by KD Miller
Adrian has accepted that his family history is fully of sinister secrets. (Adrian - 1966)
“That concludes our mother’s diary.” Papi closed the book and handed it over to me, where I graciously accepted.
“It’s yours,” he continued. “She wanted you to have it.”
My fingers traced over the ancient fabric cover. “Thank you,” I whispered. “This explains a few unanswered questions, but not all of them.”
Across the porch, Uncle Theodore crossed his legs. “Well, we’re not finished yet,” he let out a sigh and lifted his cigarette to his lips.
“Theodore, I really wish you wouldn’t smoke anymore,” Papi lectured. “I’ve decided to quit. This will be my last day.”
A funny snort came from Uncle Dylan.
“I’d love to see that,” he smiled. “You’ve been smoking since you were like fourteen. During our first trip to Sicily, you became addicted to Sicilian cigarettes and haven’t stopped since.”
I felt Papi tense up beside me. Uncle Dylan closed his eyes and turned his head.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“It’s quite alright,” Papi smiled, and settled back beside me. “My first trip to Sicily and the events that came from the terrible experience is the highlight of the story I’m about to tell you, Adrian.”
I felt my forehead crease into a frown as I slipped Grandma Catrina’s journal back in the leather bag that once belonged to Mr. Tuscano—my grandfather! A tiny shiver of happiness raced through my body.
“As you know,” Papi continued. “All four of us have our own coming-of-age story to tell you. Despite the current fad in those ridiculous Hollywood movies that you love,” Papi stopped talking to smirk at me, causing me to laugh. “I loathe the word, ‘teenager.’ It is a made-up word causing a downfall in our society. I believe a person becomes an adult somewhere from the age of sixteen to about twenty-one.”
“Theodore here,” Papi pointed to his brother, who replied by blowing a ribbon of cigarette smoke. “Became an adult the day our mama was forcefully taken away from us to die at that horrible hospital in Brooklyn. At that moment, he had to take on the responsibility of raising the four of us. He pretended to be a boy, which would start him on the path to realizing who he really was.”
Papi then turned his attention to Dr. Francis, who had kept surprisingly silent during our story.
“Francis knew he was officially an adult when at the age of seventeen, became Dr. Alexander’s intern at the local homeless camp and took on the responsibility of caring for a group of poor, and forgotten men, women, and children,” Papi continued. “He came home for dinner one night and realized that we could have grown-up to be like them if grandfather hadn’t adopted us from the Brooklyn Orphanage.”
Dr. Francis’s face twisted in a grimace. “I still remember those two years.” He chuckled. “Old man Elbert spat tobacco juice in my face and called me an orphaned, spoiled, brat after I politely asked him if he wanted a razor. His stained, dirty, beard reached his stomach. I had insulted him and failed to realize it.”
I pulled my knees to my chest and leaned against Papi on the porch swing. “What did you do about it?”
Dr. Francis shrugged. “I stomped over to Dr. Alexander and told him what happened. He handed me a handkerchief and pointed to a basin of clean water. Later that day, as he was driving me home he lectured me on the importance of treating homeless men as if they were your equal. By pointing out Elbert’s unkempt facial hair I deeply insulted him. That night at dinner, my father gave me the same lecture.”
“That is kind of funny,” I laughed. “Did Elmer ever shave his beard?”
Dr. Francis shook his head. “The man passed away a few months later from influenza, and I helped bury him at the pauper’s cemetery. He was placed in a wooden coffin wearing his favorite overalls, a large smile across his unshaven face. Theodore was right - I had forgotten what it was like to be dirt poor.”
“Thank-you,” Uncle Theodore ground his cigarette out on his ashtray, and held it out to Papi. “Since this is your last cigarette and all.”
Papi shot his brother a tight smile and accepted. “You know, Adrian,” he said. “Dylan and I have no memory of our childhood before we were adopted. Theodore reminds us of the freezing cold winter nights, boiling hot summers, bedbugs, roaches and rats, and dear Lord, going to school hungry.” He paused. “I remember the failed kidnapping attempt on the day of mama’s funeral. I remember leaving the orphanage but not being taken there. Sometimes, I can conjure up the Irish songs mama would sing to me as she cooked dinner. I cannot, for the life of me, remember papa at all. It’s like he… never existed. Yet, his ashes are entombed in the family mausoleum telling me he lived and died.”
I was about to remark on Papi’s deep thoughts, and the obvious fact that Theodore and Molly O’Conner were successfully cremated and transferred to Sherwood Cemetery when Uncle Theodore interrupted me.
“Grandfather spoiled the two of you,” Uncle Theodore raised an eyebrow. “From the moment we returned to Sherwood from being reunited with Mr. Tuscano in Brooklyn, our grandfather set out to be the best damn grandfather that ever existed. He took Millen under his wing and treated him as if he were …Jasper.”
Papi gave a little shake of his head. “I was the first to warm-up to him. I could sense his remorse for his previous actions. Even at a young age, I knew he craved our forgiveness, especially mine. He did spoil me, but I was never a snob.”
“You got that right,” Uncle Theodore announced. “I would have beaten you if you even gave out the slightest hint of arrogance.”
“I remember you telling us that on the night of the Christmas party,” Dr. Francis smiled. “At the time we didn’t know just how much money our new parents, especially grandfather, had in the bank. We just couldn’t believe our good luck. A wonderful, young, couple, who obviously had money, wanted us to be their children. For months we were afraid it was all to be a dream and we would wake back up at the orphanage.”
“That is scary,” I sighed and turned to Papi. It was all making sense, but hundreds of unanswered questions! Throughout Papi reading Catrina’s diary and Uncle Theodore giving his version, I took a pen and paper and wrote all my questions down:
What horrible words did Grandfather Cleo hiss to a ten-year-old Papi on the train station? Did Jasper return? Did Grandfather Alex wake-up from his memory loss? How is Mr. Tuscano related to our family? Why did Conrad try to sue Papi? How does Conrad and Benjamin fall into our family? Does Mr. Chow ever get released from prison? When did Anna become Theodore? Did the family approve?
I pulled the piece of paper from my pocket, where I had folded it and stuck it after Catrina’s diary ended. A question I had written in capital letters stuck out like a sore thumb: How does Papi’s life entwine with the long, lost Jasper Woodrow?
Papi must have been reading over my shoulder. “Oh, dear,” he whispered. “That question will be answered soon.”
“What question?” Uncle Theodore asked.
“Take a guess,” Papi smirked. “You know, Adrian, I told you how Theodore and Dr. Francis came of age, so here is my story. Your Uncle Dylan here will say he came of age the night of our sixteenth birthday party, but I want to say the day I realized I was officially an adult was the morning after a traumatizing incident in Sicily. The events that happened led me on a solo journey that eventually brought Jasper home.”
“How is that possible?” I asked as I felt all eyes upon me. “We’re Sicilian and the four of you were adopted. What do we have in common with a young man from a wealthy Texas household that went missing with his servant during the Civil War?”
Papi answered my question by shaking his head. “More than you think, my dear, and it’s all so confusing. When grandfather adopted us for the purpose of endured servitude, he didn’t know that he set into motion events that would eventually lead to him being reunited with his brother, as well as many, more family secrets being exposed.”
Dylan took a hold of Papi’s hand and gave a squeeze. “Can you do this?” He asked. “We’ll all be here for you in case of any possible panic attacks.”
“Panic attack,” I asked startled. “Papi, is your story that horrible?”
Dr. Francis answered for him. “It’s not that it’s scary, Adrian,” he said. “It was extremely traumatizing for all of us, especially Millen. We were there for him then, and we will be here for him now as he tells you his story. Afterward, we all have our own story to add to it.”
A flashback of Papi’s eyes closed, as he breathed heavily crossed my mind. I had caused him so much pain today by running away, that I didn’t want him to end up in the hospital.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I said. “We can wait.”
Papi smiled and looked down at his hands. He seemed to be at a loss of words.
“We don’t have much time,” Uncle Theodore said. “You need to hear the entire story, and we’re going to end the first half with grandfather’s diary. A few days after we left for Brooklyn to be reunited with Mr. Tuscano, grandfather opened a gift from his two sons, a blank diary. They told him that since Jasper and Grandfather Alex kept many journals that he would have no problem keeping the tradition. Grandfather told us he started writing down his thoughts to help him become a better person, and it worked.”
I handed Papi the leather bag, so he could rummage around for his grandfather’s diary. The horrible Cleo Woodrow kept a diary! I couldn’t wait to read it. How does a man transform from elderly, arrogant, rich old man to a warm, caring, grandfather?
Papi found the journal and held it for a bit as if he were contemplating. He periodically spoke of his love for his grandfather. I was still curious about the cruel words the old man hissed at a ten-year-old Papi on the train station? Would it be mentioned in the journal?
The old leather bag that belonged to Mr. Tuscano only held a small amount of our family’s history; the rest was up in the attic. Papi had Uncle Theodore build shelves into the walls and he filled it with rows of books about our history, and there were boxes and boxes filled with letters and books that I never cared about—until now.
“What is in the attic?” I asked.
Papi opened the journal. “Grandfather Alex’s entire library,” he said. “When the man passed away he left behind a wealth of paperwork dating back to the Texas War of Independence. Grandfather allowed me to search through the library and read our family history”
A smile crossed over Papi’s face, as his fingers traced over the cover of Grandfather’s diary.
“I remember one summer I found a letter addressed to Grandfather Alex sent from a couple living in San Antonio. The letter had been sent when Jasper and Cleo were little boys. The names on the letter startled me, but unfortunately, the letter was written in Spanish. Grandfather had no clue that his own father spoke fluent Spanish. We took the letter to Sherwood College and had a Spanish professor translate it, and stumbled across another family secret, this one dating back to when Grandfather Alex was a young man before he married Grandmother Heather.”
I crossed my arms. “And, all of these family secrets somehow meet-up with one another?” I asked with a trace of sarcasm. “Our little family from Sicily and the O’Connor Family from Brooklyn are somehow connected to all these Woodrow family mysteries?”
“Yes,” Papi and his brothers answered together, causing us all to laugh.
Papi reached over and pulled me close. I’ve learned it to be a symbol of endearment. The sweet smell of his spicy aftershave wafted in my nose. I didn’t want him to tell me his traumatic incident, but he wanted me to hear it and reflect upon it. The event would eventually lead Jasper home.
“My Grandfather means a lot to me, and I want to read his Journal in-between telling you my story.” He smiled down at me and that feeling of being loved raced through my body.
“Of course,” I whispered. “I would love to hear how this former crass old man becomes a loving grandfather.”
“It was all Millen,” Uncle Dylan replied from his position on the opposite end of the porch swing. “If it weren’t for him, the three of us would have never spoken to the old man, and he probably would have died from a broken-heart, never to be reunited with his brother.”
I gave a shake of my head. “I cannot believe you’re the reason Grandfather Cleo was reunited with Jasper. It’s phenomenal.”
“It’s God, honey,” Papi turned a page in his grandfather’s diary. “I was just along for the ride.”
Closing my eyes, I inhaled and exhaled the fresh air, as Papi started reading.
“Grandfather’s diary starts out with a small note telling the reader the book was a Christmas gift from his two sons in 1904. He will write down his thoughts and become a better person to his grandchildren – and he did. He definitely did.”