Chapter One: Winny one WINNY
— Present Day —
My life is spilling onto the street, and I am as helpless as a child to stop it. Through the living room window I watch my treasured Ulster coat tumble into a mound on the pavement, followed by a flutter of faded grey cotton when my frock lands on top. The old woollen stockings, mended so many times, slip out and cushion the books as they fall, then come my boots.
My granddaughter, Chrissie, is staring down at the little pile with a sort of guilty curiosity, but she sobers when she glances toward the house and sees my stricken expression. She stoops and gathers my things, placing them gently back inside the little wooden trunk I have kept with me for over eighty years. As she snaps the rusted hinge closed, I curse the rotted metal for releasing a secret I have kept to myself for so long.
Moments later, Chrissie comes into the house and quietly sets the trunk on the floor next to the rest of my things.
“I’m sorry, Gran, the hinge broke.” She puts a warm hand on my shoulder, and I pray she will be able to contain the questions flickering in her eyes. “But that’s the last of it,” she says, and I exhale. “I have to go pick up Jamie from school—it’s my turn in the carpool. Will you be okay for a bit?”
She’ll only be out for a few minutes, and yet I am glad she asked. I’ve never been comfortable being alone. The silence is too loud, full of so many voices I’ve loved and lost.
I pat the arms of my chair. “I’ll be fine. I promise to sit right here and not die while you’re gone.”
Chrissie frowns slightly but grabs her keys and heads to the doorway, where she pauses and glances back at me.
“I’ll be fine,” I say again, ashamed of my snide remark. I had only been trying to lighten the mood, but it came out wrong. I’m thrown off by the scene in the street. My gaze drops to the trunk, and I wonder if I have enough balance to carry it all the way to my room and put it away before she sees it again. Out of sight, out of mind.
I had hoped the trunk would outlive me. That once I was gone, someone could dust it off, open the latches, and discover the treasures old Gran had hidden away. Without me to tell the story, no one would be able to figure it out. It would remain forgotten. Like the rest of us.
I watch Chrissie drive away and my chest tightens with gratitude. My dear granddaughter has become quite protective of me ever since she lost her mother, my daughter, Susan, two years ago. Susan and I had shared an apartment, which had suited us both beautifully. Until she’d gotten sick, the high point of our week had been playing bridge at the Seniors’ Centre or shuffling through the mall to see the lights and the people. I should have valued those moments more, but I had always assumed I would be the one going first. It didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, but I am grateful to have had a long and enduring bond with my daughter. Not all of us can be so lucky. It has been difficult living without her, but it is getting easier. These days I see Susan less and less as a woman in pain. My memories of her now are of when she was so small she needed to hold my hand everywhere we went. So small I couldn’t resist hugging her on impulse, marvelling that she was mine. And his, of course.
Just after Susan’s seventy-first birthday, cancer stole her from me, and it was obvious to everyone that I could no longer look after myself. Every morning and every night my creaking joints and wasting muscles remind me that the sand in my glass is running low, so when I moved from the apartment to the Shady Pines Retirement Home, I resigned myself to sitting and waiting for that last grain of sand to fall. Shady Pines was not the worst part of my life, but it was not how I’d imagined it ending. Chrissie and her son, Jamie, saw through my facade and asked me if I wanted to come live with them. I jumped at the chance. The two of them are a small but good family, and I love them with all my heart. They have no idea how important it is for me to be with family. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, really.
The front door swings open, bringing a curtain of fresh summer sunshine into the kitchen along with my tall, dark, and handsome great-grandson. When Chrissie’s husband left her for another woman ten years ago, Jamie became the man of the house by elimination. Jamie is sixteen, smart, and the spitting image of his great-grandfather.
“Hey, Gran,” he says, shrugging out of his backpack. “Enjoying the new digs?”
“I am.” I smile. “Thank you.”
Chrissie bustles in behind him and makes her way to the kitchen. She had set a chicken to roast to celebrate my first night in their house. I’ve lost track of how many first nights I’ve had in my life. How many times I’ve had to start again.
Over dinner, Chrissie pries out details about Jamie’s day from him, and I listen as he talks about his math teacher, his soccer game, and the fact that one of his friends is getting a car. Jamie is a teenager with teenager things on his mind, but he is a good boy, and he loves his mother. It’s easy conversation, and it takes me back so many years. I almost feel like I’m home again.
“I have homework,” Jamie says when he’s done clearing the plates. He edges toward the door, his eyes on his phone. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Gran.”
“Actually,” Chrissie says quickly, “I wanted to talk about something with you and Gran.”
He winces, then glances apologetically at me. “Yeah, sure.”
“Let’s go to the living room. It’s more comfortable there. I’ll bring cookies.”
They help me shuffle to my armchair, and Chrissie sets me up with a cup of tea. She is a nurse, following in my footsteps and those of her mother, and she always seems to know what I would like before I ask for it. There’s something reassuring in that.
She sits beside Jamie, across from me. “I just thought maybe we could do this sometimes after supper. Get to know each other a bit.”
Jamie’s expression is pained, and I can’t really blame him. I’m sure he’d rather be doing just about anything other than talking to his ninety-seven-year-old great-grandmother.
“Don’t look that way,” she scolds, and I see regret in her eyes. “It’s just that now that your grandma is gone, we can’t ask her things about when she was growing up, you know? We can’t hear any more stories from her. Don’t you ever wonder where our family comes from, Jamie?”
Unease stirs in my chest. I do not want to have this conversation, but I can hear the sadness in Chrissie’s voice. She yearns to know more about her family. About her mom.
He gives a weak shrug. “I guess. But isn’t that what the internet is for?”
“Oh, my life wasn’t interesting,” I assure them. “I can tell you stories about your grandmother, but to be honest, we lived a pretty average life together.”
Chrissie gestures with her chin toward the trunk, which hasn’t been moved since she first brought it inside, and I am instantly reminded of all that it holds.
“I was wondering if you could tell us about the little suitcase,” she says. “I don’t mean to be snoopy, but it looks like it holds more than an average life.”
I’m sitting perfectly still, and yet I feel myself toppling backwards, as if a lifetime of secrets is unravelling before me. My gnarled fingers curl around the arms of the chair, holding me in place.
“Gran?” Jamie is by my side now, and oh, it is as if eighty years have flown away.
My hands unclamp. “You look so much like your great-grandfather.” The thought sticks in my throat. “So, so much like him.”
He grins, and again, it’s as if I’m looking at my husband, the way he was at Jamie’s age—though he had been underfed and toughened by street life. But when he smiled, he lit up my world.
“Do I?” He settles back on the couch. “What was he like?”
“I loved Pop,” Chrissie tells him. “He was quiet, and he…”
She pauses, so I help her out. “He had a bit of a temper.”
“Maybe, but I didn’t see that very often. I was going to say that he was a good man. He always had time for me. And he loved Mom so much. That was obvious.”
“Yes, he did.”
“He wasn’t from Ireland, was he?” she wonders. “I mean, he didn’t have the same accent as you.”
“I thought I’d mostly lost mine,” I say. “I haven’t been there in a very long time.”
Jamie shakes his head. “Nope. You’re still real Irish. I wish I had an accent.”
I wink and reach for my thickest brogue. “Come on you, boyo. Oi’m not the one who’d be havin’ an accent.”
Jamie grins and takes a bite of a cookie as his mother leans toward me. “Mom said your family left for London when you were little, is that right? And you had four brothers? Why did your parents decide to leave Ireland?”
How long had it been since I’d thought of my little brothers? I imagine they’re all gone now. “London was where everyone was going. Jobs, money, a better life.… Almost all the English, Irish, and Scots living in the countryside moved to the city back then.”
“Was it better?”
“No. Just more crowded.”
“What about Pop?” Chrissie asks. “Where was he from?”
“Oh, he was from London.”
“Did he have any brothers or sisters?”
“He had a sister,” I reply, then I stop, unable to say any more.
Only one person in the whole world knows my story, and he has been gone for fifteen long years. Not even my beautiful daughter, Susan, knew the humiliating truth about her parents.
Chrissie and Jamie are watching me, waiting, and my heart races as if I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I am ashamed to tell my story, but now I have no choice. My family deserves a history. As much as I don’t want to talk about my past, I do not want them to wonder, as I always have, about their roots. I am haunted by the truth that I have kept from everyone I know, everyone I love.
Everyone but him, of course.
Nowadays, doctors have words to describe the way our minds can construct a wall to keep it strong—blocking painful memories in order to help us survive. But youth no longer maintains my walls, and I feel them giving way, brick by brick, spilling long overdue sunlight onto my truths. I have seen enough days to know we have no say over any of them. Life picks us up and drops us where it will. My friends and I were thrown into a whirlpool, and we did what we could, but we were only children after all. We had no idea how to swim.
I take a deep, shuddering breath and stare at the trunk. “I never expected anyone to ever open that trunk.”
“I really am sorry, Gran. I don’t want to upset you, and you don’t have to tell us anything if it’s too hard to talk about. We all grieve in our own ways.”
“I know, sweetheart.” I hesitate, daring myself. “Jamie, can you put that trunk up on the table here?”
It looks small in his hands, and the once-dark wood has faded to a dull, lifeless brown. It’s the size of a small suitcase, like those bags they call carry-ons these days. I still remember when it was my carry-all. All my worldly possessions in one little box.
When he sets the trunk before me, I stare at it, wondering where to begin. I tentatively rest my hands on its surface, feeling the familiar grooves and coarse lines. Like my hands, the wood shows the ravages of time—though not nearly so vividly—and my fingers go to the long, deep scrape on top, then the notch on the back corner. The trunk and I both bear scars.
I turn it around so they can see the letters of my name carved into the back. “I made this trunk when I was a little girl.”
Jamie looks impressed, and he runs his young fingers over the old seams.
“What’s in there, Gran?” Chrissie asks.
If only she knew what she was asking. The answers will change the way she and Jamie see their own lives.
With a sigh, I unfasten the latches and the old trunk creaks open. I haven’t looked inside for a very long time, but other than the fact that its contents had been hastily repacked that afternoon, nothing has changed. I pull out an old hairbrush and comb, then I fold back a piece of material and dig out my copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Such a terrible book to give to children. I set it aside, then sort through the bits and pieces of cloth until I find my soft, black leather Bible.
This is where I must start, I realize. The cover falls open, and I slide the book toward Chrissie so she can see the sticker where my name is printed on the inside of the cover.
“?‘A memento of the old Country from the British and Foreign Bible Society,’?” she reads, then she looks to the page on the right. Her finger taps a black-and-white photograph of a stately, spectacled gentleman with waxed ends on his moustache. “Who’s this?”
“Dr. Thomas Barnardo,” I say softly. His name hasn’t passed my lips in probably seventy-five years, and yet I still speak it with a twisted blend of admiration and loathing. “I’m afraid I haven’t told you the whole truth about our family and how we ended up here.”