(Dodging Shells gave you Tommy’s letters to his sister, from the front. Here’s more family gossip from Kathy in wartime Toronto, in response.)
…..“Fran had the largest family; she was always greedy–that’s your Grandma Marshall, dear…you won’t tell her I said so, will you?” said Aunt Bella. “There’s Jack…he was the oldest. Do you remember your Uncle Jack, dear?”
…..“Stocky, dark moustache, loud voice…I believe he was on crutches….”
…..“She remembers him,” said Aunt Gertie.
…..“Yes, he was always too bold for the city. Come to think of it, he’s a hard-drinker, too,” added Bella.
…..“Seems to me he was just as much of a handful to raise as Ralph was, any day.” Aunt Gertie clearly wanted to get her word in. She must have felt Aunt Bella was hogging the floor. “Why didn’t you mention that Jack was a handful, Bella?”
…..“With Ralph, I was making a point. Helen thought she was better than everybody else. Fran never claimed to be a lady. We expected her lot to be difficult. I think it was Jack who got Ralph into bootlegging. Jack was involved with some very shady characters. I think it finally got too hot for him in Toronto He took a whim one day to buy land up north—a lot of land…it was dirt cheap in those days—and he’s lived up there ever since.
…..He built himself a cabin up there in the woods north of Cochrane, and lived alone while he cleared the land. I really think he was hiding. God only knows what he’d been involved in down here….
…..“It must have been brutal in the wintertime. I think he did some trapping to fill his time, and one day when he was checking his traps, he found an Indian, half frozen in the snow. He carried him back to the cabin and tended his frost-bitten feet. He let the guy stay until he could walk again—I guess Jack enjoyed the company, though the Indian didn’t speak a word of English. Then, one day in the early spring, he just disappeared.
…..“Jack never saw him again. But from time to time, he’d come home to find fresh game left on his doorstep. I suppose the Indian was showing his gratitude in the only way he could.
…..“Eventually Jack got married and started some kind of business in Cochrane. They had a slew of kids who grew up quite wild. I remember hearing that the oldest boy stole a car for a joy-ride once.”
…..“What happened?” I asked.
…..“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. By that time, Jack had been made sheriff…can you believe it? A solid citizen. Small towns, you know….”
…..“But what about his leg?”
…..“Oh, that! Well, he was escorting a prisoner down to Kingston Penitentiary by train, and the man escaped. I think Jack was a bit lax with the prisoners. He stopped off here to visit with me for a couple of hours once with one in tow, handcuffs and all. It was very unsettling. I suppose Jack thought it was funny.
…..“Anyway, the guy jumped off the train as it left a station. Jack jumped after him—he always tended to be a bit flashy—but the train had sped up by then. Jack slipped and fell under the wheels. They had to amputate what was left of his leg.”
…..That sort of put a damper on the conversation for a minute or two, but the two old girls seemed to think that Jack would get over it, and soon Aunt Bella remembered another juicy tidbit she was itching to share with me.
…..“Now, your Aunt Bea was the prettiest of Fran’s girls; your mother would be furious if she heard me saying so, but it’s true. Bea’s a couple of years younger, and she was always much closer to your Aunt Bess than to Pearl. Those two used to be thick as thieves—there was only a year’s difference in their ages. They shared everything: toys…clothes…it was so cute. And when they got older, they even went courting together.
…..“But really, dear…you know, some things are just too much! When they were eighteen or nineteen years old, both girls announced that they were going to be married. But each was marrying the boy the other had been courting! It was a surprise to us all, but there was no point questioning them…they were that headstrong.”
…..“Oh, but that’s not all,” prodded Aunt Gertie, impatiently. “Tell her the rest,” she insisted.
…..“Well, something less than nine months after the weddings,” Bella continued, lowering her voice just a little, for dramatic effect, “Bea had twin sons. ‘Premature’, they called them. ‘Premature’ happened as conveniently often back then…as it does now.
…..“And the boys…as they grew, it was plain to anyone with eyes: Clayton was short and dark. Handsome…like Bea’s husband Bill. And Clinton…well, he was tall and blonde…the image of May’s husband! Have you never noticed, dear?”
…..Both Aunts watched me for a reaction. Their eyes positively glittered.
…..Well, Tommy, you remember Clinton and Clayton…there’s no denying that they are very different, for twins. Of course, we don’t often see Aunt May’s husband and Aunt Bea has been separated from Uncle Bill for years, so I suppose we couldn’t expect to have noticed resemblances even if it were true.
…..“Maybe it was just a coincidence,” I suggested, hopefully. I really didn’t want to address the mechanics necessary to achieve the outcome they were suggesting.
…..“Maybe,” said Aunt Bella.
…..“I suppose,” said Aunt Gertie.
…..But they didn’t believe it for a minute. They had considered the implications long ago (I’m sure they were considering them again, enthusiastically, as I sat there…) and they weren’t going to be cheated out of a perfectly good story.
…..“Why did Aunt Bea leave Uncle Bill?” I wondered.
…..“Oh,” Aunt Bella assured me, “He turned out to be a real miserable bastard. A skinflint.”
…..“He used to lock up the food in the cupboard when he left for work,” added Aunt Gertie, “so she and the boys couldn’t help themselves without his permission.”
…..“That’s terrible!” I blurted.
…..“Yes,” agreed Aunt Bella. “That’s what we thought.”
…..“I sometimes wonder, though,” suggested Aunt Gertie, “whether it might have been a kind of punishment for…you know…if he suspected….”
…..“I doubt it,” shrugged Aunt Bella. “He was just a cheap bastard, is all.”