PHOTOGRAPH: Dean Drobot, 123rf.com
As a child, I never liked my Auntie Rose*. She was my father’s older sister, and he idolised her. Partly because she was 11 years older, and partly because she was so pretty and clever. In fact, everyone thought Rose would marry a rich and influential man. My grandmother was a terrible snob and she often told my father Rose would be their ticket to a good life.
So it was a big shock when Aunt Rose, aged just 19, suddenly eloped with a poor junior salesman! My dad was a boy at the time, but he remembers the shockwaves it sent through their house.
Turns out, he didn’t know even half of the story!
When Rose left, she cut almost all ties with her family.
Sometimes, she would send my father a card, or a photo of herself dressed in an evening gown, on her way to some gala. Her husband seemed to be making good money by then, and they had no children, so Rose spent lavishly on clothes, holidays and jewellery.
But despite her wealth, Rose rarely sent us gifts. She was especially mean to my younger sister Connie*. Rose never once sent Connie a birthday gift or card. The one time she visited us – she was on a cruise around the world – she ignored Connie and “forgot” her name. I was aged 12 at the time, but I was astonished at her cruelty.
When my grandmother became ill, my parents cared for her until she passed away. Rose never came back. She never offered financial help, called or even wrote a card. She came back only for the funeral – and when she left, she took all my grandmother’s jewellery and silver, telling us she “deserved it”.
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I thought how she acted was unforgivable, but now I know her secret, perhaps her actions are more understandable.
About four years ago, a woman showed up at my sister’s door, and shocked her by saying, “I am your cousin Elsie*, from Canada... And I am Rose’s granddaughter.”
What? Who? As far as we knew, Rose never had children! How could she have a granddaughter? So my sister invited the woman, who was about 10 years younger than her, inside our house. Then the whole story came out.
At 17, Rose had fallen pregnant out of wedlock. My snobbish grandparents would not let her marry the boy because he was poor, with a manual job. Plus, he was what they considered to be the “wrong” religion. So to save face, they sent Rose to stay with distant relatives, and have her baby in secret.
Rose had a baby girl – whom she named Connie* – my sister’s exact namesake. Just days later Connie was given up for adoption, and heartbroken Rose slunk home to her furious mother – who was now even more determined to marry her off to a wealthy man.
Desperate to escape, Rose ran away with the first man she found. But it had not been a happy marriage. He was handsome and a smooth talker, but he made and lost several fortunes, cheated on her many times, and developed a violent drinking problem.
How did Elsie know all this? Baby Connie was adopted by a couple who moved to Canada. When Connie grew up, she traced her birth mother and found Rose. But Rose made her promise not to contact us until after she died – she sobbed that she could not live with my father knowing how messy and empty her life had become.
Through Elsie, we found out the reason Rose treated my sister with indifference: She thought that my father knew about her secret – and had named his child Connie also to shame her. In reality, it was a coincidence; my father had been in the dark all these years! Elsie also told us that her mother’s birth had not been easy, and Rose was unable to have more children. She yearned to be reunited with her daughter Connie, and she visited Canada several times after making contact. She also sent my grandmother’s jewellery to Connie. Elsie, who inherited them, showed my sister our grandmother’s wedding ring, which she wore on a chain around her neck.
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I wish I could say we became close with Elsie’s family, but too much water has passed under the bridge. We send cards at festive seasons, but that is about it. It hurts that my sister and I did not inherit anything from my grandparents, not even one ring. it would be nice to have a memento – it is our heritage too, not just Rose’s.
And it hurts that Rose was so selfish towards my father. He had serious health and money problems at one time, but she never helped. Yet when Rose’s husband died – leaving her deeply in debt – Dad flew her back, paid for her home, and paid off her debts. But she never thanked him. She just expected it.
Auntie Rose was no angel, that is for sure. But I can muster some sympathy for her now. I try to imagine how she felt back then: Alone, ashamed, scared and angry. Her one big secret led to another, and another... and in the end, her secrets destroyed her.
This story was originally published in Singapore Women's Weekly.