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The Writing Life
"Cousin Mary"
by Sandy Tritt

What is the truth? And is the truth always more honest than fabrication? More noble?

I don’t know. It makes my head hurt. But here I sit at the Crystal Cafe, waiting for my sisters. Stuffed inside my purse is the truth. The real truth. And I have just a few minutes to decide whether or not to reveal it.

I am Sadie, the quiet one in the family, the one who listens and watches and writes. In fact, I was the first one to notice Mary, although I’m sure Bobbi Jo will try to claim she was. I was also the first one to realize that Mary could be our Mary, and the first one who said so. Of course, Bobbi Jo called me the very next day after I said it and screamed, “Red-headed Mary is our cousin! I just know it. We’ve gotta get down to the courthouse and check it out!”

I just rolled my eyes. I learned a long time ago that trying to set Bobbi Jo straight on anything is a waste of good words. Once she makes up her mind about the way things happened, there’s no convincing her of the truth.

And there I am using that word again. The Truth. It’s only 7:55, so I should have ten more minutes before my niece Terri drops her kids off at the grade school and my sister Shirley drops her mid-life surprise off at preschool, and Bobbi Jo’s migraine medicine kicks in and she remembers to pick up Mother.

We’ve been meeting down here every Wednesday since me and Shirley moved back to town within weeks of each other in 1993. It’s no wonder we know all the regulars.

And Mary is as regular as they come. She arrives at exactly 8:30, her lipstick perfect, her orange hair rolled and brushed, her crimson nail polish unchipped. Like us, she has a near-perfect complexion that makes it hard to believe she’s pushing seventy. But she must be. She’s already confessed that she retired more than ten years ago.

Mother had her seventy-fifth birthday right here at the Crystal in August.
Everyone thought she was sixty-something. Of course, when Bobbi Jo turns fifty in February, they’ll not believe that either.

Anyway, back to Mary. The first time I noticed her, Bobbi Jo was telling us about her and Shirley getting kicked out of Walmart. Seems like they price-checked one time too many. But Bobbi Jo has a knack for telling a story, and we were making more than just a little noise laughing at her animation. Of course, I snort when I laugh, which makes everyone laugh even harder, and I figured we very well could be the first people to ever get kicked out of the Crystal.

And then I saw Mary. She sat at the next table, alone, watching us with a smile. She didn’t say anything; she just sat there.

The next week, Shirley told us about finding a cocaine addict in the dumpster while she was dumpster digging. Now, Shirley isn’t homeless. In fact, she lives on one of the nicest streets in town and drives a Mercedes (so what if it’s ten years old, it still has that neat little hood ornament), but she’s about as tight as my high school leather pants and digs through trash to find UPC’s to turn in for rebates. And she can spin a tale, too.  So, as I snorted and covered my mouth and snorted louder, I again saw Mary watching us.

Only this time, she stood. She walked over to our table and said, “I think it’s so wonderful to see a family get together like this.”

Bobbi Jo said something nasty, but she didn’t say it loud enough for anyone to hear.

“Be good, Mom,” Terri said. Terri is kind of quiet, too, at least at breakfast. I hear she causes quite a racket at the VFW on Bingo night, but she usually doesn’t say much in the mornings.

“Family is important,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I said. “We gotta hang out together. No one else would put up with us.”

“Family is important,” Mary repeated, and I knew right then that she was a retired school teacher. She had that carriage to her, you know, that way of holding herself that speaks of authority and that says you shouldn’t argue with her.

So I didn’t.

But you know Bobbi Jo. She always has to get the last word in. “That’s why we eat dinner at the county jail,” she said. “So we can be with the rest of our family.”

Mary, thankfully, ignored her. “You are very lucky to have a family.” She smiled again, then turned and paid her bill.

After that, we started inviting her to sit with us. It just felt like she belonged, know what I mean? And even though Bobbi Jo tried to make us all sound like scoundrels and misfits, Mary saw through it. She treated us with dignity.

Week by week, bit by bit, she told us about her life. She’d been adopted when she was five and raised by a very nice but proper family in the next town. She’d always wanted to be part of a large family, but she was the only child. Money, though, was never a problem, so she took dance lessons and piano lessons and voice lessons, and after she went to college as her daddy insisted, she took a side trip to New York. Ended up on Broadway, holding leads in several musicals. It wasn’t until 1958 that she returned to West Virginia. That was the year her daddy had a heart attack, and she came home to be with him.

She never went back. She put her teaching degree to work and taught grammar school for the next thirty years. She married twice, but never had children. And now that her parents—and both husbands—were dead, she was alone.

The week it hit me was the week we went to lunch instead of breakfast. We sat at the corner table at Bob Evans, being obnoxious and noisy, giving fake lottery tickets to our waiter and carrying on.

And then Bobbi Jo, the one who always keeps things loud, got quiet. She looked at Mother and said, “I want to find Little Mary.”

Everyone shut up and watched Mother.

Mother thought about it, then nodded. “It’s time.”

We all knew the story about Little Mary. Mother’s oldest sister had Little Mary out of wedlock at the age of fifteen. In 1931. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Little Mary wasn’t entirely white. I gotta give Aunt Molly credit for keeping her as long as she did. It couldn’t have been easy for her. But finally, she gave in to pressure and gave Little Mary up for adoption.

But Aunt Molly has been dead now for ten years and Bobbi Jo thought if we were ever to find our lost cousin, we’d better do it soon.

Mother agreed. Bobbi Jo wrote down all the details as Mother recited the dates and the names and everything she could remember.

And that’s when it hit me. Mary. Little Mary. The age was right. And Mary did resemble us, all of us, especially Aunt Molly—the same wrinkle-free skin and the same blue/green eyes and the same broad nose. And scariest of all, the same sense of humor. Most people thought we were deranged; she sought us out and thought we were funny.

“You know,” I said, “maybe Mary is Little Mary.”

“Mary who?” Bobbi Jo asked, feeling up the waiter and making him drop a whole tray of ice waters.

“Red-headed Mary.” I waited until the commotion died down and said, “She looks like us.”

Mother shook her head. “Little Mary had black in her.”

“You said her father was very light-skinned,” Shirley said.

Mother shook her head again. “It couldn’t be.”

“You told us little Mary loved to dance and sing,” Shirley insisted. “And red-headed Mary performed on Broadway.”

Mother’s brow folded and her lip quivered and we all know it really could be.
   
That next week at breakfast, we all eyed Mary. And it all checked out. She was short and stocky, she had curly hair, she even laughed as Bobbi Jo crawled on her knees to propose to an Elvis-look-alike. And again, she told us how much we needed to appreciate having a family, how nice it was to have someone to enjoy the holidays with, to have someone who is always there, no matter what.

“Maybe you’ll find out you have a family, too,” Bobbi Jo said, and we all gave her the evil eye. 

Mary just smiled.

And so, here I sit, with the official proof in my purse. Bobbi Jo couldn’t get down to the courthouse and Shirley had to drive her mother-in-law to Columbus, so I got stuck with the job. Of course, they all called me last night and begged me to tell them what I found out, but I refused. And then I made static with aluminum foil and pulled the plug on the phone and locked all my doors. I even made my kids crawl through the doggie-door this morning, knowing Bobbi Jo could be lurking anywhere. For someone who’s going to be fifty next month, her knees are in pretty good shape.

But do I show them the document? Is the truth really important?

We’ve already invited Mary to Bobbi Jo’s big 5-0 breakfast. We found photographs of Aunt Molly to give her. We even went ahead and added her name to our annual gift exchange drawing, which we do in January so we have all year to hunt for bargains.

So does it matter if she is related to us by blood or not? Does it matter that the real Little Mary died eight years ago?

I don’t have to look up. I can tell by the commotion that Bobbi Jo is here, bringing Shirley, Terri and Mother with her.

“Well?” they demand, circling me.

I shrug. “I couldn’t find out a thing,” I lie. “There’s no documentation on Little Mary at all.”

Everyone sits down, suddenly quiet. Deciding what to order for breakfast becomes difficult. No one talks; not even Bobbi Jo can think of any good stories to tell.

Finally, at 8:30, the door opens and Mary enters. She walks to our table and hangs her hat, just like she belongs here.

“You better sit down, Mary,” Bobbi Jo says, “Cause do we ever have a story to tell you today.” She gets out the photos of Aunt Molly and baby Mary.

And then I know the truth. The real truth.

And the real truth isn’t found in legal documents at the courthouse and the real truth isn’t found in blood tests. The real truth is something that happens in your heart.

Welcome to the family, Mary.


© 1997. Sandy Tritt. Published in Mountain Echoes (2004); in Mountain Voices (2006)





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