Sarah, Returned--Chapter Nine (A Steemit Original Novel)
Well, the box is open and I’m still alive, so I guess this wasn’t a horrible mistake after all. Now, to find out what Grandma was hiding in here.
Let’s see. There are six old black and white photos on top of a stack of folded papers; these are the same photos Grandma used to show Matt and me on special occasions. Almost of them are from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. I think one may be from the late 1940’s, based on the hairstyles and clothing. Most of them are photos of my grandparents together at significant moments in their married life. There is one from a trip to the Grand Canyon, one at Niagara Falls, one in London. There are two of Grandma when she was pregnant, one with each son; Grandpa is putting his hands on her bulging belly in the second. Finally, there is a photo of Matt’s dad, Caleb, at a birthday party that is clearly for him. From his appearance, I would guess he’s about two here. Grandpa is helping him blow out the candles, while Grandma holds my dad, Elijah, who is a brand new baby.
It’s sweet, but, I’ve seen all these before. Being an astute child, I once asked Grandma who was taking all of these photos. She told me it was a relative, and, having no reason to doubt her, I took it at that. In hindsight, it probably was someone who is related, but who? Jacob? Or someone else? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to learn there were other family members who were kept hidden from us.
It doesn’t matter, I suppose. It’s just one of those weird questions you start to wonder more about as you get older, after you find out the grandmother who raised you was not who she presented herself to be, and actually led a double life. You know, like everyone deals with at some point.
Geez. I roll my eyes at myself. I’m becoming cynical already, and that is so not me. Who cares who took the photos, unless it was Grandma’s secret evil twin? Time to get down to those papers underneath. Those are where the real secrets will be, if this box actually contains any. It's hard to believe there won't be something useful. After all, these are the things Grandma took such care to make sure Matt and I never so much as thought about touching.
My hands shake a little when I take the pictures out of the box and tuck them in my open purse for safekeeping. This is uncharted, and possibly life-changing, territory.
The first thing underneath the photos is a thin sheet of brittle, antique paper folded neatly into a perfect square. Putting my fingers on it is almost a supernatural experience, and I check around for signs of ghosts. Silly, I know, but still firmly ingrained in my psyche.
Thanks, Grandma (and, yes, that was sarcastic, in case you didn’t get the inflection on the other side).
Come on. It’s just a paper, Sarah, with more papers under them. Grandma’s papers. Her secrets. No, don’t think that way. She doesn’t have to keep these things to herself anymore. Maybe, just maybe, she would want you to pass down her legacy. At any rate, nothing bad is going to happen if you touch, look at, or read them. Get a grip.
Grandma’s elegant, straight up-and-down handwriting is recognizable the moment I unfold the first corner. By the time I have the whole thing delicately smoothed out on my lap, it’s clear it’s a journal entry. But, it's just one page. What happened to the rest of the journal? Maybe it’s the only page she ever wrote. Or, if there was more, this is the only page she felt was worth saving. That’s got to mean something. It’s dated February 3, 1938, a year before she met Grandpa James. It’s also short, which is good because the pencil she used to write it has faded significantly with time, making it rather hard to read, even with the miniature flashlight on my keyring beaming directly on it.
“It’s been a week since I arrived, and I still don’t know what to make of this place. Everything is so different than it is at home. The clothing, the way both men and women wear their hair, even the way of speaking. It is English, but the way words are used is sometimes unusual, and the accents I hear are softer and less pronounced than the way any New Englanders I know speak them. There are some words I don’t recognize at all. The buildings are so tall, and all of these strange machines are so confusing. I’m not sure what any of them do, how they work, or why they are needed. Where are all the horses? I haven’t seen a single once since I got here. The man at the general store tells me the farmers have them, out on the edges of town. Instead, people travel in these little metal boxes on wheels, without horses, or any other visible means to make them move. Pavement covers most of the grass. Even the wooden sidewalks in front of the stores are gone, replaced with what I'm told is cement. You don’t light a lamp here. You simply illuminate it by flipping a switch or turning a tiny knob. I don’t know if I’ll ever fit in, but how can I go home? I don’t even know how I got here, much less how to go back. Oh, I miss my family. Father and all my little sisters and brothers…what will they think became of me? Is this what happened to Mother, and to Grandfather before her? I may never know. All I do know is that I must learn to make my way in this strange, new place, or I will starve, if I don’t freeze first. My dear family, wherever you are, pray for me.—Elizabeth Sarah Otis”
Okay, what? That sounds like she just landed in Oz, and is realizing she isn’t in Kansas anymore. You can’t tell me she’d never seen modern technology before. Cars and electric lights were common by the 1930’s, and she wasn’t born in the sticks. She was born and raised right here in Dover. At least, that’s what we always assumed. New rule: never assume anything where Grandma is concerned.
This journal entry makes it sound like she wandered into Dover from a foreign country. It also tells me she had siblings and a dad, as well as a missing mother and grandfather. Wandering around town, confused and alone...did she lose her family along the way? Maybe they were moving to Dover from elsewhere, and got separated? It still doesn’t explain the confusion about tall buildings and basic technology, though. None of it makes sense.
But, there is one useful detail. Her maiden name. Otis. I’ve always known it, but the significance hits me now for the first time. She had to be from Dover. The Otis family was a big deal in Dover's early days as a European settlement. Every school kid here learns of the infamous 1689 raid on the town by some rightfully disgruntled Penacook natives, where a quarter of the residents were either killed or kidnapped into slavery to the French in Canada. Only a handful escaped. The Otis family was particularly hard hit, with their entire, massively fortified garrison house being burned to the ground; the family patriarch, Richard Otis was killed, along with his grown son Stephen and two-year-old daughter Hannah. His third wife, Grizel Warren, baby daughter Margaret, daughter-in-law Mary Pittman Otis, and numerous grandchildren were among the kidnapped. One granddaughter, Mary, daughter of Stephen, was ransomed back before she reached Canada, and baby Margaret returned years later as a grown woman, but the rest stayed in Canada the rest of their lives. There isn’t an Otis in town who isn’t descended from that family. Grandma has to be a Dover native.
Grandma, you are an enigma. What are you hiding?
There’s no better way to get answers than digging in the exact place you’re most likely to find them. So, with steadier fingers this time, I begin lifting more papers out of the box. There are some mundane things, like a few report cards where her sons got all A’s, some tiny pieces of art they made her when they were toddlers, and even locks of hair from both boys’ first haircuts. Personal mementos. I can see why she wouldn’t want them to be disturbed.
What else is in here? A copy of her GED. I didn’t know she ever got one. Her driver’s license, with a sticky note attached, stating with some pride that it was her first. Issued in 1970. Wow. She took her time learning to drive a car. And, score! The license lists her birthdate. Here it is, finally. May 3, 1919, four years younger than Grandpa. That means she was 51 before she got this. Aw. No wonder she was proud. I smile, proud for her.
Okay. This is some good information. I don’t know why she felt the need to hide her age or birthday. Well, maybe I can understand the age thing, since back in those days, it was considered unladylike to talk openly about a woman’s age...though, going to such lengths to hide it seems extreme. Even if she wanted to hid the year, why couldn’t we know the month and day of her birth, so we could celebrate it with her?
A few questions answered is good. More is better. And, the box isn’t empty yet. Underneath a thin film of nearly translucent tissue paper are some extremely old photographs. Ooh, delightful. I love old photos, and there are a distinct lack of them in our family, besides the few I just skimmed off the top of the box. These are ancient. My minor at school is History, so I know at a glance these are daguerreotypes, one of the earliest commercially available forms of photography. It was invented in 1837, and began being used by the public as early as 1839. However, most people didn’t pick up on its use until the 1840’s, and then, it was mostly extremely wealthy or famous people who had their photographs done, because it was expensive.
That’s how we have photographs of such famous historical figures as John Quincy Adams and Dolly Madison from the 1840’s; they were some of the earliest subjects of photography because of their fame and money. Grandma was insanely wealthy, but I can’t count on her birth family being so, because she seems to have literally misplaced them. That means these photos most likely date from the 1850’s or early 1860’s, when photography began to become affordable for the middle class. There are four of these lovely historic photos in the box, and they are all behind glass in their original metal frames, with little paper labels in Grandma’s typewriter-perfect print on their backs, attached behind little windows of Scotch tape. Now, this might be useful. Ancestors, maybe? Grandma’s grandparents or great-grandparents? That would be incredible.
Let’s see, what have we here? An elderly woman dressed in clothing that is old-fashioned even for the era. Lots of elderly people clung to the fashions of their youth back then, simply because they were familiar, and it was cheaper than buying the materials to make new clothes, or have a seamstress make them a new wardrobe to reflect their venerable status. She’s wrinkled, and looks like she wears her old age proudly. The back is labeled, “Grandmother Jane (Pittman) Wentworth, 10 years after Grandfather disappeared.”
Grandmother? Grandma couldn’t possibly have a grandmother who was already elderly in the 1850’s. A 2x or even 3x great-grandmother, maybe, but not a grandmother. It’s clearly Grandma’s writing on the label, though.
What the hell?