Form: Creative Non-Fiction
Written: Spring 2011
Published by: Caesura
Introducing Cheryl, part II
On Thanksgiving the year Obama was elected president, I first met my new aunt Cheryl. I remember that Thanksgiving more than any other, mainly because of the political debate I found myself in but partly because of our new family member.
My sister Sam got in a fight with our cousin Mike over his pro-life stance and her “pro-abortion” stance. Somehow it ended in Mike calling my sister a baby-killer and my dad making semi-racist comments about our new president. Sam never cooled down. I started crying.
I wonder what Cheryl thought of us that day. With tension in the air, was she reminded of her childhood? Did she regret making contact with us at all?
We rarely invite guests to holiday dinners. I’m surprised we Sawyers weren’t on our best behavior.
Dad and his sister Claudia first learned about their illegitimate half-sister in 1976. Their grandfather was on his deathbed and some of his final words happened to be the Sawyer family secret: Mitchell had another daughter. Dad and Claudia kept it quiet. They weren’t sure if their mom knew about it; they weren’t sure if it even happened before their parents were married. I imagine the two siblings making a pinky-swear pact to keep it a secret. (A pink-swear pact, even in their teens.)
“It was hush-hush. No one talked about it,” Dad told me years later. I suppose in the ’70s, long before Jerry Springer or other gossipy daytime talk show, you just didn’t talk about things like that.
So, the two siblings kept their “pinky-swear” for more than 30 years.
Introducing Cheryl, part I
I didn’t know about Cheryl until Dad met her the second time, only a few months before the political Thanksgiving. Aunt Claudia, who had not yet met Cheryl, and Dad arranged to get coffee with her at some diner while the rest of my aunts, uncles, and cousins met at Uncle Tom’s lake house for the annual Sawyer Family Reunion. I don’t remember learning a thing about Cheryl—not even her name—until that day in August. I came to the reunion full of questions, hoping someone would fill me in more than my dad had.
While my Uncle Tom flipped burgers on the grill, his wife Cheri began to fill me in on the story of Aunt Cheryl.
My grandfather Mitchell, whom I had never met, had an on-the-side girlfriend around the time he was in the Navy. He got this girlfriend pregnant, but bailed. It was back in the ’40s, so my grandfather wasn’t obligated to pay child support for his daughter. So he didn’t. Mitchell had kept the story quiet his entire life.
A Sawyer by any other name
Cheryl doesn’t look like a Sawyer, except for her fair skin. She isn’t beautiful: her hair like white waves flowing out of her head, her cratered skin uncared for. Her smile looks yellowed, like she hadn’t brushed in years. She is plump, with wide hips and a big bust. She walks with a limp and a cane, always with a can or plastic jug of soda in her other hand.
Cheryl doesn’t look like my kind of Sawyer, we with our thin, healthy bodies and post-braces-smiles. She looks like an alien, a foreigner, someone who doesn’t quite belong.
Cheryl’s mother died in the early ’50s when Cheryl was just a girl. Her mother’s biological sister and brother-in-law adopted Cheryl. Dad said they never treated Cheryl like their daughter, especially once they started having children of their own.
Dad described Cheryl’s upbringing as a Cinderella story. He’s not much of a reader or writer; I doubt he knew how clichéd this sounded. But still, Dad had a point. Cheryl’s life was somewhat reminiscent of a fairytale—at least, one that doesn’t end with a princess ball. Her life has been a realistic fairytale, Grimm’s fairytale.
I can imagine a young Cheryl like Cinderella, as my dad described. I imagine her in peasants’ clothes, carrying a dirty bucket of water to different areas of the house, scrubbing floors and washing windows, all the while her ugly cousins chanting: “Cheryl-ella, Cheryl-ella!”
In the eye of the beholder
Cheryl paints portraits of everyone she loves. They’re oil paintings with vibrant colors that make her subjects look like they’re happier than they really are. She painted one of me once, but it scares me. I hate the way she shaded my teeth in and shrunk my eyes to the size they look when I’ve just woken up. I’m a monster—an oily monster. I keep the portrait flipped upside down in my closet. I pray to God she never asks me about it.
In early 2008, before the family reunion and before that political Thanksgiving, my dad received a phone call from Cheryl’s adopted father. His wife, Cheryl’s aunt, had died. While rummaging through boxes of hers, he found a photograph of Mitchell with Cheryl’s mom, that he wanted to pass along to a Sawyer. So he started calling them: Sawyer by Sawyer until he reached someone who knew Mitchell.
The adopted father told my dad about the photos and asked for his mailing address to send them on. During the whole conversation, however, he didn’t tell my dad that Cheryl was related to him. He just mentioned the photos.
Dad called his sister Claudia to tell her what happened, and she told him to call the adopted father right back. Dad did as he was told in order to get more information about Cheryl. But her adopted father didn’t know where she lived or her phone number, for he hadn’t talked to her in years. But he knew her married name, which gave Dad enough information to start his search.
My dad told me how he tracked Cheryl down: with the internet and the library. I’ve seen my dad on the computer—he types with finger-pecks, moving slow enough for his Windows 98 to keep up. I see him sitting at his desk with his huge, 80s-style glasses on, pecking out one letter at a time: C-h-e-r-y-l C-a-m-p-b-e-l-l. And, I have no trouble imagining how once he found information that may have led him to his half-sister, he decided not to pursue it because it would have cost him thirty dollars. He waited until he found a site that charged him only three. “I could invest in three dollars,” he said. But for his half sister, no more than that.
Dad convinced me it was a mansion. He swore it. He told me about a fountain in the kitchen and how you could get lost wandering in and out of all the rooms. I could picture it and much more. I pictured a mansion from a gothic novel—a castle, even. I pictured a long dining room table with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, Dracula sitting with a fork in hand.
In reality, it wasn’t a mansion—just a really big house.
After her husband Joe died, Cheryl moved into the so-called “mansion” belonging to Brad and Jean, two surgeons, whose three boys she helped raise. When they were in school, Cheryl drove the boys to school and to sports practice. Their youngest son Vinny still has a few years left of school, so Cheryl still takes care of him while living at the house.
Dad said Brad and Jean consider Cheryl to be part of the family, which is why they let her move in. Eventually, I think, they’ll let her move into the house they bought for their boys, across the lake from my Uncle Tom.
The phone call
Dad reached Cheryl. He paid the three dollars and found her contact information
But it wasn’t her phone number that was listed. It belonged to Brad and Jean. She wasn’t living with them at the time—she was living with her husband Joe—but she used their phone number as her work number, as her primary phone number.
I don’t know what Dad said to her that day. Did he come right out and say it: “I’m your half-brother?” Did he ease into it, saying: “Hi, I’m Matt. Do you know of a Mitchell Sawyer?” I don’t know what he said, but I know how she responded.
Dad said she acted coolly on the phone. I guess they had set up a time to meet officially. But later, when Cheryl hung up the phone, the reality of it scared her. I picture her, like someone in a soap opera, stumble into a chair, with her hand graced over her forehead, trying not to faint.
That wasn’t far from being true. Later Cheryl described the feeling: “It knocked me off my keister!”
My new aunt
Dad can never mention Cheryl’s name without qualifying it. Sometimes he’ll call her my “new aunt Cheryl.” Sometimes he’ll start to retell the story of how he met her. “Do you remember Cheryl, my dad’s daughter….” I tell him yes. Every time: yes, Dad. I know who Cheryl is. I don’t know why Dad does it. I don’t know if he’s forgotten whether I’ve met her or not, or if he just likes telling the story.
Or maybe, maybe he wants to remind me of who Cheryl is, as if to give her a place in my life, a place in our family.