the FBI. Yeah, for the Government. A job that required patience, skill and creativity, not to mention above all a huge amount of trust on the part of her employers. I was in my late twenties when I found this out and I was immediately impressed and interested to learn more, but Mom put up a brick wall. She wouldn’t tell me anything even though for years I pressed her for more details. She steadfastly kept her mouth shut, only to say, “We signed a paper promising we wouldn’t tell, so I’m not going to. Not even to you, Eddie.”
To this day neither John nor I have any idea what it was that she did, but it was always fun to speculate. For her part, Mom never breached the confidentially of her employers and carried her secret to the grave, a good and loyal employee right to the end.
Mom and our father, Charles Stinson Bertelson, were married in October of 1945, a marriage that lasted twenty one years before they got a divorce in 1966 and moved on with their lives. I stayed particularly close to Mom, John stayed close to Dad, and Megan stayed close to both of them. Poor Megan; our kid sister, adored by all, who passed away at the relatively young age of fifty-five twelve years ago due to ovarian cancer. Dad’s gone, too, eight years before Megan, due to a massive heart attack and, like I said, Mom passed away last year due to congestive heart failure.
Now it’s just John and I. We’ve always been close, my brother and I, and on this particular visit we were enjoying reminiscing about old times – times that were brought to light as we sorted through this particular box of Mom’s old photographs: Family gatherings for Christmas and Thanksgiving, photos of the variety of tabby cats we had, pictures of Megan (clearly Mom and Dad’s favorite which didn’t bother John and I in the least, given she was our favorite, too) at school performances every year from first grade into high school, John playing hockey, me participating in a junior high school science fair – all kinds of wonderful and poignant memories. But now those good memories were tainted by these photos of Mom and this Benjamin guy, a bittersweet reminder that maybe all wasn’t as rose-colored as we’d like to have thought.
I was certainly upset and I didn’t understand why John wasn’t. “I don’t see why you’re not a little freaked out about this,” I told him somewhat petulantly, “I’d like to get to the bottom of this and find out what the hell the story was with those two.” I was particularly bothered by the fact that Mom apparently had a ‘thing’ for someone before she and Dad got married.
John just gave me a look like, ‘Cool, it little brother, it’s not that big a deal.’ He certainly wasn’t as worried or curious as I was. And, now looking back, I can understand his reaction better. But I, for one, wanted for find out what was going on.”Where’s that magnifying glass of yours?” I demanded, “I want to get a closer look.”
John reached into one of the side carrying bags on his wheel chair and pulled his a three inch diameter, super thick magnifier, and gave it to me, “Here you go. Knock yourself out and have a look.”
I grabbed it out of his hand a little testily and said, “Thanks, I will.” Then I took a moment and calmed myself down. Why should I take my discomfort out on my brother? He hadn’t done anything. I softened my tone and told him, “I appreciate it,” as I held the magnifier a few inches from the photo, “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
John has gout, in addition to diabetes, and almost every issue with his eyes you could name: Cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. In short, he can’t really see too clearly up close and he uses the magnifier to help him read.
But I was really just asking for it for show. I honestly didn’t need the magnifier because I certainly didn’t need a closer look. I had seen all I needed to see. The guy in the photo was more than just Mom’s date for that formal dance. Much more. He was John’s biological father. Of that I was pretty sure.
“What do you see there?” John asked.
He casually reached for the cup of coffee he’d set on the work bench. The garage door was open, letting in a soft morning breeze. A mourning dove was cooing in an orange tree in the front yard and the sweet aroma of freshly opened blossoms wafted over us every now and then. The temperature was around seventy five degrees, a wonderful day outside, weather-wise, as far as I was concerned. I looked at John as he sipped coffee from his mug, an old chipped up black one from his office, no doubt, that read, ‘Built To Last…Guaranteed.’ He looked at me with a slight grin, like he was humoring me, his excitable younger brother.
I held the magnifier closely over the photo. “Mom’s corsage looks like it has three miniature roses,” I told him, “There’s some baby’s breath and maybe a couple of smallish leaves for show,” I added, stalling for time, “Some little ribbons, too.” But really, all the while I was talking I was also wondering, who really cared what kind of flowers she was wearing or if there were ribbons or not?
John nodded, humoring me, I’m sure, saying nothing and pretending to thoughtfully listen while he sipped his coffee. Then his eyes glanced past me out through the garage to the driveway, and a wide smile lit up his face, “Hey, I think I my boys are here,” he said, happily, “Great. I’ve always wanted them to meet you.”
Even though his close up vision is horrible, John can still see well enough to distinguish faraway things like trees, cars, houses and mountains. And, apparently, ‘His boys.’ Earlier we had moved his wheelchair accessible van outside and parked it next to his jet ski and ATV, each on a trailer, and each kept, he had told me once, “Just for the hell of it, you know, to remind me of the good old days.”
John has been a bachelor his entire life and even though he’s had his fair share of long term relationships, none of them seemed to have been what he was looking for. When I asked him about it once, he said, “To be honest, Eddie, I don’t think I’m the marrying type. Not the type to settle down.”
Well, no kidding. Now here he was seventy-one, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, unable to see very well and hanging out with his younger brother in a garage looking at old photographs. But, you know, that’s sounds mean and I take it back. He’s really very happy with his life and he’s a good big brother to boot, so who am I to give him a hard time?
I followed his gaze and looked outside to where an old pickup truck had pulled in and parked next to the van. Two burly men were getting out, the older of the two took a final drag on his cigarette, field stripped it and reached back to put it in the truck’s ashtray, careful, it seemed to me, not to litter. I liked that he was conscientious enough to do that.
John waved, “Hey there Rico. Hey Sammy.”
The older one, Rico, waved back, “Hi there, Johnny. How’s that foot of yours doing?”
“Sucks the big one, Rico. Big Time.” My brother looked at me and said, quietly, “They’re a father and son team and have their own business. They’re here to clean the pool. They started with nothing but determination to be successful, and they do good work. They’re good guys and I’ve had them working for me for years. They come once every month to check the chemical levels and crap like that. I admire them.”
I watched the two men, idly wondering if they were illegal immigrants before deciding I really didn’t give a shit.
“Hey guys, this here’s my little brother, Eddie,” John called out, “He’s not half bad if you don’t set your standards too high.”
Rico and Sammy waved and politely called out, “Hi,” and came over to shake my hand. We exchanged pleasantries, and then they went back to the pickup and set about the business of collecting their tools. In a few minutes Rico waved again, and they left to haul their stuff around the side of the garage and into the backyard where they began cleaning John’s pool. He doesn’t swim in it anymore, of course, but he can ride his wheelchair right down to the edge, slip out of it right into the water and float around whenever he wants. It’s one of the few pleasures he’s been able to continue with. Once he had been an active man, both in business and in his outdoor hobbies, even learning how to hang-glide when he was in his early fifties. He sold his company eight or ten years ago but was kept on as a consultant so he’s still involved in business, but his active days ‘playing with his toys,’ as I like to refer to it as, are over. Now he’s completely beholding to motorized transportation, only mobile in his van or in his top of the line, fire engine red electric wheel chair, a Geo Cruiser. But he doesn’t seem to mind, in fact has a pretty good attitude about it.
“I’ve still got my friends,” he told me as recently as last night when we were sitting out on his back patio overlooking the pool quietly chatting and watching the sun set over the Mohave Mountains to the west. He was smoking his evening water pipe and I was sucking on a tootsie roll pop (having given up smoking nearly five years earlier and still fighting the craving.) We were both enjoying listening to old songs from the fifties he was playing on his iPod. “Plus, you know,” he said with a sly grin, “It’s always nice when you come out.”
He didn’t have to say anymore. With Megan gone and now Mom gone, our family was just he and I.
Well, of course, at one time it also included our father, Charles Stinson Bertelson, but now this morning in the garage, having seen what I’d seen in that old photograph, my feelings were decidedly mixed.
John interrupted my thinking. “Whoa, look at that,” he said, excitedly, and pointed out to the street. I looked and saw nothing but the houses across from him, their yards full of sand and a few trees, with a few landscape rocks and cacti tossed in to mix things up. Certainly nothing to be excited about. John took a final sip of coffee, set the mug on the workbench and started wheeling out of the garage toward the driveway, “Just a second, Ed. I think I saw a roadrunner out there. I’m going to go check it out. Want to come with?”
He amazed me sometimes. How he could have seen a bird from fifty feet away when he couldn’t read a newspaper was beyond my comprehension. “No. I’m going to look at these photos some more. See if I can figure out about this Ben character,” I waved the picture at him, “You go look for your bird.”
He apparently didn’t catch the sarcastic tone in my voice, having seemed to have completely lost interest in the old photograph. “Will do,” he waved and motored on down the driveway to the edge of the street where he stopped and started looking around. Then he reached in his saddlebag and put on an old floppy brim hat to shield his eyes from the sun before removing a pair of binoculars. He focused them on something to the left and out of my field of vision. Well, if he didn’t care about the photograph, fine, but I certainly did. Let him have his birds.
My brother lives in a quiet neighborhood made up of various styles of ramblers, all of them painted various permeations of taupe, and all of them built around thirty years ago. He is a few miles east of the Colorado River up in the foothills, high above the city. The views are spectacular and wild life is abundant even though technically he lives inside the city limits. A mile further beyond his home is uninterrupted desert as far as the eye can see. Coyotes are commonly seen (and heard, he tells me) nearby. It’s rough, unforgiving land, certainly not like the rolling farm fields, abundant lakes and verdant green forests where we grew up. Since moving from Minnesota John has embraced his love affair with the West, telling me more than once that there was something in the mountains and wide open spaces that touched him deep in his soul. Something that made him happy and life worth living. Well, who can argue with that kind of emotional connection? For myself, I didn’t mind being out in the desert for my short visits, but the one thing Arizona was compared to Minnesota, and that was this: hot, dry, dusty and brown (well, more than one thing, I guess.)
I stayed put in the garage and didn’t join him in his quest for the roadrunner even though I’m an avid birdwatcher and have never seen one in my life. I was too wrapped up in the photograph of Mom and Benjamin and it’s possible ramifications; of which there were many, to my way of thinking.
I’d been a teacher my entire adult life. I graduated with a bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota in the early seventies and soon after was fortunate to get a job teaching tenth grade Biology at Orono High School, just a few miles west of Long Lake. I taught there for thirty-five years before retiring five years ago when I was sixty-four. Science and biology have always been passions of mine. Ellie, my wife of forty-seven years has shared some of that same passion as well as a myriad of other interests, one of them being genealogy. Her image came to my mind when I again addressed my attention to the photo.
“You know, it’s interesting how some people share the same family traits and other’s don’t, even in the same family,” she told me once five years ago.
I’d been sitting in the my favorite chair in the living room reading, a passion of mine and one I was enthusiastically cultivating now that I was in my first year of retirement. I set the book down and looked up, “What do you mean?”
She had been going through old family photos of her parents and grandparents, organizing them to make copies to put in photo albums as gifts for each of our three kids. “Well, for example, my Mom and Dad both have blue eyes, but I don’t. Mine are more brownish.”
“I’d say they’re definitely amber,” I told her, joking a little, “Like the color of sweet, dark, honey.”
She gave me a slight grin, momentarily humoring me before continuing on, “Look at my grandfather’s cheek bones, how prominent they are. Just like mine, but my mom’s cheekbones have no definition at all,” she rubbed her cheeks, thoughtfully, and looked at me, “Strange, isn’t it?
“Well, from what I know, it gets complicated when it comes to genetics,” I told her, getting up and going into the dining room where hundreds of photos were spread out on the table. I sorted through some until I found what I was looking for. “Look here, El,” I said, “See this one of little Emily we took on her first birthday. See how her hair is just coming in and looking red? Even after all these years she’s still got that great head of red hair even though she’s dyed it that hideous black for some damn reason. But whatever she wants to do with it, she can’t change the fact that it’s really red, just like my mine.”
“Or what’s left of it, anyway,” Ellie said.
“Right,” I said, rubbing my nearly bald dome, “Thanks for that, by the way. Anyhow, I guess it’s one of those every other generation things when it comes to genes and hair color. That’s what my mom told me once anyway. Emily’s hair color is like my mom’s used to be. My red hair is just an anomaly. Stuff like that happens sometimes with genes. It’s a science, but not always an exact science.”
I sat down across from her and we spent the next few hours going through more and more photographs, Ellie looking for pictures she thought the kids would like, me looking for photos that showed shared genetic traits. I found some for eye color, nose shape and hair color. Ellie humored me, focused as she was on doing something for children, but for me it was fun poking through the photos, looking for genetic clues, doing what I called ‘Science Stuff,’ something I really enjoyed since I wasn’t teaching anymore.
The memory of that day and what we had talked about came back to me now, sitting on a lawn chair at a card table in John’s garage with his magnifying glass looking closely at the photo of Mom’s date for a formal dance that long ago night in 1943. Would I be able to figure out if my hypothesis was true? Was there a possibility that Benjamin, Mom’s date for the dance, actually was John’s biological father?
I focused on his ears, specifically his ear lobes. If a person’s ear lobe is connected to their head all the way to the bottom of the lobe it’s referred to as an attached ear lobe. Other people have ear lobes that hang down below the point of connection and these are referred to as unattached ear lobes. Mine are attached, John’s are unattached. In the photo, Mom’s are attached. Benjamin’s were clearly unattached. When I had first noticed this trait, my heart jumped, but I still wasn’t sure. Now that I could clearly verify the differences my hand holding the magnifier shook a little. Based on ear lobes, Benjamin definitely could be John’s biological father. I need more information to be sure. Specifically, I needed to find out what kind of ear lobes our father had, Charles Stinson Bertelson, and I needed to find a photo of him since right off hand I certainly couldn’t remember.
I stood up went down the driveway to where John was sitting in the sun, chatting with a neighbor, who left as I came up to them after saying, “Hi” to me and telling me to take it easy out in the heat. I assured him I would and then turned to John. He had a happy smile on his face like he didn’t have a care in the world, a state of mind totally opposite from the one I was in. “John, do you have a photo of Dad around anywhere?” I asked, hoping my question sounded innocent and like it was no big deal; like I was just asking out of idle curiosity.
If I startled him out of his reverie, it didn’t show. He ignored my question and, instead, said, “Man, I love living out here.”
I did a quick look up and down the street, seeing yards landscaped in either brown or gray rock, and gardens planted in various types of cacti and told him, “Yeah, I can see why.” I was only slightly giving him a hard time. The desert really did have its own beauty, but I wasn’t interested in talking about yards and gardens right then, “But about Dad…you have any photos of him around anywhere?” I asked again, bringing him back to the present.
He spun his chair a little to face me, “Yeah, I’ve got a few. There’s one in the den on my desk,” he said, pointing back behind us to the door leading from the garage into the house. “It’s on the left side, next to my computer. Why?”
“No reason, I was just curious about something.”
John looked at me with a puzzled expression before turning around and bringing his binoculars up to look through them, “Well, I’m going to stay here and keep an eye out for that roadrunner,” he said, “Give me a yell if you need me.” He focused in on something on the edge of the street about a hundred feet away. I shrugged my shoulders and left him to his bird watching, thinking it was puzzling that he seemed to have lost complete interest in who Benjamin was.
I hurried into the den, found the photo he had mentioned, a framed picture of Mom and Dad taken on their wedding day, a photo that was supposed to capture the joy of their marriage and the lifetime of happiness that awaited them, a dream that had fallen painfully short of its mark. But I wasn’t thinking about Mom’s and Dad’s wedding and the success (well, failure, actually,) of their marriage right at that moment. Instead, I picked up the frame in my hands and looked at it closely. The photo was clear and Dad’s face was easy to see. I looked closely at his ear lobe and used the magnifier just to be sure, seeing for a moment an image of Sherlock Holmes in my mind, him with his own magnifying glass, searching for evidence way back in 1890’s London. Then I snapped back to the present and the thought that jumped to my mine was this: Shit, Dad’s ear lobe was attached. I looked around John’s office until I found a family photo of Mom and me and John and Megan that also included Ellie and our three kids, and Megan and Frank, her husband, and their four kids. I looked closely at Megan. Her ear lobes were attached as well.
I sat down in John’s desk chair to organize my thoughts. Mom and Dad both had attached ear lobes. So were mine and Megan’s. John’s were unattached. Benjamin’s were unattached. All of that information pointed to Benjamin being John’s biological father. I sat back and closed my eyes, thinking. What should I do with what I was finding out? I thought back to teaching a little bit about genes in my biology classes. Genetics is a complicated science and there are many variables to take into account. Some genes control one trait while some traits are controlled by a number of genes working together. Genes control the color of your hair, how tall you will be, the color of your eyes, the color of your skin and countless other aspects of a person. Did I have enough information to conclusively say for certain that Benjamin was John’s biological father?
John’s computer was on and I wiggled the mouse to bring it up. Then I opened up a browser and got on the internet. I wanted to check something out. In a few minutes I had my answer. Ear lobes are controlled by only one gene but I remembered from what I had taught in my classes that a person gets half their genes from one parent and half from the other parent. It gets complicated, but there was a chance John’s unattached ear lobe wasn’t conclusively the result of Mom and Benjamin being John’s parents. Howeve, the fact that Megan and I had the same attached ear lobe as Mom and our father seemed to beg the question: Why us and why not John?
The fact of the matter was there was no easy answer. Besides, when it came right down to it, who really cared, anyway? (Well, I did, but that was beside the point. John certainly seemed to care less.) My older brother and I had both had a good relationship with our father when we were kids growing up. He spent time with us teaching us how to throw a curve with a baseball, kick spiral with a football and even how to properly wax a car. Even though he and our mother had divorced, once we got over the initial shock of their splitting up, John and I and even Megan had eventually been able to accept their divorce for what it was, two people who had fallen out of love with each other and who wanted to try to build better lives for themselves. Lives without their respective spouses. Dad remarried and divorced and was on his third marriage when he died. Mom never re-married, preferring to spend time with her many friends as well as with her kids and grandkids and varied interests and hobbies. In fact, she had lived the last ten years of her life in Phoenix because she wanted to pursue an interest in watercolor painting and a favorite artist friend of hers lived there.
I went back to the garage. Rico and Sammy had finished up with the pool and John had wheeled up the driveway to join them by their truck. The sun was beating down but my brother had maneuvered himself into the shade of a Palo Verde Tree. All three of them turned when I stepped into the garage and walked outside to visit with them.
“Find the picture?” John asked.
“Yeah, I did,” I said, shielding my eyes from the sun with my hand,” I also saw that one of all of us with Megan in it. And her kids and Mom. I like that one.”
“Other than you, we weren’t a bad looking family,” John said and looked over at Rico and Sammy who both dutifully laughed, “Find anything else?”
I thought about the photo of Mom and Dad. I thought about the photo of Mom and Benjamin. Maybe some things were better left alone. Left unsaid.
“Naw. Nothing,” I told him.
John looked at Rico and Sammy and pointed to me and said, “Trust me, he usually has a lot more to say. Most of it BS.”
John is a funny guy. He’s always had a good sense of humor and has always enjoyed making people laugh. This time Rico and Sammy laughed pretty hard. So did I.
Sammy walked back to the pickup and Rico joined him, waving and saying, “Bye, Johnny. Nice to have met you, Mr. Eddie.”
I thought of the old television show, Mr. Ed, and laughed at their joke. So did John. They really did seem like nice guys.
John turned his chair toward me and said, “Well, I’m getting hot. Let’s go inside and get some water and fix some lunch. I’m going to find a hat for you to wear, too. You’ll burn your eyeballs up out here without one.”
We waved goodbye to the pool guys and went inside. Working together we prepared a nice salad, some pasta and celery and hummus. Then John drove us in his van out to a local park and we went for a long walk (well, I walked, John rolled) in the desert on a hard packed trail with John putting the Geo Cruiser through its paces. We didn’t talk anymore about Mom and Benjamin and the photograph although I kind of still wanted to. John just wasn’t all that interested.
“Look,” he said during lunch, shoveling a mouthful of pasta and quinoa and basil into to his mouth, savoring the flavor and talking around his energetic chewing, “It’s not that big a deal. Mom dated and had fun. Then she met Dad and they got married.” He swallowed and smiled, “It was what it was, little brother. It didn’t work out between them. That’s probably why she never got married again.” He put together a heaping forkful of salad and held it poised a moment and added, “I can’t say I blame her.” Then he shoveled that in and began more lively chewing. Beside the fact that John was an enthusiastic eater and obvious enjoyer of food, his point was well made.
“I hear you,” I told him and reached for some celery and hummus, munching on it thoughtfully, even though I was as about as far from being convinced as you could be.
And that was the end of that particular discussion. John started telling me about a swimming pool his neighbor across the street was going to put in, and one thing lead to another and soon we were talking about motocross, a sport he followed religiously. But all the while we were having our lunch I was wondering what my older brother would think about the deeper issue I was grappling with: Namely, the very real possibility that Benjamin was his biological father. I flipped a mental coin and made the decision to keep my mouth shut and let it go, like John suggested. It seemed like the easiest thing to do. Besides, there are people in this world who are boat rockers and others who aren’t, and that’s the boat I’m in. Why take a chance and upset the way things were? The proverbial status quo? Plus, I was still unsure that telling him was the right thing to do. Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with all the ramifications that were certain to arise. The shit hitting the fan was an apt metaphor, in this case, as far as I was concerned. In short, I took the easy way out and said nothing.
Later that night we sat on the back patio by the pool and watched the sunset. John was smoking his water-pipe and we were listening to some old time rock and roll. At one point, after the stars started coming out, he turned to me and asked, “Say, Eddie, do you mind if we listen to some classical music? I’m in the mood for some Sibelius, you know that guy from Finland?”
Classical music? Where did that come from? John was a Bob Seeger fan and a rock and roll man from the word go. But I didn’t really care. I was enjoying being with him on this trip. Like always, we had an easy companionship together and truly enjoyed each other’s company. As brothers went, he was more than someone I was related to, he was like a friend. I knew of lots worse relationships between siblings.
“Sure,” I said, standing up and going to where the iPod was plugged into some Bose speakers. I found a channel marked ‘Classical’ and set it going. “How’s that?” I asked coming back and sitting down. The sky was dark and clear and Venus was rising to the east. John had the underwater pool lights on and a light breeze ran ripples over the water, chasing a couple of colorful beach balls around. It was a perfect night.
He leaned over and took a hit from his pipe and then sat back as he closed his eyes and sighed, “Thanks, Eddie,” he said, holding the smoke in before exhaling, “You’re not a bad guy, no matter what people say.” I liked to see him relaxing. I dutifully laughed and he chuckled and then switched gears and said, “Isn’t this wonderful out here?” He smiled some more, “Just like I imagine heaven to be like.”
Well, I didn’t know about that, but I did take the pipe nozzle from him a took a short hit, inhaling and sharing the moment with him in more ways than one since I’m not a pot smoker. But this seemed like the right time to indulge. Then I let the smoke out, savoring both the taste and the aroma. I’m not sure John even knew I did it. Maybe he did, because with his eyes still closed he grinned and said, “Pretty good life, I’d say, little brother. Glad you could be here to enjoy it with me.”
I looked out into the clear desert night. When Lake Havasu City was first plotted out back in the mid-sixties the city founders degreed there would be not street lights installed and to this day there still aren’t any. The total darkness takes some getting used to but once you are its unaccountably idyllic. “Me, too,” was all I could say, but I couldn’t have agreed more. I wondered what our mom would have thought – her two sons, both old men, sitting out in the warm desert night chatting comfortably, watching the night sky and smoking some weed together. She probably wouldn’t have approved (well, definitely she wouldn’t have,) but, then again, she might not have disapproved either.
The next day I left John and his home in Lake Havasu City and flew back to Long Lake. I hadn’t told him about my suspicions about Benjamin being his father. I had made my decision and I told myself it was over and done with. There was nothing more to do and that’s all there was too it. That’s what I tried to convince myself of anyway.
That plan lasted about a week.
The problem was that after I got home I just couldn’t get the unattached ear lobe conundrum out of my mind. I hemmed and hawed and wondered what to do and came up flat. Finally I did the best thing I could think of. I consulted someone who was the smartest person I knew. The person whose knowledge and depth of thinking has continued to grow ever since we had first met. I told my wife Ellie about it.
I approached her while she was sitting in her favorite chair in the living room listening to a pod-cast on her iPad – something about English Shop Girls in the late nineteenth century. She took out her ear-buds and made herself comfortable while she listened carefully as I went through my story and my explanation about genes and genetics and how I thought Benjamin might be John’s biological father. She sat back, took a sip of tea and was thoughtful for a moment.
Then she said, “Tell you what. Why don’t we check up on this Benjamin fellow?”
“What’d you mean?”
“Just leave it to me.” She went back to her podcast and held up one finger, “Give me a day or two.”
The next day she had an answer.
I was outside in the backyard garden cutting back some chives when she called out to me, “Eddie, come on inside. I want to show you something.”
“Can’t it wait, I’m in the middle of something here.”
“It has to do with your brother and that Benjamin guy.”
I couldn’t get inside fast enough. I grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and went into the dining room. Ellie had some print-outs arranged on the table along with a copy of the photo of Mom and Benjamin that John and I had found. I pointed to it, “Where’d you get that?”
“From you brother. I had him take a picture of it with his phone and email it to me.”
“Well, good. Resourceful.” I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought to do that, but then remembered who the brains of the operation was in our family. “What’d you think?”
“I had John go through the box of photographs you guys apparently decided to stop looking through for some insane reason.” She gave me a look like, why wouldn’t you be interested enough to at least look for more of them while you were out there and had the box basically in your lap? Then she shrugged her shoulders, riding herself, it seemed to me, of my ineptitude before continuing, “I thought it’d be worthwhile to see if there was anything of interest about Benjamin .” I nodded my head, thoughtfully, thinking that I should have done that myself. But then again, Ellie was always at least two or three steps ahead of me when it came to pretty much everything.
“I take it he found something.”
“Yes, indeed, he did.”
She filled me in. Seems Mom kept more than just old pictures. In the box there was a playbill for an event that took place around the time the photograph was taken. It was an advertisement for a classical music concert taking place at a church in Washington DC, and it listed the performers and the songs that were being played. There was a cellist on the playbill by the name of Benjamin Stiles. Of particular interest, Ellie thought, was that his name was circled. I thought so, too. Could it have been the same person? Could this have been the Benjamin in the photograph? I looked at Ellie and she was grinning – my wife a modern day Sherlock Holmes, again, more than a few steps ahead of me. In fact, way ahead. She had discovered that the guy in the photograph definitely was Benjamin Stiles.
Ellie can find anything she wants on the internet. In the past she’s done ancestry research on her ancestors and her family history and she used those skills to go on line and check various sites and, sure enough, she was able to track down Benjamin Stiles. She was even able to find newspaper articles about him that also included photographs. When she compared the pictures in old newspapers to the copy of the photo that John had emailed, there was no doubt. The Benjamin in the photograph standing next to our eventual mother was none other than Benjamin Stiles, cellist with a group called ‘Cool Breeze’ who played up and down the east coast for around ten years in the forties and early fifties. And this Benjamin Stiles, one of four members of the group, was also apparently ‘more than just a date’ and the evidence was leading to him being the likely biological father of my brother John.
I sat back and stared at Ellie. I’ll tell you that I was in a bit of a shock and I spent more than a few minutes trying to convince myself it wasn’t true. I mean really, who wants to acknowledge that kind of thing? But my arguments lead me nowhere. I know it’s not a hundred percent for certain that Benjamin was John’s father, but the chances were pretty good. Also, there was this: Ellie found articles written about Mr. Stiles. One of his hobbies was sky-diving. He also enjoyed hang-gliding and was a highly skilled pilot of both single engine airplanes and gliders. In short, he had the same kind of love of adventure that John had. He also had curly hair, too, just like John used to have, back in the day when he had hair. In short, there were many more physical characteristics Benjamin shared with my brother than our father did.
With this new informtion, all in all I was pretty sure I was correct in my assumptions, especially with what Ellie had now added to the mix. I took a minute and sipped my water while Ellie was gracious enough to sit and let me process what she had found. When I did, it finally came down to this: Even though I was pretty sure Benjamin was John’s biological father, only a blood test would tell the truth of the whole story. Since both Mom and Benjamin and our father were all dead and gone, there was nothing to compare John’s DNA to, so that was a dead-end.
I looked up a Ellie and she gave me a slight smile, “You doing Ok, there? I know it’s a lot to take in.”
“I just wish I knew what to do.”
“You mean whether or not to tell John about what we’ve found?”
“Yeah,” I let out with a sigh. All of a sudden I had lost my enthusiasm for my project because in the end, nothing good could come from it. Again, like when I’d first seen the photograph back at John’s and began to have my suspicions, here I was trying to convince myself I should just let it go. “I think I’ll just let it lay. Let the past be in the past. I don’t think I should tell John.”
Ellie reached across the table and took my hand, “Sounds good. Just do what you think is the best thing to do; what you can live with. That’s the best advice I can give you.”
“What would you do?” I asked, hoping she’d give me the correct answer. An answer I could live with, anyway.
“I have no idea,” she said. Then she smiled and stood up, “Let’s go out in the garden. I’ll help you with those chives.”
And that should have been the end of the story but it wasn’t. Try as I might, I just couldn’t let it go. The issue kept circling around in my head. I didn’t think it was right that I knew something about John’s biological father that my brother didn’t know. In fact, with what I had learned, I now thought of Benjamin Stiles as John’s father, not Charles Stinson Bertelson, the man who had raised John like his own son. To that end, should I tell my brother about what I had found out in the research Ellie and I had done or not? Would I want to know, if the roles were reversed and John knew what I knew? I didn’t have an answer, and Ellie’s advice of ‘I don’t know what I’d do,’ didn’t help, even though it made perfect sense, since it was my brother and not hers. So, really, when it came right down to it, it was up to me to make a decision as to what to do. I just couldn’t make one.
My poor, dear wife – all the time of hers I took up talking over the pros and cons of my dilemma – the hours and hours I put her through, patiently listening to my arguments, nodding her head encouragingly and letting me talk, hoping, I’m sure, that I’d eventually work out an acceptable solution. Looking back, I’m lucky she didn’t slap me up along the side of the head and say, “Just decide for god’s sake and be done with it!” But she didn’t. She let me go on and on hoping I’d eventually reach my own conclusion. It’s one of the best examples of patience I’ve ever seen. I owe her big time.
For me the main point was this: For his entire life, John had been very close with our father. From early on, back when John was a young child, a bond formed between them that was unique. They were more than father-son, they were friends. When Dad passed away nearly twenty years ago, John, of the three of Dad’s kids, was the most affected, needing the comfort of both Megan and I to help deal with his profound grief. Did I want to do anything to upset that relationship and the memories John had of the two of them and the good times they’d had together? Did I want to take a chance on tarnishing those memories for the rest of his life? Well, when I looked at it that way, not really.
I agonized over what to do that entire year. By the time I was getting ready to go visit him again, I finally had decided what to do – what I felt I must do. I’m sure that the good-bye hug and kiss Ellie gave me on my way out the door to the airport was as much relief on her part as it was for me finally knowing what I was going to do, if not more. Probably a lot more.
John met me at Las Vegas International Airport around midnight and we drove south to Lake Havasu City. I was wired after the flight my flight and we talked non-stop back and forth about what had been going on between us for the past year. I decided to hold off talking about my thoughts and findings on the photo of Mom and Benjamin until we got to his place. Instead, John told me about a modification he had made on the Geo Cruise. He had been able to figure out a way to make it go faster and he was excited about it, so he kept up a lively conversation, regaling me with his feats of speed, racing across the foothills of the Sonora desert up to thirty-three miles per hour. I, on the other hand, had my reservations, not wanting my brother to end up crashed in some canyon out in the middle of nowhere, so I kept my comments to, “Sounds scary,” and “Geez, why go so fast?” He didn’t let my lack of enthusiasm get to him, though, only saying, “Don’t knock it til you try it , little brother,” which I told him would never happen. He just laughed, thoroughly enjoying giving me and my cautious nature a hard time. I eventually laughed, too, quickly remembering how much I enjoyed being with my older brother.
On the drive south we had the windows down, filling the van with the fresh aroma of the clean night air, and we saw coyotes every now and then, their eyes showing red in the headlights, which got me right back in a desert frame of mind. We got to his place around three in the morning and we were still pretty wound up, so we sat outside on his back patio overlooking his pool, relaxing and chatting some more and coming down from the drive. John lit up his water pipe while I took my boots and socks off and stretched out my legs on the flagstones, still feeling a slight residual warmth from the heat of the previous day. I took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of his orange tree blooming nearby. I looked up into a clear night sky dotted with countless stars. There was a gentle warm breeze from the south and not a sound was to be heard except for the mellow tinkling of one of John’s wind chimes. After being away from my brother for a year, I have to say it felt really good to be back together.
My mood was good and my confidence was as high as it’d ever be. I sat up in my chair and turned to my left. Now was the time to tell my brother what was on my mind.
“John, I’ve got something that I’ve been thinking about ever since I was here last time,” I told him.
He sat forward in his Geo chair and looked at me, judging, I think, what I was going to say. Finally he said, “That’s a lot of thinking, brother, I hope you didn’t hurt yourself.” He smiled at me and I actually surprised myself by coughing out a laugh. Then he turned serious and added, “I think I know what it’s about.”
His statement caught me off guard. “You do?”
“Yeah. It’s about that damn photo we found last year, isn’t it? That one of Mom and Ben? The one Ellie wanted a copy of?”
I was stunned, not prepared for his comment. My mind started swirling, “Well…,” I stammered, trying to buy time to think of what to say, but I came up with nothing except, “Yeah, I have to say that it is.”
“You think Ben’s my biological father, don’t you?”
I’m sure my jaw dropped to my chest. How’d he know? How did he find out? And, more to the point, now what should I do? I was suddenly way out of my comfort zone. My mind started swirling again, and, again, I came up with nothing. I pictured Ellie looking at me with a bemused expression, slowly shaking her head from side to side, saying, ‘Well, you’ve really gone and done it. What are you going to do now?’ Good question, one I had no answer for.
John saved me, “Don’t worry about it, man, and for god’s sake, calm down before you have a heart attack. It’s not that big a deal.” He paused a moment and looked out at the calming blue-green color of the water in his swimming pool before turning to me again, “Well, maybe it is a bit of a deal,” he finally said, adding, “It’s certainly not your normal, everyday family secret.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his cruiser for a minute, thinking of what to say next. Then he said, “I should have probably told you this before.” He shifted his chair forward and backward a little bit and then settled down. “I’ll let you in on something. I’ve known for a long time now.”
“What the hell?” I shouted, “How?” I had no idea what was going on.
John reached over and put his hand on my arm, trying to calm me, but it didn’t help much. “Dad told me a long time ago, “he said, “And I never knew how to bring it up with you and Megan so I didn’t. “And,” he said, spreading his arms wide, being dramatic and trying to lighten the mood, something that as far as I was concerned was impossible to do, “It’s finally led to this.”
And while I sat, both speechless and amazed, he told me the story.
“God, it must have been, what, nearly twenty-two years ago,” he began, “A year or two before Dad died. Remember when he was out here visiting me, and he and I took that boat trip down the river?” He pointed out in front of us into the darkness where a few miles away was the two mile wide spot in the Colorado River that was called Lake Havasu.
I suppose I should have recalled but I didn’t. “Not really,” I told him.
“No matter. I borrowed a friend’s boat and took it down river about fifty miles. We went past Parker down to where there’s a nice view of the Granite Mountains. It was just after Dad and that second wife of his, Jenny, were divorced, and he was happy and relaxed. We had a good time. It was in March, springtime, and the weather wasn’t too hot. The first night out we pulled up to a sand bar and cooked a couple of baked potatoes and rib-eyes on the grill for dinner. Dad loved those steaks. I poured us each a nice whiskey for a nightcap, Maker’s Mark if I recall, and Dad pulled out a couple of Partagus cigars, ‘To celebrate a great meal,’ Dad said.
I watched John smile at the long ago memory of his time on the river with our father. I have to say that I was slightly envious, but, like I said, John and Dad had always been close so I put away my envy, happy they’d at least had the time together. More to the point, though, I wanted to hear how John knew about Ben being his biological father. He went on, “I built us a nice campfire. We were sitting the beach on a pair of folding canvas chairs, watching the stars and just chatting. You know how it gets sometimes. Talking, sipping our drinks, puffing on our cigars. One thing lead to another and then, out of the blue, he told me.”
I couldn’t believe it was just that simple. “What’d he say?”
“Dad told me that he knew Mom and Ben had been dating before he and she became a couple. In fact, the three of them were friends. We all know Mom and Dad got married a few months after they started going out. I guess Mom and Ben saw each other a few times after she got married before she finally broke it off. By then she was pregnant with me. She could have pretended that I was Dad’s child, but I guess she chose to tell Dad the truth instead of living a lie. Dad, to his credit, accepted the situation for what it was, and raised me as his own. They never told Ben. I guess Mom wanted to move on and focus on her young family. Then you came along, then Megan. And for a while, life was good. Mom really did love Dad, you know. And he loved her, at least in the beginning.”
I couldn’t believe what John was telling me. Among the many thing going through my mind was the fact that Mom had continued her relationship with Ben even after she and Dad had gotten married; long enough for her to have gotten pregnant with John before apparently breaking it off with Ben for good. It was too much to take in. I stood up and walked to the edge of the pool and looked into its deep, clear, water. After a while it dawned on me that the answers I was searching for certainly weren’t there.
“Eddie,” John called to me, “Calm down. It’s really not that bad.” I turned to him and he motioned me back, “Come on back here and let me finish my story. It’s really Ok.”
I walked back to my chair and sat down. I wasn’t angry, really, just shocked; a common reaction, I think, when one’s world view is suddenly blown apart. An image of Mom came into my brain. What would I have said to her, if she were alive and I knew what I now knew? Would I have confronted her and asked her about what had happened between her and Ben after she and Dad had gotten married? (Even though now I obviously knew.) And if I did confront her, what would I expect for an outcome? And if she told me the truth, would I have been able to handle it?
All the many questions I had kept spinning through my brain until it all finally became too much. The possible ramifications were overwhelming. On top of that, the flight to Vegas and the nearly three hour dive to my brother’s were having their effect. Suddenly, exhaustion set in. I leaned my head against the back of the chair and closed my eyes – Just for a moment, I told myself, to shut out the world, rest and try to come to grips with things.
I must have dozed off because I was startled awake by a sound I never expected to hear so close to my brother’s home. It was the mournful howling of a coyote. I came to my senses in a matter of moments. It was still dark out. I glanced above me and saw a beautiful, bright, night sky, white washed with innumerable stars. A sky I had been ignoring it in my futile quest for answers to what John had told me. How long had I slept? I had no idea.
Next to me John whispered, “They’re over there,” he said, pointing to the left, “The coyotes. They’re in the dry wash. Maybe a quarter of a mile away. I think I can hear three of them.”
In my entire life I had never heard coyotes calling in the wild, only on television specials. I listened closely. In a few minutes they started up again, one then another, then a third, their ethereal voices filling the night with otherworldly cries that were at once both frightening and exhilarating. I looked at John and he was smiling, “Pretty cool, huh?”
It was. Both the coyotes and the howling. I pulled my eyes away from where they were and looked in the other direction, out to the east and there saw a sliver of a moon rising. I looked above us to a dome of stars encompassing the world from horizon to horizon and thought how humbling they were in their both their majesty and beauty. While staring into the deep sky I suddenly spied something. I looked closely and there, far, far away, just within the outer range of my sight, I saw a tiny pinprick moving. I pointed and said to John, “Check it out. A satellite.” We both gazed for a moment, watching it traverse across the sky. A coyote howled again, nearer to us, it seemed.
Suddenly a streak of light appeared in front of us out of nowhere. It followed an arching path across the sky before falling away and disappearing. It was a shooting star. “Whoa,” John said, smiling some more, “Check that out. Beautiful.”
Beautiful it was. A minute later we saw another one, and then another, making me wonder if we were in the midst of a springtime meteor shower. For a long time we sat quietly together, listening to the coyotes and watching the world around us until the deep night sky began to turn to rosy dawn in the east. Soon the sun would be rising. Neither of us felt a desire to move, so we stayed and watched, sharing this special time of coyotes and stars.
Believe it or not, watching the night sky and listening to the coyotes did something unexpected for me: They took away my perplexity about Mom and Dad and Ben and, instead, focused me in the present and the moment I was in with my brother. I can’t explain it any other way that that. In other words, suddenly my thinking became clearer and more simplified and all my questions vanished. When it came right down to it with Mom and Dad and Benjamin, there was really nothing I, or anyone else for that matter, could do about it. What had happened had happened and the only thing to do was to accept it for what it was and move on. John had had a great relationship with our Dad. I’d had a great relationship with our Mom, and Megan had had a great relationships with each of them. And, when all was said and done, that was the best any of us kids could have hoped for. It really was.
It was apparent that I needed to focus on the present. Mom and Dad and Megan were dead and gone and now our family was just John and me. I looked over at him, feeling a familiarity between us that was built on a lifetime of respect for each other. Call it love if you will, but whatever the term, what mattered the most was what we had as brothers, brothers who cared deeply for each other. What happened seventy plus years ago with our mom and dad and Ben really didn’t amount to anything. It was in the past. Today was today – the present, and that’s what mattered the most.
I stood up and took a long look over the panorama of dawn beginning to break in the east over the Whipple Mountains and the Sonora Desert – soft pink light gently reaching across the sky, turning the dark night into day of hope and promise. In spite of the beauty, suddenly I was exhausted and could barely stand. It was hard to turn away, but I did and said to John, “We should probably turn in. It’s been a long day.”
John motored his chair over to me so we could both face to the east. We watched the pink glow brighten to a subtle golden yellow. The sun would rise in under an hour. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, “Forget about going to sleep. How about you and I head out to Sara Park? We can make it in fifteen minutes which should be there in plenty of time to watch the sunrise. I’ll drive.”
I didn’t have to think. Suddenly I felt a surge through my tired body as my energy returned. It was a perfect idea.”You’re on,” I said, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” We hurried to the garage, got in the van, drove to the park. We unloaded the Geo Cruiser and motored into the park where we made it in time to watch the sun come up over the desert mountains, both of us agreeing that it was the best sunrise either of us had ever seen.
I stayed for a week on this, what turned out to be my final trip to see my brother while he was still alive. It felt good to be with him that week, and I’m glad we were able to finally finish going through all of Mom’s boxes. We even found some more family photographs. They served as a jumping off point for us to talk over our lives with Mom and Dad and Megan – a family that certainly turned out to have had its fair share of secrets. (Like most families do I imagine.) It was a great way to share the last time together we’d ever have.
That last visit was in the spring and John passed away suddenly early that summer due to complications from his diabetes. I was on the next plane out to Vegas after I’d gotten a call from his doctor telling me the news. I wished I could have been there with him at the end, but I wasn’t; I was told he went quickly. All I could do was take care of the business of selling his home and possessions, basically closing out his life, one rich with friends and experiences. In short, a life full of a passion for living. I did the best I could.
It took me a couple of weeks to get the process rolling and fully underway. When things were moving along pretty smoothly I felt I was ready to go back home to Long Lake. I was making my final preparations to leave and happened to be in his old office. I had just finished talking to Ellie, filling her in on what I’d been up to, when I realized the battery on my phone was nearly dead. I went into the living room to get my charger and came back into the den to plug it in. As I reached behind the desk for the socket I noticed an envelope sticking out from between the back of the desk and the wall. I reached down and slid it out. It was a non-descript, white business envelope that was blank and sealed shut and appeared empty. I was just about to crumple it up and toss it in the wastepaper basket when I became mildly curious. Why would a blank envelope be sealed? What the hell, I thought to myself, why not open it up just for the heck of it, so I did. Inside was a single photograph. I’d seen one similar already, but this one was slightly different. I peered closely, trying to come to grips with the image I was looking at. I couldn’t believe it.
I was holding a picture taken at the same party as the one John and I had discovered over a year earlier – the one taken of Mom and Benjamin. Like in that one, Mom had her corsage on and Benjamin was wearing his tuxedo and boutonnière. But in this picture there was a third person in the frame. He was a tall slender man standing on the other side of Mom. He was dressed for the formal occasion, too, just like Mom and Benjamin. I didn’t have to look twice. I recognized the person immediately. It was Charles Stinson Bertelson, the man who would eventually become our father. He was smiling and happy and it looked like he and Mom and Benjamin were chatting away together and having a grand old time, just like the good friends that they there. It was the last thing I’d ever thought I’d see.
Why hadn’t John told me about this? Did he go through the box of photos after I’d left that first time we’d found the one of Mom and Benjamin and found it then? Or had he found it after my last visit? Whenever the case, he’d found it and for some reason he had decided not to tell me about it. He’d even sealed it in an envelope for safe keeping. What was he playing at? One thing was for certain – he’d had it for a while, that was for sure, but he’d chosen not to tell me about it. Why? He must have had his reasons. What were they? A note left behind explaining his reasoning for not telling me would have been nice. I looked around but found none although I didn’t expect to. I sat back and stared out the window. The guy across the street was raking the rocks in his front yard. (I had no idea why.) I watched him for a while before I realized I could have cared less why he was doing it. Then I checked my phone weather app. The temperature outside was ninety-seven degrees and it was eleven in the morning. Another hot day in Lake Havasu City. Restless, I stood up and walked around the den before realizing that the answer to my question was pure and simple: There was no answer. I’d never know what was behind John’s reasoning not to tell me. It was another weird family mystery that I would have to learn to live with without ever knowing the answer to. I didn’t like it, but there you had it, I had to accept it for what it was, and there was nothing more I could do about. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, let me tell you. To this day I still wonder about it, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent more time than I should pondering the unanswerable.
I sat down in the desk chair. It seemed the deeper I probed into our family’s history, the more mysteries I found. This photograph now in my hands just added to them. Mysteries that had no answers since everyone that had any knowledge about the past was dead and gone.
The picture was slightly bent so I smoothed it out the best I could on my pants leg and looked at it again. Dad was in his early twenties, young looking and happy. It was good to see him that way. In less than a year he and Mom would be married and their lives would merge and move in a different direction. The picture captured a slice of my family’s history from long, long ago, and the more I looked, the more I realized that it was a history colored with events I had no knowledge of. Events that happened before my time. Events that eventually led to me being where I was today, sitting at my deceased brother’s desk, looking into the past when I wasn’t looking outside contemplating the Arizona heat. Strangely enough, I found myself actually rather enjoying thinking about the three of them back when they were young. I’m not sure ‘fun’ would the correct word, but it certainly was interesting to spend time speculating on the lives of Mom, Dad and Ben, three friends whose intertwined lives eventually produced John and Megan and me.
I think I was lost in my reverie for a more than a little while because when I looked outside again, the guy had quit raking his rocks and the sun was high in the sky, beating down unmercifully. I made myself snap into the present. What should I do with the photograph? I had all of John’s things either packed away or given away or sold, and the house was ready to go on the market. Should I keep the photo or not? John had kept that first photo we’d found of Mom and Benjamin. He’d framed it and put it on his desk and right now it was boxed up and ready to be shipped home to Long Lake where I was going to keep it along some other of his more personal items. I idly turned the photo over. That first photograph we’d found of Mom and Benjamin had Ben’s inscription. This one had one had an inscription as well. It was written by Mom and it read, ‘Meeting my Charlie for the first time.’
‘My Charlie,’ was what she had written. I was looking at the beginning of the love affair of my Mom and Dad. Wow, again.
I sat for a long time holding that picture. There was something special about seeing Dad and Mom together like that, even with Benjamin in the frame standing off to the side. It was a snapshot of history. Of my family’s history – the history that was the beginning of John and me and Megan. It was more than special, seeing them all together like that, Mom, Dad and Benjamin…it was like a gift, really, to be able to have this photograph that took me back to where our family began. Mom and Dad’s beginning. Our family’s beginning.
Finally I stood up and walked into my bedroom and carefully packed the picture away. I’d take it home with me and show it to Ellie. I’d frame it and eventually I’d show it to my kids. And then I’d tell them about the history of my family, one that I felt they’d enjoy hearing. But, even if they weren’t interested, even if they got bored and restless, that was Ok. In the end, it didn’t matter what others thought because it was still our history. That’s all that mattered. Besides, when all was said and done, like John had said once, “It was what it was.” And to that I would add, “You couldn’t ask for anymore than that.”
It’s been five years now since John and I found the photograph of Mom and Benjamin. Four years since the last time I saw my brother before he passed away and a few months afterwards that I found the photograph of Mom and Dad and Benjamin together. I pretend that John put it in that envelope because he was going to eventually give it to me. I like to imagine him springing it on me during a visit while the two of us are sitting at night out on the patio by the pool and John watching my reaction as I open the envelope, take out the photo of Mom and Dad and Benjamin together and read the inscription Mom had written on the back. I’m sure he was grinning ear to ear and chuckling to himself as he put the photograph in the envelope to save it. How it ended up on the floor behind the desk I’ll never know.
I like to think about what the lives of Mom and Benjamin and Dad were like back then, back in the middle of the war years when they were friends with each other and trying to make the most of what life had to offer. I’d like to think I’ve accepted the fact that what I once thought was true, wasn’t. Dad wasn’t the biological father of all his kids, but he was a father to all of us. That’s what mattered the most. And even though Mom wasn’t true to Dad during the early months of their marriage, that the way it was. She eventually broke it off with Benjamin and stayed true to Dad during the rest of their marriage and did the best she could to make it work. I’d like to think I’m Ok with all of that. I think I am.
But mostly what I think about is John. I miss him more than I can saw. I’m glad we had that last visit together and that I stayed at his place for nearly a week. And I’m glad that he and I went to Sara Park early that first morning and saw the sunrise. I’ll never forget something that happened when we were on the trail on our way to a high vantage point up near the top of a steep rise, John motoring along in his Geo Cruiser and me huffing and puffing behind him, trying to keep up. We rounded a bend and, unexpectedly, came face to face with a family of seven Big Horn sheep, a male and a female and five young. We stopped, pulling up short, and the sheep did too. John carefully shut off the cruiser and the immense silence of the desert surrounded us, not a breath of a breeze blowing, the air completely still. For a minute we all stared at one another, none of us moving and, for my part, hardly breathing. I was enthralled to be seeing something I’d never seen before, only hours after hearing the howling of the coyotes, something I’d never heard before. It had been a night of firsts. I glanced at John and he was motionless in his wheel chair, a big grin spread out on his face. He must of known I was looking at him because he made one slight movement with his hand, putting his thumb in the air, the universal ‘thumbs up’ sign for something good. I couldn’t have agreed more and carefully returned the gesture.
After a few minutes, the female ewe turned and lead the young ones away, the big male following behind to protect them, glancing over his should every now and then, watching us. They went up over the rise and then were instantly gone from view. A moment later, from the exact spot where they’d vanished, the sun broke above the rocks, flooding the land with light. A new day had begun.
It’s moments like those with John I relive in my mind. Moments like those that I treasure, glad beyond words that I had them with my brother. The old photographs we found gave us a glimpse into the past. A past filled with all the things life has to offer: love, hope and dreams, as well as sadness, tragedy and sorrow – the potpourri that is the essence of life. For me, I have my memories of John and the time I spent with him throughout our life together, but especially at his home in a city carved out of the Sonora Desert. I’ll never forget them. They enrich my life with all of the colors of the rainbow and then some. Those memories are my treasure and I cherish them. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Oh, by the way, I’ve come back here to John’s hometown every year for the last three years. I’ve come to walk those same desert trails he and I traveled together, only now, Ellie comes with me. The two of us together. We’re making our own memories out here in the desert. New memories. Memories that are moving our family’s history in a new direction. I’m not sure where it will lead or how it will end, but I do know this: The journey is one of a kind and Ellie and I are taking a bunch of photographs to prove it. Besides, years from now, long after we’re gone, someone might come across those photographs stuffed away in a box somewhere. And, who knows, they might even enjoy finding them.