By Adina Bernstein
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I couldn’t believe it, my mother was gone. She was so young, only sixty-nine. After an eleven-year fight with cancer, she died. We thought that after the last round of chemotherapy, she could survive. My father put up a brave face, but I knew that he was a wreck inside. My brother, Matt and sister, Alicia, tried to do the same, but we couldn’t. After the funeral, my father packed up his things and rented an apartment. He told us that he couldn’t bear to be in the house that he and Mom shared for 42 years. Dad would sell the house, but that was all he would do.
Dad majored in psychology and Mom majored in advertising in college. She minored in psychology and they met in senior seminar. They were paired on a project and became instant friends. Falling in love became the inevitable next step. They married six months after graduation. Three years after they got married, I was born. Matt was born when I was two, and Alicia, when I was four. We had been a very close family. When my mother first became sick, we all rallied together. It was tough seeing my mother lose her hair and see her depressed, but we got through it. During the last days, we became closer than ever.
Two days before she died, my mother gave me directions for a box in her closet and a key that could open the box. Two weeks after the funeral, my siblings and I decided to start packing up the house. Just as I was about to put the key in the lock at my parent’s house, I heard my brother call my name. “Tina!” he called to me as he pulled up. My sister was right behind him. They stepped onto the porch behind me as I put the key in the lock and opened the door. We put our coats down and got to work.
When I got to my parent’s room, it didn’t look like my parent’s room. My father’s things were gone. But my mother’s stuff hadn’t moved since her last chemotherapy treatment. Do I start in her closet and go through her clothes? Do I go through her dresser? Then I remembered the directions that she gave me. She told me “In the second drawer on the left, in a small wooden box in the right hand corner, find an envelope with a card in it and a small silver key. Call the name on the card after you open the box. The person would know who you are and what to do with the contents of the box”.
I put the key into the keyhole, the box opened with a click. As I opened the box, I heard my sister’s voice. I quickly closed the box and locked it. “Tina?” Alicia called to me from the door. “Yea?” I replied as I put the box where I found it and put the key in my pocket. “Take out sounds fine.” I told her. After we finished our work, I packed the box carefully.
Over the next few weeks, as we packed up and cleaned up the house, the box and its mysterious contents weighed heavily on my mind. A few weeks later, I was alone in my house. I decided to open the box and see what my mother had kept from us. As the key turned and I opened the box, my heart rate sped up ten fold. As the box opened, the hinges spoke of their old age with a creak. As I looked inside, all I saw were papers. I put the box on the bed and began to go through the papers. Inside was a letter from my maternal grandfather Patrick Harrison, who died before I was born.
The letter was dated on October 5th, 1946 and said “To my dearest wife and daughter, I must leave for your own protection. Johnny Sosa and his gang have been on my tail. I do not want you to contact me again, nor will I contact you. It is for your safety that I disappear. Enclosed you will find a death certificate. If Johnny Sosa should come looking for me, show him this death certificate. Tell him that I was in a car accident on a bridge. My car fell into the water, I drowned and my body was never found. I am being given a new identity. You will be taken care of; I have made sure of that. Never forget me”.
My next step was to call the number on the card. It was more than 50 years since the letter was written. I prayed that the person at this number was still alive. I picked up the phone and began to dial. “Hello” the person at the other end said. “My name is Christina Layson. My grandfather was Patrick Harrison. I was instructed to contact the person at this number,” I explained. “So your Patty’s granddaughter” the voice asked. “I am” I replied. “Meet me at Grenard’s Tavern on Thursday at 10 P.M. I will be sitting at the booth 3rd from the back. Bring proof that Patty is your grandfather and I will tell you all you need to know” the voice said and hung up.
Over the next few days, I looked for proof. Thursday afternoon, I found what I was looking for, my grandparent’s marriage license and my mother’s birth certificate. Thursday night at 10 P.M., I entered Grenard’s Tavern. I walked to the booth 3rd from the back and sat down. A moment later, a man sat down in the shadows. The waitress came over, but he shooed her away. “Show me the proof and I will tell you all you need to know”. I slid the papers toward him. “You are Patty’s granddaughter,” he said.
“Tell me why my grandfather had to leave,” I told him. “After he got out of the army, he couldn’t find a job. A local hood named Johnny Sosa heard that your grandfather was unemployed and had a family to feed. But your grandfather didn’t know that Johnny Sosa was a hood that had invested in some of the local businesses. Patty was hired to represent Mr. Sosa so payments could be made on time. Some of Mr. Sosa business partners were behind in payments and it was Patty’s job to pick up those payments. An associate of Mr. Sosa’s accompanied your grandfather; a man named Giovanni Rabeno. Mr. Rabeno was a hit man, but your grandfather didn’t know that. Your grandfather was unaware of what he was really doing until a job two months later when a payment couldn’t be made; Mr. Rabeno killed the man. Your grandfather was terrified and almost went to the police, but Johnny Sosa threatened to hurt your mother and grandmother. So your grandfather made an anonymous call to the police and disappeared” he explained.
“In the letter my grandfather said that my mother and grandmother would be taken care of. Where did the money come from?” I asked. “The reward money was for turning Johnny Sosa and his gang in. They had eluded the government for eight years. The reward was $150,000, a lot of money in those days. After your grandfather left your grandmother started working, but she wasn’t making much. She put it all in a bank account and put some into stock. She only took out enough so your mother and grandmother could live comfortably” he explained.
“So where would I find this information about the money?” I asked. “I would guess that it would be among the papers. That is how you found my information,” He told me. He then put his coat on and walked away. “Wait, how can I contact you again?” I asked. “You won’t have to” He said as he walked out the door. I ran out to thank him, but he disappeared into the night. When I got home, I rifled through the papers. Like my contact said, there was money in stock and a bank account. Excitedly, I called my siblings and father. They all rushed over. “Princess, are you ok?” my father asked. “You sure you don’t need time off from work?” my brother asked. “I’m fine,” I told them and then I explained the whole story to them. They looked at me as if I was crazy. But then I showed them the papers that I had found.
“Are you sure these are real?” Dad asked. “The contact said they were legit,” I told him. “Who is this contact and why didn’t you tell me the truth?” Alicia inquired. “I don’t know. He never told me his name. I didn’t even see his face. I am sorry I lied, but I promised Mom that I wouldn’t say anything until I opened the box” I explained. “Before we go ahead with this, I want to make sure this information is correct. I have a contact in the financial sector. I will take this to her and see if she can help” Matt said. I reluctantly handed the papers over to my brother.
A few days later my brother left a message on my machine. “Sis, it’s me. My contact says that the papers aren’t legit. They’re a fine forgery, but they aren’t the real deal” He said and then hung up. I was furious. I couldn’t figure out who I was angrier with, myself for naively believing this contact that had lied to me or my brother’s contact that spoke the truth. Angrily, I dialed the number of the man.
“Hello?” he asked. “You lied to me. There was never any money coming and my grandfather never worked for any hood. He was just a selfish man who couldn’t deal with being a husband and father,” I screamed over the phone. “I told you the truth,” he said. “How come you know so much about this? Tell me who you are before I call the police” I yelled.
“I am your grandfather,” he said solemnly. I was shocked and upset, but I let him continue. “The day that Mr. Rudelo was killed was when I realized that this job wasn’t so great. I threatened to go to the police, but Sosa threatened to hurt Lucy and Angela. I called the police and disappeared. The hardest part was leaving your mother and grandmother, especially with Angela being so young. I loved them so much. They were the ones that got me through the war and now I had to leave them again. I set up an account in a bank that came from the award money and made sure that they received money every month. I was hoping to at least see your mother one last time before I died, but when I saw the obituary, I knew that I would not see her again, not in this lifetime. I apologize for keeping you in the dark, it was only for your safety” he explained.
“Then why are the papers not legit?” I asked trying to remain calm. “The real ones are in the bank. Those in the box were forged in case Johnny Sosa ever found the papers. The key to the box is also the key to the vault. Why don’t I come over and explain to you in person?” he asked. He came over the next day with the entire family. I took Grandpa with me when I went to get the real papers. Those were legit and we were very happy that they were. And the box? Maybe I will save it for my children one day.