“Footfalls echo in the memory,
down the passage which we did not take,
towards the door we never opened.”
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
Enter mother’s maiden name.
He had never thought so often about his mother until he started establishing accounts on the Internet. It seemed like each time he filled out an application online, he was asked for this information as a security question. John Patrick Kilroy Jr. had established a small number of accounts using this new technology and had even purchased a few items last Christmas. The more he used it, the more he liked it and the more websites he signed up for.
From the comfort of his Georgetown condominium, he typed in S-C-A-L-I-S-E.
Kilroy already felt guilty enough for not visiting his mother’s grave as often as he should. He knew he should take some time off from his job as a reporter for the Washington Times and make the trip to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens. If he didn’t do it nobody else would. He was an only child. His mother had no siblings. His father abandoned them years before and they had no contact since.
He finished establishing an account on a new website called eBay, signed off his PC and leaned back in his chair. Staring at the ceiling he swiveled around and looked again at the cardboard box he had carefully placed on the top shelf of his floor-to-ceiling bookcase. It was hard to believe his mother was actually gone for an entire year. When he first received this package from her a week before she passed away, he immediately opened the letter attached to it. As soon as he finished reading it he dialed her number.
“Hi Mom, it’s me.”
“Hello J.P. How’s my darling boy?” He picked up the nickname early in life. It made it easier to distinguish between the two ‘Johns’ in the Kilroy household.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been up to see you, Mom.” He was more than just sorry. He had only been up to see her once since she was diagnosed. Between his job and his own personal problems, he just couldn’t get away. At least that is what he told himself. “But…”
“It’s all right son,” she interrupted before he could make his excuses. “They’re very attentive here at the facility and I’m comfortable. No worries.” She was smiling through the pain. He could hear it in her voice.
“That’s good, Mom. Look, I got your package and I read the letter and I just wanted to say…”
She didn’t let him finish. “Did you call your father?”
“No Mom, I just got the package today. I read the letter but I didn’t open the box yet.”
“J.P., listen to me.” He sensed the urgency in her voice. “You need to promise me after you open the box you’ll go to your father and get this family business out in the open.”
“Ma!” J.P. complained. “He left us thirty years ago. I have no use for him. For the life of me I don’t understand why you don’t hate him as much as I do.” J.P. knew why. His mother was a saint and she was all about love and forgiveness, even to the man who abandoned them so abruptly so long ago.
“Son, listen to me,” she replied. “First of all, I don’t have room in my heart for hate, especially now.” She was referring to her terminal cancer. “But more importantly, there cannot be family secrets which span generations. Some things should not remain unknown or misunderstood for so long. You must speak to your father. Promise me.”
John sighed. “Why don’t you just tell me?”
“Perhaps I should. But you really need to talk to your dad.”
“All right, Mom. I’ll find out where he is and I’ll contact him.”
“He’s in Bedford, Virginia. Promise?”
“Yes, of course. I promise.”
“Very good. One more thing. Can you get up to see me? Soon? We’ll talk. Maybe I can share some things with you. Make it easier when you talk to your father.”
“Sure Mom, I’ll be up this weekend.”
J.P. didn’t visit his mother that weekend and he never spoke to her again. She died the following week. He was beset with a fair amount of guilt, but his own worries and challenges eventually reclaimed his attention and his life returned to a semblance of normalcy. This Internet thing and the often requested mother’s maiden name immediately brought him back to those precious last few days. He couldn’t help but recall his guilt at not seeing her before she died and at not visiting her grave often enough. It was also a merciless reminder to him that he never even tried to contact his father.
J.P. reached to the top shelf and slid the box off into his hands. The envelope was attached under the strings that tied the box closed. Inside the envelope were two photographs and a letter. Both photos were black and white, dog-eared and faded. One was of two American soldiers. Both were smiling broadly, one wore a helmet at a jaunty angle with the signature paratrooper chinstrap dangling loosely. The other was holding his helmet under his arm. Each had a hand on the other’s shoulder. They were standing in front of a tent in a desert.
The helmeted soldier on the left appeared slightly taller. He was holding an M-1 Garand rifle. The other trooper had a Browning Automatic Rifle, also known as a B-A-R, slung over his shoulder.
Both young men had similar dark hair and facial features but they were standing far enough away from the camera to render specific details somewhat inscrutable. J.P. could not tell which one was his father. Neatly written on the back of the picture was, “Jake and I, Oujda, June 1943”. Every time he looked at this picture he wondered, where the hell is Oujda?
The other picture was of two soldiers standing on either side of his mother. He recognized his father but not the other soldier. There was a familiar looking bridge in the background. On the reverse side in faded blue ink was scrawled, “Jake, Johnny and me, September 1943”.
J.P. read the short letter again for what had to be the fiftieth time. It was obvious his mother had written it, but it raised more questions than it answered. Despite his ambivalent behavior, he knew what she wanted him to do.
What was it he told her? I’ll find out where he is and I’ll contact him. He never did it. Then, of course, there was that other reason why he dreaded confronting his father.