The Jersey Brothers
I have a clear memory of that moment when our innocence was fractured, perhaps because it was in such contrast to our blissful cousin-play. It was a midsummer night in the 1960s, and we were playing badminton on the south lawn of Lilac Hedges, our grandmother’s home in New Jersey. The highlight of those summer visits was seeing our cousin there, whom we adored and rarely saw otherwise. I know it was dusk because that was when the bats started dive-bombing the birdie, our favorite part of the evening.
The adults—my father, mother, aunt, and grandmother—were having their cocktails on the front porch. Suddenly we heard Aunt Rosemary’s voice rise up over the rest, after which she burst into tears. Then we heard a glass break, which is when we stopped our play, got dead quiet, and strained our ears. When I say break, I don’t mean fall-off-the-table break; I mean throw-against-the-wall break. Then we heard our mother try to say something, and then she started crying.
My father was an admiral, and at the time serving as the navy’s judge advocate general (JAG). He usually held the attention of the people around him—at work and at home. But his attempts to restore calm were in vain that evening, as apparently were my mother’s attempts to assist him. We
couldn’t hear much, but without a doubt, the ever-charged topic was our mysterious Uncle Barton, a naval ensign who had been wounded and taken prisoner by the Japanese long before any of us was born.
We kids had never met Uncle Barton, but my siblings, cousin, and I all knew what he looked like. There were photos of him on every wall of every room at Lilac Hedges. You would hardly have known that our grandmother had three other children. I especially remember Barton’s imposing oil portrait on the facing wall at the turn near the top of the front stairs. I was sure his smiling green eyes followed my every step as I walked up. We joked that he was winking at us, but whenever I reached that landing, I took those last two steps in a leap of terror, as though fleeing a ghost.
We left Lilac Hedges abruptly the next morning for the drive back to Washington, DC. A flimsy explanation for the early departure was offered as four glum kids took turns hugging our cousin, promising him unconvincingly that we’d be back, and then piling into our old Chevy wagon. I don’t remember what reason was offered, just that none of us believed it.
One thing was certain: there was always tension when this Uncle Barton’s name came up. Each time, I felt a familiar tingling at the back of my neck and then braced myself. Here we go again. What was going on here? As children, and then teens, and then young adults, we analyzed every syllable whenever the topic sprang from its dark corner, hoping to elicit conclusive details. But the mystery persisted long into our adulthood. Speculation on what had happened to him—and when—became a sort of a parlor game for us, and it never ended satisfactorily.
When I set out to unravel this family mystery, my objective was to uncover the facts that led to the anguished outburst that night—and which ended our traditional summer visits to Lilac Hedges. I was determined to learn more about this Uncle Barton, but what I uncovered would have stunned the adults on that porch.