This story is by Valerie Feigen and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Yah know,” my mother said, with a thick Brooklyn accent she has never exhibited in 83 years, “Jack has anothu son.”
We were at Jack’s memorial having been invited by his two grown sons to mourn their father’s passing and celebrate his life. A third son was new information.
With my Dad gone five years, it was my mom and I who came to pay our respects at cousin Jack’s memorial luncheon – a formal, three-course lunch in an old-fashioned Italian restaurant. We had just arrived and been ushered into the dining room. The room was stuffed with red leather banquettes, round tables, red leather chairs and people everywhere. If a Gambino crime family member was dining in the corner, the place couldn’t have felt more authentic. Jack’s two adult sons chose the location as a hat tip to their mom, Maria, and her southern Italian cooking. She died young, leaving Jack to raise their two small sons. Jack never remarried after her death. The boys loved their father. They were a small tight family. A third son was not part of the narrative.
My mother and I have a complicated relationship. Usually, my mother cooks up trouble and I clean up the mess. We had been invited to console the mourners and honor Jack by eating the pasta, drinking the Chianti, having an espresso, and going home satiated and full of happy memories. Digging up the newly-cremated man’s past and outing his secrets was not on the menu.
“SHHH,” I hissed, “It’s not true.”
But she had me thinking. We had migrated into the center of the dining room and were nibbling hors d’oeuvres as waiters passed trays of parmigiana cheese hunks and green olives on toothpicks. I know her well enough to know she cared less about the truth and more about upsetting Jack’s grown sons. I didn’t put it past her to walk up to the mourners and ask them if their half-brother was in the room. She was mean, inappropriate and inclined to stir up trouble whenever it could be stirred and served, but she was not stupid and her mind was perfectly intact. Could it be true that I have another cousin? Could this phantom missing son be in the room? If not, was he in the universe? Did Jack’s sons know? I became seduced by the goal of finding out the truth.
“Shhuure,” she whined, “it’s truuw. He was marrried befaw he met Maria. I think her name waas Juudy. They had a son. I wahnder what happened to him.”
She pronounced the name Judy with her new accent which required about three extra syllables per word in order to really nail her point. I guessed her point, it was her timing I was having trouble with. Why would she disrupt a memorial and why was this the first time I was hearing about it?
“Not here mom,” I said with enough intent that I thought she would take the hint. I don’t know why I thought she would take a hint. In all of our 55 years together, she never once took a hint.
“Maybe he’s heeere,” she crowed, sweeping her arms across her body as if she had just been crowned Miss Universe. Although in her black wool skirt suit and grey helmet haircut, she looked more like a chaperone than a beauty queen.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said to discourage her.
“Look,” she said, “They’re passing red wine.”
I left mom to focus on getting a glass of wine and grabbed the chance to investigate.
“Did Cousin Jack have a son from a first marriage?” I asked my first cousin while keeping an eye on my Mom.
“Not that I know of,” she said becoming very animated. “Why? What did you hear?”
“My mother mentioned something about it,” I said offhandedly, turning to my second cousin sitting nearby.
“Have you heard anything about Jack having a son from a previous marriage to a woman named Judy?”
“No,” he replied happily, “but I’m learning new details about our family every day.”
I was about to go into further discussion when I saw my mother dislodge herself from her wine glass and start to head towards the mourners. I excused myself and went to stop her.
“I’m going to ask,” she said, as she slipped passed me. She was approaching Jack’s adult kids, their spouses and children all of whom were sitting at a table and eating marinated vegetables and cured meats. I had to shut my mother down and fast.
“Mom,” I said jumping in front of her. “You can’t ask his kids if they have a half-brother. What if they’ve never heard of him? You’re being rude. Please, let me handle it! I’ll try and find out.” I had my hands on my hips and I felt sweat start to trickle down the front of my yellow silk dress. I should have known yellow silk was a bad idea.
She sniffed the air in response. There was no turning back.
“Okay, we’ll ask John,” I said.
My uncle John, Dad’s older brother, was standing by the kitchen waiting for a waiter to emerge with more nibbles. I approached him with my mother trailing behind.
“Uncle John, did Jack have a son with a woman named Judy?”
“I miss your father,” he said, “he was the best of us.”
“Yes, yes, dad was wonderful,” I said. I knew he missed my Dad. Burying your baby brother is never easy, especially if you had him to kick around for almost nine decades.
“But did Jack have a son?”
“Maybe,” John said, turning away to speak to his wife.
I went back to tending to my mother.
“Mom, let’s discuss it later,” I said with a firmness I hoped was persuasive enough.
“Don’t be silly,” she said taking an olive off of Uncle John’s plate, “let’s just ask Jack’s daughter-in-law. I’m sure she knows which one of these guests is her husband’s half-brother.”
Mom was on the move. I lunged after her but she was too fast. She slid through a gap caused by a wheelchair bearing an octogenarian and a waiter holding full glasses of red wine. I had about ten seconds before my mother would reach her target; it was up to me to stop her and save the memorial from total disruption
Fortunately, an aunt grabbed my mom’s sleeve and whispered into her ear. I sent up a silent prayer – please keep mom engaged until I can get us out of here. I was five steps away from Jack’s daughter-in-law and son when I saw that mom had dislodged the aunt.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I improvised loudly, “but my mother and I have to leave. She isn’t feeling well. We hate to miss lunch but we wouldn’t want to get anyone sick.”
Before she could ask her question, the family wished her a speedy recovery and backed away from any contagion hovering in their vicinity. I grabbed mom’s arm and guided her away.
We made it to the front door when I heard a wail followed by gasps and commotion coming from behind us. Uncle John was leaning in towards Jack’s sons. My cousin was tugging on her father’s arm begging him to stop talking.
Mom shed her Brooklyn accent and reverted to her normal fake British one.
“You know,” she said, carefully enunciating each sound, “I don’t mind leaving early because your father never cared for Jack. You know….”
This was classic mom. If she couldn’t disrupt his memorial, the least she could do was malign his character with a list of everything wrong with the man.
“Mom, wait here,” I said, interrupting her, “I want to say goodbye to my cousin.”
I left her by the front door applying lipstick with the concentration of an artist. Compact mirror in hand, she smeared each side of her lips with a deep brown stain.
When I reached my cousin’s table, I didn’t even have to ask.
“My dad spilled the beans. He went right over to ask about their half-brother. That’s why they’re so upset. Dad said that Jack was married and divorced and gave up custody of his young son. He must have been ashamed. He never told anyone. But my dad knew. Maybe your dad knew too. Until now, Jack’s kids had no idea that they have a half-brother. Well, now they know.”
She didn’t seem to be blaming me. But I knew that it was me not my mother who created all the trouble.
“So he’s not here?” I asked unwilling to drop it.
We kissed goodbye and I headed over to my mom.
“Let’s go,” I said, pulling her towards the door and fanning the growing sweat stain on the front of my yellow dress, “I’m not feeling well at all.”