My Dad wanted to talk to me privately. It was a Fall Sunday evening in 1964. I was nine years old. This was really important or I was in big trouble. Dad only talked to me alone when he was telling me a bedtime story, driving me to his office on a Saturday morning, or explaining a math problem.
We walked into the living room from the kitchen, where Mom cleaned up after dinner. We walked past the kidney-shaped marble coffee table that sat in front of the white sectional sofa, decorated with multi-colored, round and square pillows. We went to his corner of the room where I sat in his reading chair and he sat opposite me on the matching ottoman. There was a table lamp, with a bust of a Greek god, supporting a large lampshade illuminating our talk.
“Julie, what I’m going to tell you is important.”
I sat with my hands in my lap, legs sticking straight out and stared at him.
“You’re old enough to know something now. Your mother was married before she married me. His name was Richard Gahn and he died in the war. Your brother Dick is from that marriage.”
I sat up straighter, held my breath and furrowed my brow. Even at 9 I furrowed my brow. Up-to-this point, my white bread, Midwestern, mid-century life was pretty average. My family was like most of the other Catholic families living on Squirrel Road in Dayton, Ohio—lots of children, a father who worked, a stay-at-home-mother. Nothing really set us apart from the others—except I always felt that my mother had more headaches and sighed more than the other mom’s I knew.
But this news changed everything. Our family was different. We had a back-story. A million thoughts went through my little head. Now I understood why my oldest brother wasn’t the junior in the family. His name was Dick, like his dad.
“Is Dick my half-brother?” I asked.
“I adopted Dick when your Mother and I married. He is my son and we don’t consider him a half-sibling. He is no different than the rest of you,” Dad said.
“Now this isn’t anything to be embarrassed about,” he continued, “and it’s not anything to run tell your best friend Janie, either.”
Embarrassed? Why would I be embarrassed? It’s not as if Dick was a love child or Mom a widow and single mother by choice. And wasn’t it cool that Dad had adopted Dick? And, yes, I did want to tell Janie. I wanted to tell somebody. This news was special.
“Do you have any more questions?” Dad asked in a tone that meant the conversation should be over—all information had been conveyed.
“No,” I said, reading his tone. But, “Yes,” I thought. How did he die? How did they meet? What did he look like? When did they get married? Did my other brother and sister know? And, why isn’t Mom telling me this?
“You understand this is private and you are not to tell Janie,” he said.
“Yes, I promise to not tell Janie,” I replied.
The next day at school I couldn’t concentrate on anything my teacher, Mrs. Valpo, said until she started talking about the Korean War. War! I had a war story and I had to share. Surely I could tell my teacher. Dad couldn’t be mad about that. She wasn’t Janie.
At the end of the day, I cornered Mrs. Valpo at the blackboard as she erased the day’s lessons. My words tumbled out in a blurred whisper, “Mrs. Valpo, my mother was married before my Dad and her first husband died in the Korean War.”
“Slow down, Julie,” she said. “What did you say?”
I repeated my story sure she would find it interesting, and me too for having it. Putting her hand on my shoulder and bringing her face close to mine, she said, “I’m not sure what you’re saying is true, Julie.” Then she added something about dates and the Korean War.
She didn’t believe me. I insisted I was telling the truth. I would never lie to a teacher, especially about something as important as this.
Once again Dad talked to me from the ottoman in the corner of the living room under the light from the Greek god with the leaves in his hair. He was not happy.
“Julie, you did something that I asked you not to do, and I’m disappointed,” he said, and then he corrected me on the facts. It was World War II after the D-Day invasion, not the Korean War, which had practically just happened.
“I am telling you again, do not repeat this story.”
Which I did immediately, telling my best friend, Janie, who lived across the street. And she already knew. Her whole family knew. In fact, it seems that the whole block of families on Squirrel Road and anyone who attended Corpus Christi School and Church knew. Mom came to town as a new bride with a four-year old child. Of course people knew. It was common knowledge and I couldn’t talk about it. Almost had to pretend it never happened.
Having to keep this secret inflamed my natural curiosity. After all, I considered myself a regular Harriet the spy and Nancy Drew wannabe. So naturally I started looking for evidence of Mom’s former life. I found it buried in the bottom drawer of her dressing table, underneath monogrammed handkerchiefs, lace mantillas, and leather gloves.
I sat crossed legged on the floor opposite the opened drawer. Carefully I took the contents out so I would remember how to put them back in the same order and place.
When I saw his photograph it stopped me. Shocked me. It was my brother’s face under an Army hat. I wondered if my mother thought of him each time she looked at my brother. How could you forget someone when his look-alike lived with you?
I discovered they were high school and college sweethearts. She had saved his National Honor Society pin, an ID bracelet with his fraternity insignia on it, his college ring and cigarette case.
Newspaper clippings announced their graduations and engagement but not the wedding. In what I assumed was their wedding picture, he wore his uniform and she wore a dark suit and corsage.
The drawer kept safe his citation for bravery, uniform medals, and Purple Heart. I opened the box that held his purple heart, which is actually a gold heart hanging from a purple ribbon. I stared, afraid to touch it. He was a hero.
I was probably 13 or 14 years old when I either fessed up to poking around Mom’s things or was found out. She offered bits of information.
“He was a ninety-day wonder, that’s a college graduate who was trained to be an officer in ninety days,” she told me. She took the train alone to Camp Wolters Texas from Bellevue, Ohio to visit him. He wanted to be a journalist.
“When Dick died,” she said, “Grandma and Grandpa told me to not grieve because I had too much to live for and too many blessings: a son, a family, and a teaching job which I loved and where I was appreciated.” Her parents said she was better off than many other war widows and should be grateful.
I asked about the newspaper picture from his burial, in 1948, nearly four years after he died in Normandy, on July 5, 1944. Mom sat next to her former mother-in-law who held the flag that had been on the coffin.
“Why didn’t you get the flag?” I asked
“I was married to Dad by then, and not considered next of kin,” she said. I didn’t ask her anything more. Not about how she felt when she saw her first husband in her first son’s face. Not if she thought about him every day. Not even the date of her first wedding, which I was dying to know.
Shortly thereafter we moved to a new house and the contents of the drawer to a new location. Over the course of my high school years Mom’s frequent sighs turned into constant sadness and then chronic depression, which I attributed to the fact that she never mourned her first husband, at least publicly. Surely she mourned him silently
I had stopped looking for clues to her feelings but had not stopped seeking answers.
“Did Mom love Dad or marry him to because she had Dick?” I asked my sister.
“No to the first question and of course to the second,” she said.
When I asked my second brother why Mom married Dad he shrugged and said, “Dunno.”
Even Dick didn’t have a definitive answer. “Do you think Mom married Dad to take care of the two of you?” I asked.
“It’s not that simple,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned Dad is my Dad and I’m happy for all he did for us.”
None of this helped answer the big question that I couldn’t voice and that had haunted me since I was nine: What happens when Mom and Dad die and go to heaven? Will she choose him over Dad? Will Dad be left alone? Will our family be broken?
I feared she didn’t or couldn’t love Dad because her first love died in Normandy before he could be anything less than ideal. He died full of possibility. My Dad, he wasn’t a hero. He was just human. He was reality.
Eight years after my private talk with Dad, when I was 17, Mom stood in the kitchen on the opposite side of the breakfast bar where I sat reading the newspaper and eating cereal. She stared at the gold and red autumn leaves outside and said, “This would have been my 30th anniversary with Dick Gahn.” She simply shared this fact, turned, and walked away.
On that day, Oct 22, 1972, 30 years after Mom said her first “I do’s” I understood that there would never be a simple answer to why Mom married Dad, or exactly how Mom’s first marriage impacted our current family, only that it did. The specter of his memory was family too.
I decided to stop questioning what happens in heaven only after both Mom and Dad had died. Because no one has the answer. And because since it’s heaven, I’ve decided to believe that whatever happens is good.
Julie Danis is a former advertising/marketing executive, Chicago Tribune workplace columnist, and radio commentator for American Public Media’s Marketplace program. She is currently am a freelance write and teaches Consumer Insight at Northwestern University’s Medill School.