Photo via Visual hunt
Arletta’s hands trembled as she pulled the old shoe shine kit out of the cedar chest. “Grandma, why do you have that weird box in there?” Leticia, her granddaughter, asked in a bored tone.
“It isn’t a weird box, Tisha,” Arletta said. “It’s a shoe shine kit. But what’s in here is even more precious to me than some old boot black and scrub brush.”
She opened it up, shaking fingers fumbling with the latch, and took out a pile of letters carefully tied with black string, a pen and some ink, and a stack of black and white photos. “Are those from grandpa?” Leticia asked, still not showing any interest.
“No. They’re from the man I was married to in secret before I met your grandfather,” Arletta said.
Now she had her granddaughter’s attention. “You had a secret marriage, Grandma?”
Arletta nodded. “I always told your grandfather that your Uncle Robert was my sister Gloria’s son, and that I adopted him after she died from tuberculosis.”
“I take it that’s not true,” Leticia said.
“No. Robert is my son. See, Lloyd and I came from two different sides of town. His father was a banker while mine was a coal miner. We wouldn’t have even met if I hadn’t quite literally bumped into him while taking some of our excess eggs to the grocer to sell. We lived in a pretty small community, so we could still do that. I was pretty back then, with cherry red hair and dark blue eyes. Everyone thought I was the belle of the village. Lloyd was rugged and handsome. He was the star quarterback of the football team.”
“He sounds cooler than grandpa,” Leticia said.
“Oh, he had his flaws,” Arletta said with a fond little smile. “But it was worth putting up with them to be around him.” She stared down at the pictures. “We started dating. We took our outings to Detroit, since that was the nearest big city where no one would really recognize us. Then we went to a church in Detroit one day, found a couple witnesses on the street, and got married. We moved to Detroit – him to work in a bank to get “experience in the family business without the taint of nepotism” – and me in an office. We were really lucky to get those jobs. Most banks were closing down and lots of offices were shutting their doors too. The Great Depression didn’t spare many people.”
“So what happened to Lloyd?” Leticia asked.
“World War 2,” Arletta said. “After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. He was a strong, fit man and was snapped up pretty quick. He was just twenty, and me nineteen, when he left. We’d been trying for a few months to have a baby, but it didn’t look like we were successful, and I was glad because it was going to be awful hard to take care of a baby while he was gone.” She caressed the pile of letters. “These are all his letters to me. He never told me about the bad things going on over there. He always had a funny story to share, talked about how we’d build us a new house outside of Detroit to raise a family in, and we’d finally tell our parents about us being married because the war was making him realize just what was really important.” She bowed her head. “Then the letters stopped coming.”
“Did he die?” Leticia asked.
Arletta nodded. “I didn’t know for so long. They ignored me as next of kin and went back to his parents, since they claimed he wasn’t married. It took your Aunt Gloria, who was already really sick at that point, writing me a letter and telling me how I’d missed ‘the biggest funeral the town had ever seen.'”
“How long had he been away?” Leticia asked.
“Seven months,” Arletta said. “I was very pregnant when I got the news. I sent a reply to Gloria, begging her to come to Detroit if she could. She arrived just in time to see Robert delivered. My name is on his birth certificate as his mother, but I left the father line purposely blank. The doctor and the nurses were not pleased by this, and offered up community services for us, but I refused. I took Robert home and Gloria stayed with me and helped me take care of him until she passed away when he was four. To this day, Robert thinks Gloria was his mother, but it’s time for him to know the truth.”
Leticia went through some of the pictures. “Grandma, is this Lloyd?” she asked, gesturing to a handsome soldier in a uniform.
“Yes, that’s my beloved Lloyd,” Arletta said. “We’re standing together outside the recruitment station in Detroit.”
“Grandma, there’s a man at the nursing home I work at with this same picture, right down to a woman wearing an identical dress,” Leticia said. “He told me she was his first and only wife, that he never had another even though he’d been reported dead. He didn’t have the courage to return home after that and lived overseas for most of his life.”
“What’s his name?” Arletta asked.
“He goes by the name of Jack,” Leticia said.
Arletta’s hands shook. “Jack was what we all called Lloyd. Because when he was a teenager, he tried a bit of everything to see what it was he liked to do. He became a ‘jack of all trades.'”
“Grandma, you have to come see him,” Leticia said. “Now. He’s got cancer, so he isn’t going to last much longer.”
“Let’s go,” Arletta said, putting the letters aside and standing up. “I have to know if it’s him.”
Leticia drove her grandmother to the large nursing home where she worked as a CNA on the swing shift. They walked in and Leticia beelined it for a very familiar room. There, propped up in his bed, was a rugged looking man with a massive scar on one side of his face.
He smiled when Leticia walked in the room. “Tisha, I thought you had today off,” he said.
“I do. Jack, you said you had a wife a long time ago,” Leticia said. “What was her name?”
“Arletta, though I called her Lettie,” Jack said with a wistful look in his eye. “I miss her something terrible every day. Today’s especially hard since it would have been our sixty seventh wedding anniversary.”
“It is our sixty seventh wedding anniversary,” Arletta said, stepping into the room, tears streaming down her face.
“Lettie?” Jack tried to sit up more. Leticia adjusted the back of the bed so he had the support he needed.
Arletta went to his side. “Jack, why didn’t you write me? Or come home? All these years I thought you were dead.”
“I felt like I was,” Jack said. “Lettie, I haven’t been able to walk properly since the end of the war. I’m blind in the eye with all the scars. How was I supposed to take care of you? I couldn’t take care of myself. I let everyone think I was dead and tried to get on as best as I could in England. But something in me made me come home five years ago.”
“I remarried, Jack. When they told me you were dead,” Arletta said. “Five years after your funeral. I’ve got a daughter from that marriage. That’s Leticia’s mother.” She took a deep breath. “But we’ve got a son, Jack. His name’s Robert. He don’t know we’re his parents. I told him he was Gloria’s. I never stopped hurting enough all these years to tell him the truth.”
“You have to, Lettie. I don’t have long, and I’m guessing you don’t either,” Jack said. Arletta shook her head. “We have to tell him right away. Call him down here right now.”
“I’m on it,” Leticia said. “What do you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him that deep, dark family secret he’s always suspected is coming out and he needs to be here for it,” Arletta said through her tears. She clutched Jack’s hand. “That’ll bring him faster than anything.” Leticia dialed her uncle’s number while the aged lovers simply stared into each other’s eyes.