Relatives in the Neighbourhood
Maria opened the door wearily. She’d fitted in cleaning five houses today working quickly. After many years, she’d perfected a system, speed and a quick eye made her a sought-after professional at her work. She was sometimes envious of servants in rich houses whose jobs were specific and less onerous. But her overall monetary reward for speed and excellence made it prudent she stay with cleaning.
Jeffrey rushed to greet her holding out the photo in excitement,
Maria paused in shock as she studied the photo.
“Where did you get this Jeffrey?” There was an unfamiliar hardness in her voice. She took the photo and went to the lounge to sit down taking the photo with her. She sat and studied the photo for a while then turned to face her son who was looking distressed at having upset his Mom. Her heart went out to him. He was too young to understand. She beckoned him to come sit beside her and placed her arm around him. Mother and son studied each other silently. At last Maria sighed and decided to act.
“Wait here Jeffrey.”
Maria returned holding something close to her heart. She unrolled it and showed it to her son. He read it slowly it was his parent’s wedding certificate. Maria retrieved and carefully rolled the certificate again. She smiled at Jeffrey.
“One evening at a dance your father told me he was being shipped overseas to fight in the war. We’d been seeing each other when he was on leave for one year and had fallen in love. I was so unhappy to hear he was leaving and asked if he was serious about our relationship we should be married before he left. At first your Father said no. He knew there was a chance he wouldn’t come back from that war and felt it unfair to ask me to marry him. But I kept pressing him and at last his need for me overcame his concern that I’d possibly be left with a child he wouldn’t be able to nurture. The army was good to him and arranged a special leave before he was shipped out and when we heard that we rushed to a registry office and got married.”
You didn’t know this, but Mrs Jones is a distant relative. Your grandparents arranged for me to stay there when I was transferred from our little town to this city working for a bank. She’d hoped I’d get interested in her son whose room you were cleaning out. She must have found this photo of the two of us during happier times when we were close friends. When she found out I’d gone ahead and married your father she asked me to move out. I had a friend from the bank whose parents took me in, then I found I was expecting you so had to stop working at the bank when things began to get complicated. They used to mind you when you’d been weaned, and I could go looking for work again. I don’t know what Mrs Jones told your grandparents, but when I told them I’d married and wanted to come home while expecting you they refused. Maybe they thought I really wasn’t married. People thought that way in those days. We haven’t been in contact since then.
Jeffry looked puzzled.
“Why didn’t you go to Dad’s house, it looks like they have lots of money and could have looked after us?”
Maria shook her head. “Your Dad’s Mom and Dad are very important people high up in social circles. They’d picked out someone of their class to marry your Dad, but he refused because he was in love with me. They too refused to recognize we were married, but when your Dad was killed at war they wanted to take you off me to raise themselves and claimed that I was unable to support you and I had to fight hard to keep you. The old couple I was staying with paid lawyers to help me keep custody over you. Perhaps I was selfish in wanting to keep you?” Maria looked at her son anxiously.
“I don’t like any of my grandparents Mom, I’m glad you wanted to keep me!” Jeffrey snuggled into his Mom’s arms.
Jeffrey stood outside Mrs Jones home and thought about the conversation with his Mom the evening before. He’d never liked Mrs Jones, but she’d always given him work when no one else would, and he and his Mom needed that money. He put on a brave face and strode to the door pressing the chime button.
After cleaning the room Mrs Jones gave him money then put up her hand motioning him to stay.
“Tell your Mother to come and see me tomorrow. It’s very important she come.”
Jeffrey nodded and excused himself. Why did she want his Mom to visit, was she unhappy with the work he’d done? Jeffrey reviewed the work he’d done over the last two days. He felt he’d done a good job. Why would she be wanting to talk with his Mom?
That evening Jeffrey told Maria Mrs Jones wanted to see her. Maria’s face clouded over briefly then she changed the subject. They lived on the same street but hadn’t talked since Mrs Jones had asked her to leave. She blamed the old lady for the rift with her parents too. Maria could not understand why Mrs Jones had first offered Jeffrey gardening work, perhaps she felt guilty over her treatment to Maria long ago?
So, when Maria arrived at the door while Jeffrey was in school she was ready to do battle. The old woman let her in and silently gestured to the lounge. There was an awkward silence before the old lady spoke.
“I treated you very badly and this has been on my conscience over the years. I realized soon after you moved into that rented house in our street who you were, and I think you recognized me when I was able to do my exercise walks. I was able to do that in those days. It has been a few years since I was able to move around freely. There were so many times I wanted to come and beg for your forgiveness but the thought of having to face you and the probability of being rebuffed prevented me at the last moment each time. I tried to redeem myself by employing your son when he was looking for work after school but realize that’s not enough. You deserve a face to face apology.”
Maria sighed. The old woman’s apology didn’t erase the hurt she’d nurtured all these years, but she felt sorry for her. It was time to get something settled and then she’d tell the woman she forgave her and leave even though there was no forgiveness in her heart. She could see the old woman had suffered with guilt for a long time. But what was her guilt? She had to know.
“You were my distant relative and I thought we had a good relationship until I told you I couldn’t love your son because I loved another. We’d not been into a romantic relationship so I’d not in any way misled your son and as far as I could gather he had no expectations about a relationship with me. I know you tried to encourage such a match for most of the time I was boarding with you, but never did I give that urging any encouragement. I showed you my marriage licence and that drove a wedge between us. But why did my parents get the impression Jeffry was born out of wedlock? Surely you wouldn’t do that to me?”
The old woman sobbed. “That is the reason for my guilt. I lied to them and it shocked their conservative values and I later received a letter from them to say I should tell you never to set foot in their home again as you’d be a bad influence on their other children. I wrote a long letter to them last week confessing my guilt and begging their forgiveness. I haven’t received a response and don’t expect them to send one.”
Maria’s face coloured as she processed what she’d guessed to be the story. She was angry with the old woman but even more angry with her parents who’d written her off without investigating what the truth was for themselves. Jeffrey had been denied the privilege of knowing his kin and cousins and it was so wrong. She stood to leave.
As she arose to leave she addressed the old woman coldly. “I forgive you!” She began to move toward the door. At least she didn’t have to guess now, she knew the truth. She paused at the door.
“Why are you telling me this now after all these years?”
The old woman smiled bitterly. “I’ve been struggling with cancer for a long time, but the latest test indicates I only have a brief time left and this evening I enter hospital for my final time there. The doctor is amazed I’ve stayed on in the house by myself and in pain this long. I wanted to make things right as best I could before I face death alone.”
To be continued.
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