“Centenary Methodist Church, that’s where they were married,” I told Tom. “That would be a good place to start.” My brother and I had exhausted our search through our parents’ house for their marriage certificate. Tom was the youngest of the five of us, and would not remember Centenary since we moved from St. Louis when he was two. The only son, he had taken responsibility for Mom in her final years. At 92, she was now in a nursing home near Tom in Orlando, lost to us in what seemed an impenetrable fog. And she was outliving her money.
Dad had been in the Navy during WWII, and it was only a recent thought motivated by desperation that Mom might be due some benefits. My brother was wading through the red tape of the VA. He had dutifully filled out numerous papers. The final requirement: proof of their marriage.
Tom reached the church and was waiting for the clerk to retrieve the certificate. I idly stared out the window of his apartment as an image of their wedding pictures came to mind. What an expanse of time had passed since that day. Married for what? Forty years at the time our dad died?
Just as Tom switched on the speakerphone we heard the clerk’s voice. “There’s no record of the marriage of Mildred Long and Eugene Wallace here,” we heard the woman say. We looked at each other. He had a slight frown but remained calm, as usual. I was throwing my arms upward as I mouthed an emphatic, “What?!” Tom turned away, I’m sure in an effort to avoid my oddly contorting face. He needed to focus. “Oh,” I heard him finally say to the woman. “Maybe we have the wrong year.”
“No, I’m sorry. Those names don’t come up in any year.”
We were stumped. “Well, thanks for looking,” my brother was saying.
Then she added, “Try calling Jefferson City. Ask for Records.”
“Thank you,” we said in unison, grateful to know we weren’t at a dead end.
I googled Jefferson City while Tom picked up the phone again. Government offices, Records: Titles, Deeds, Marriage! I read the number aloud and Tom dialed. Greeted by the standard automated answering message, he patiently pushed the designated numbers and eventually reached a live person. As he made his request, I began to jot down “Ask if they would be willing to FedEx it to us.” But before I could finish writing, Tom had hung up. “Not there,” he said. Again, we stared into space, then at each other, back into space again. “Let’s get lunch,” I said.
At a nearby sandwich shop we were able to get a bit of a reprieve from what was turning out to be an arduous and perplexing task. We joked about the possibility that our parents were never actually married. Then we moved on to talk about world affairs, politics, and our respective careers. After lunch we drove by the nursing home and sat with Mom for a while.
She was sleeping, and we no longer tried to rouse her. She was in her final days, or hours. It was alarming, if I let myself think about it, how little she resembled my mother. So small. She had always been petite, but now her skin seemed draped over the bare bones. There was no more of her natural curl left in her hair. It had become thin and barely covered her skull. I took her hand, sang to her one of her favorite hymns, This is My Father’s World. Then Tom spoke to her with such gentleness. He as a good son. He’d been able to be patient with her long after my resilience wore out.
We alternated between talking to her directly, as if she had the mental capacity to understand us, and talking about her in the third person. Finally, I said, “We gotta get going, Mom. Sure wish you could tell us where your marriage certificate is.”
Once back at Tom’s apartment, he phoned the gentleman he had spoken with earlier at the VA to tell him we were not able to locate a marriage certificate. In spite of commonly held beliefs, and our own past experience with the impersonal bureaucracy of the VA, Tom had been fortunate enough to have happened on a guy who was sincerely helpful. Now he was asking Tom if there was someone who had been present at the wedding who could validate their marriage. Simultaneously we thought through the short list of relatives in the photos. Only one was still alive. Aunt Dot.
We called our dear aunt, who still lived in St. Louis. After a brief catching up on Mom’s status, I asked her, “Aunt Dot, you were at Mom’s wedding, right?” Without even a slight pause she said, “Well, I was at her second wedding, when she married your dad.”
“What?!” I must have shouted. “Her second marriage? Mom was married before?”
“Well, yes Honey. I thought you knew that. The hockey player. You didn’t know?”
After a few moments of stunned silence, Tom and I laughed. We couldn’t wait to tell our other siblings. What a story! Keeping that secret all those years!
Later I was hit by a wave of sadness. Why did Mom feel she couldn’t share that? Did she ever consider telling us? Was she ashamed, embarrassed? I wished I could go to her and tell her she didn’t need to be ashamed, that none of us would regard her differently.
But even if she could hear and/or understand me, I later thought, I hoped I would have the grace to let it be. It was her secret and she wanted it that way. I hope she wasn’t troubled by it. She chose to leave it in the past, and out of our awareness. I can respect that. And honor that. I love you, Mom.