It was a warm summer afternoon, and the sun was slowly sinking behind the enormous old pine trees across the street. On the front porch of a small white ranch style house sat an older woman enjoying the warmth of the dying day. She was slowly rocking on a creaky wicker chair with a blanket gently draped over her legs. She was gazing off into the distant mountains lost in her own thoughts. Today the mountains looked the same as they did on the day she first moved to this small sleepy town. There were no leaves on the trees as it had been a particularly long cold winter and late spring. The mountains had the same purplish tint to them as they do now in the setting sun. She could still remember the year that her father moved her family to this country town in upstate New York, away from the memories of their accustomed Queens lifestyle. It was a culture shock for her family, and it was at a time when they should have been sticking together. Her father stayed in the city during the week as he had a renewed obsession for his work at the New Yorker. There was a time when her father worked hard but always managed to be with his family every night. Oh, how she loved that time and longed for those days again.
Pulled from her memories, the woman had slowly become aware of a shiny black car gradually pulling up to the sidewalk in front of her house. She wasn’t expecting any company, and she detested the insurance salesmen who would stop by from time to time, but this did not look like a salesman’s car. Before she could decide to get up, a young man stood up and towering over the car from the driver’s side said, “Please don’t get up!” and before she knew it the man was on her front porch.
“Hello Miss Annie,” he said with a smile. His smile was warm and inviting and his manner gentle and gracious. He touched the woman’s fragile and time-worn hand as tender as a little boy would hold the hand of his mother. The tall stranger seemed familiar but only in the way that the memory of an elusive dream might be triggered, and then just as quickly, fade from recollection, and you’re left straining, trying to hold onto the memory. The woman, whose name was indeed Annie, felt as if she could physically grab onto the thought, look at it in her hands, and say “Oh, Yeh. Now I remember.”
Unfortunately, this had been happening a lot lately. Annie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, and it was progressively getting worse. The reoccurring embarrassment in everyday situations relegated Annie to her home. She began to withdraw from the community and deal with her anxiety in the privacy of her home which was fortified like a fortress behind a white picket fence. The only upside to the situation was that she spent more time with her husband who was currently out fishing. He, of course, tried to stay home more often, but strong willed Annie would have none of it. She insisted he go out on his regular Saturday afternoon fishing jaunts. But now she was regretting pushing him out the door on this particular afternoon.
The man standing before Annie looked familiar to her. His chestnut hair arched like a dark wave crashing upon the shore fell over his forehead slightly. She stared into his dark brown eyes and felt such a familiarity in them that she became more at ease. Annie invited the man to sit down across from her, and he obliged.
“My name is Thomas, ma’am. We have never met, but I do believe we may be related.” From his own research and talking to Annie’s other relatives, Thomas knew of Annie’s dementia and wanted to quickly assure her, in his own way, that she did not forget him.
Feeling relieved that they had never met before Annie became more congenial. “Can I get you a drink? A cup of teas maybe?”
“Oh, no thank you, ma’am. I just came from having dinner at the local diner down the street.” Thomas said as he patted his full stomach. “It was quite good.” Thomas’ hand went from his stomach to his head as he pushed the wave of hair from his forehead. That action triggered a memory in Annie which allowed her to connect Thomas with her very own brother, Patrick.
All at once Annie was overwhelmed with memories of her brother Patrick who was called Paddy for short. Paddy was what people referred to as “black Irish” with his dark hair, dark eyes, and even darker skin than the rest of the family. He looked to be more of Italian descent than the typical Irishman. He stuck out in the predominantly Irish neighborhood in Queens, NY. He didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as the saying might go, but rather like a rose among a thousand of blades of grass. This was confirmed by how much the neighborhood girls loved him, but Paddy only had eyes for one girl, Katie O’Brien. They were so much in love all through high school, but at the end of their senior year in 1961 her family abruptly packed up and moved away. A week later she sent Paddy a short goodbye letter with the I.D. bracelet that he bought her enclosed. Paddy was devastated and threw himself into his work at the newspaper.
Paddy was the oldest of eight and back then his Father worked late a lot. There was much more to write about with the war in Vietnam, so Paddy was saddled with much of the responsibility of running around for the family. This was all on top of his new job at the newspaper. Paddy was saving up to go to journalism school because he wanted nothing more than to be a reporter like his Father. Even though Paddy was still heartbroken over Katie, he was always nice to his little sister Annie who was ten years younger. He never once referred to her as his bratty sister but only as his “Annie-bell.” Even when he was around his buddies or with Katie he was always kind to Annie and Annie adored her big brother in return.
Sitting on her porch looking at Thomas and the uncanny resemblance he shared with her brother Paddy, the warm sun became hot on her cheek, and Annie remembered one specific hot July day back in 1961. She didn’t want to remember because that was just before everything changed and they moved to the country. She could still feel the sticky, uncomfortable humidity of that July day. Annie and her siblings were waiting for Paddy to return home from his job at the newspaper so he could take them swimming.
“Pull those shades down.” Annie’s mother said to her while gliding the paper fan over herself and the baby.
“Yes, Mama.” Annie obliged, and pulled the shade down so it blocked out the burning sun.
Everyone was sitting in the living room trying to get some respite from the sweltering heat outside, but the heat from all of the bodies inside was becoming too much. If Annie had to spend another moment inside that roasting house she was sure she would scream. Just then the familiar rumble of the family truck could be heard over the fussing baby. Everyone ran to the door in excitement and earnest and begged Paddy to take them to the local pool. When little Annie was finally able to squeeze through her many siblings, she caught a glimpse of Paddy and could immediately see that there was something wrong. His usually dark skin was just as pale as the rest of the Irish family, and there was no bright toothy smile on his face. In fact, his countenance was an odd mixture of confused, sad, and almost scared. Annie immediately mirrored his emotions, backed away, and watched the events unfold.
Struggling to push through the crazed mini-crowd of kids, Paddy let out a warning of irritation, “Leave me alone for a while!”
He pushed into the Livingroom closing the door behind him leaving just himself and his Mother alone inside. After just a minute or two, his Mother came flying out of the Livingroom and ran to the telephone to call up father at work. The only other time Annie could remember her Mother calling her Father at work was when her sister Elaine fell and cut her head. It only ended up being a little cut, but there was so much blood that one would have thought she had been decapitated.
At the age of nine, Annie did not understand the desperate one-sided conversation that her mother was having on the phone. Dinner that night was equally somber, and Annie noticed that both her Mother and Paddy did not eat much. Paddy was feeling nauseous and was at even lower depths then when Katie had left. Why had she left he thought. If there was any time he needed her most, it was now. After the meal was over, their Father explained to the family that Paddy had gotten a draft card in the mail which meant that he would be going over to Vietnam to fight in the war. The older children knew what this meant, but to Annie and the younger children, they only had a vague idea. Being so young and selfish, as kids at this age could understandably be, they did not give it much thought after that night.
Before Paddy left, he took hie dear Annie-bell aside and gave her his most prized possession, the I.D. bracelet that Katie had sent back to him in the mail. Paddy ran his fingers through his dark hair and said, “Annie-bell, I have to go away for a while, and while I’m gone I want you to help out Mama around the house like I do. I know you are smart and kind and can take on a lot of my responsibilities while I’m gone. Can I count on you?”
“Yes,” was Annie’s eager response. Annie was thrilled about the idea of being thought of as more mature and helpful. As if this somehow made her older than she was.
“Great. I knew I could count on you Annie-bell” and with tears in his eyes Paddy took off the ID bracelet that he has given to Katie earlier that year.
He put it on Annie’s tiny wrist and said, “It’s a little big right now, but you’ll grow into it. This is to remind you that when things get tough to be strong and to carry on just like I would. Ok?”
“Yes, thank you!” Annie exclaimed as she ran her finger over the smooth, shiny silver inscription that spelled Paddy and Katie on the outside and had a date 1/1/61 on the inside. Annie never did ask what the date was for and to this day she still does not know.
Within that same week, Paddy was gone. The typical atmosphere of a chaotic house filled with laughing children had changed and became muted. Annie’s heart was now aching from the void that Paddy’s absence left, and by this time Annie had a better understanding of where he went. During the next year, Paddy sent letters but Annie was not allowed to read them as she was still so young and they held graphic information about the war. She was told that Paddy asked about her in every letter, and she sent him letters in return. Almost an entire year went by since Paddy had left. Annie had just finished the fourth grade and was looking forward to enjoying another summer.
The worst day of Annie’s life started out as just another day. Annie was clearing the dinner table, one of her many responsibilities she took on when Paddy had left. Her mother and father were in their usual late afternoon seats as watching the evening news had become a ritual for the both of them. Then came the knock on the door. Annie was the first one to the door and had the, now dubious, honor of opening it. In the doorway stood a very tall man in a neat looking uniform alongside the Murphy’s parish priest, Fr. Kelly. Just as Annie greeted him, “Hey, Fr. Kelly!” she noticed that his eyes were red and swollen as he looked above her into the living room. As if in slow motion Annie turned and saw her Mother sink to the floor as her Father simultaneously rose to his feet, unaware and uncaring that his cherished nightly newspaper had just fallen to the ground. That was the first time Annie had seen her Father cry; the only other time was at Paddy’s funeral.
Back on the porch, a tear fell down Annie’s now aged face as she looked into the same eyes as her long dead brother. Just as she always did when she thought of him, her finger instinctively ran over the inscription on the dull silver bracelet which fit snugly on her wrist. Annie struggled to remember the man’s name who sat in front of her with the now concerned look on his face. She could feel the red hot embarrassment creeping up her neck yet again. “Damn this disease.” she thought.
“Miss. Annie” Thomas said with apprehension in his voice, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes. It’s just … you remind me of my late brother Patrick.”
“Well, that’s actually why I am here,” Thomas said with a warm smile. “Just as I said, my name is Thomas, and I believe I am related to you by way of your brother Patrick Murphy. You see, I was told my biological Grandmother used to date, Patrick Murphy. Her name was Katie O’Brien.”
Thomas recounted the details as he understood them. “It seems Katie had become pregnant with your brother’s child and her parents found out. Katie’s strict Irish Catholic parents made her go to a convent and give her baby up for adoption and never told a soul.”
Annie remembered how Katie’s abrupt move had broken Paddy’s heart and she remembered the date on the I.D. bracelet. Annie asked Thomas for his father’s birthdate, and it was indeed nine months from the date scribed on the inside of the bracelet.
Thomas continued, “My father told me about his adoption, and I wanted to explore our biological family history. When I found out who my grandmother was, I went to see her. She has lived a solitary life with no children, and she never married. She told me that when she later found out about Patrick dying in the war, she was heartbroken.”
Annie sat in her rocking chair taking all of the information in, and she was sad. Sad for Paddy, sad for Katie, sad for the family they never go to have. Thomas could see that the conversation was weighing on Annie and asked if he could come back at another time with his father, Paddy’s son. Annie was more than happy to oblige; they exchanged numbers and Thomas left. As Annie sat in her rocking chair, the sun had finally set, and she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. Still gazing out onto the darkening mountains she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
“Hey, Annie. Wake up. It’s too cold to be out here this late.”
Annie opened her eyes to see the fuzzy yet familiar outline of her husband standing before her. As her vision cleared, she noticed that it was now fully night and she was shivering. As they walked inside a strange feeling washed over Annie, but she could not place it. When she reached for the door handle, the reflection of the moon in her bracelet caught her eye. She suddenly remembered the fantastical dream she had about her dear brother Paddy and his descendants, and then just as quickly, the memory faded away.
Patricia Gross is a thirty-six-year-old mother of five. She is a double major in Education Studies and English.