I was around 14 the first time I heard about my family’s mysterious past.
It’s a story that begins, ironically, in a closet, with a small folded piece of paper.
It was my aunt who found it – rummaging around in her linen cupboard one afternoon during our annual summer visit to her house in New Brunswick; her birth certificate, neatly folded and tucked away there for “safekeeping.”
Until that day I had only ever heard one version of my mother’s family’s past: the poor one.
“Raised on bread and molasses in a tar paper shack in the backwoods of New Brunswick,” they all said, my mother and her siblings, “our teeth rotting out of our heads.”
I had seen the proof – in that old black and white photo of a group of people who stood once, in front of a log cabin. My mother, a baby, perched on my grandmothers lap.
But that birth certificate was about to tell another story.
It was a frail thing that blue, folded piece of piece of paper.
I remember looking at it, my eyes latching almost instantly to those words across the top: City of New York. My brain slowing down, trying to process something I can’t quite understand: I have no idea what those words are doing there.
There had been no stories about New York growing up. No gathering of the clan around a kitchen table reminiscing about “those days”. No old photos displayed on tables or hallway walls (I would find out much later that they did exist – but it would take years to get them). In that moment: There. Was. Nothing.
When I asked her about it, my aunt laughed.
“Oh gosh … gosh, that was so long ago now …”
But yes. Yes, they had lived in Brooklyn. On Gates Avenue. She had always remembered that, but she doesn’t know why. And she came over the Canadian border in the middle of the night under a tarp in the the back of a truck.
I hear words like “awakened”, dark”, “rushed”.
Now I was 14, but I was old enough to know that something about what she was saying didn’t make sense. First of all, I couldn’t make the connection between a place like Brooklyn and the tar paper shack. And I didn’t understand the stuff about the middle of the night? Things only got murkier as she told me about leaving all their “nice things” behind … the dishes, the carpets, the furniture.
“But … why?” I blurted out. “That is so weird. Why did you leave like … THAT?”
It was then I felt a slight hesitation creep into the room; the first of many over the next several years.
My aunt looked down.
“Well … well … there was some kind of trouble, I think.”
And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, New York was gone again. That piece of paper folded up, put back in it’s place, and the closet door firmly closed.
That night I lay awake in my aunt’s small spare room, staring at the dim silhouette of a macramé plant hanger in the corner. I couldn’t stop thinking about that frail thing; of that life folded up and tucked away.
And of that place way down. That hole in my family’s history – something disturbed there now, reaching for air.
A secret somewhere, gasping.