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Angus and Evelyn Jane.

Angus and Evelyn Jane.

My Mother’s Lover

What Happens when Your Mother’s Dying Wish is to Rest in Peace with…Someone You’ve Never Heard of Before?

For years my mother wore a gold locket. When I was a boy, I liked to pull it up from inside her blouse on its chain, tugging it up from between her breasts so I could squeeze the curved button that ran along one edge and make the curlicue gold cover, heavily sprung, pop open to reveal a photograph of my mother’s grandparents.

On an elegant chair sat her grandmother and namesake, Ivy Evelyn Stone, a formidable-looking woman wearing a full skirt, a fuller blouse, and an immensely confident expression. Next to her chair stood her husband, Gene, a railroad engineer in their hometown of Wichita Falls. Especially in Wichita Falls, a railroad town, this was a high-status position then, like that of an airline pilot 50 years later. He is dressed in suit and tie, hair slicked, with his hand on the back of the chair.

I viewed this portrait as a fair representation of the distant world from which my mother came: a stable, solid existence full of aunts and uncles and her mother and father and grandparents all living toughly but carefully in the high bright sun struck towns of north Texas. The picture agreed with the steady, accomplished, morally sturdy person I and many others knew my mother to be. But it hid the fact that she came from a world that moved violently beneath her feet.

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They swished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had travelled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return.

Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller­skate on her.

MomAngus-660x851

Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“Okay, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“Okay,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged. What we knew of Angus was this:

Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

EJ-Angus-in-Hawaii-5

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail.

The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube.

Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.

By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again.

A radiant domesticity, October 1944 copy

I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. The letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, it just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect was Z – something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honour List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:

ZAHRT NORMAN E 01700383 CAPT M

The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all-negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:

David,

What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

 I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.

david

It was clear from his letter, the one thing that was clear, was that these kids are 7 and 5 when he disappears. And ever since then, they had, in some sense, been wondering who broke up their family. That person was my mother.

I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me.

David and Christie also knew next to nothing about Norman because he died when they were so young. They knew there was an affair but that was it. And they gave him the go-ahead on his search for Norman. The search would last nearly a decade. What David figured out was that in 1943, his mother met Norman on an Air Force base where they were stationed. One night a friend convinced him to go on a double date, just a casual thing. His date was David’s mother Evelyn Jane. This is where their love affair started. In a letter to his friend later explaining the affair Norman wrote…

She was very intelligent, sharp, good dancer, pretty wonderful figure, etc., etc. Does that sound like I’m gone? I told her I was married the first night. She has been married, divorced to some guy who must have been awfully stupid not to realize what a good thing he had. I realized that similar statement might aptly apply to me. You’d like to know something of her, I suppose.

 She’s a woman in love, so naturally she wants the obvious. But she’s very broad-minded about it. And what about me? I want her. She’s the kind of gal I’d consider marrying if I weren’t already, and I haven’t seen many of those. This all may seem to be written very calmly. It is fairly so, but it was not arrived at calmly. There has been a tremendous battle of Zart versus Zart going on for the past six months. But after battling with myself over and over, I seem to get the same answer – I want this gal. I’ll never get her out of my mind.

The Pacific was the last front to go. When Norman was stationed in Hawaii, Evelyn followed him to the tropics. Only pictures that David found after his mother died tell the story.

So there are all these pictures of him and some of my mother, some of them together while they were in Hawaii. They’re just clearly utterly in love. And there’s another one where she’s looking at the camera. And my mother was a really, really good looking woman. She was a knockout. And she’s looking at the camera, and it’s a light coming out of her eyes that unless you’re a really good actor or actress, you only see it when someone’s just really in love.

But as blissful as they were, the war raging on the horizon was never far from their minds.

Angus, deployed in Saipan copy

And there’s another picture, they do not look happy. Angus is looking straight at the camera. He’s got aviator sunglasses on, and he’s looking kind of sternly at this camera, which is down low. And my mother is looking off to the right, and she looks stricken. And that just spoke of a sense of trouble to come.

Norman was trained to fly dangerous rescue missions over the ocean. Evelyn must have understood the risk when Norman was called to duty. Evelyn Jane went back to the mainland to wait for him to come home. She would never see him again.

The war was two weeks over. Everyone had celebrated. People were starting to hear from, you know, their kin that were coming home. And my mother gets this letter from a buddy of Angus’s in his unit saying that Angus had gone out on a mission about two weeks before the war ended, and the plane vanished with the crew. This letter just destroyed Evelyn Jane, my mother, just shattered her. For weeks she was a mess – just destroyed her.

Evelyn moved on to become a doctor, and eventually she got married and had five kids. As a kid, David remembers playing with a gold locket hung around his mother’s neck. When he would click it open, there was a picture of his grandparents inside of it. Right before she died, she sent it to her cousin. But when her cousin opened it…

The grandparents’ picture is not there. What’s in there is Angus’s picture, a picture of Norman. Norman’s picture was behind that picture all the time. She carried Norman around her neck for 55 years.

Evelyn went to her grave imagining Norman still out in the Pacific. And she imagined her ashes would be with his, except that David discovered just one other thing – Norman wasn’t in the Pacific. Because she wasn’t next of kin, Evelyn was never told that his body was found in a shallow grave in Japan four years after he went missing. He was reburied in Northern California. The remains were still thousands of miles apart. Even in death, Norman and Evelyn would never be together.

Angus in flight, in one of dozens of photos he sent Evelyn Jane in Hawaii and then Texas copy

My son, looking over my shoulder at pictures of Evelyn and Angus in their youth, asked me if I thought that telling this story would be OK with my mom. I told him I thought it would. I had once asked David Zahrt how he felt about this story going public. “The past is approved,” he said, “and the future is open”—another way of saying we must own our scars rather than wish them away. And to my mind, my mother had told us twice that she was finally ready to release her past, and thereby own it.

The first tell was her request that we put her in the Pacific. She had to know this amounted to a public declaration. I think that’s why she looked so relieved when she asked us to take her to Angus. It’s work, hiding these things.

The other tell was the locket—the one holding the picture of her grandparents. About a year before she died, my mother sent the locket to her cousin. Betty Lou found it unsettling. The locket seemed a fitting thing to share, yet the timing made Betty Lou worry that my mother was declining and that this gift represented a good-bye.

That locket had held the same picture for almost a century. Yet when Betty Lou pressed the button and the locket popped open, she did not see the photograph of her grandparents. She saw a photograph of Angus.

Had my mother kept Angus’s picture behind that of her grandparents all those years? We agreed she must have. It’s not as if she would cut out his picture and put it there just to send to Betty Lou.

So it appears she had carried Angus with her all that time. It had been there when as a boy on her lap I tugged it up from between her breasts so I could look at it. Instead of Angus, of course, I had seen my mother’s grandparents. She had put them there because she loved them. But she had also put them there to cover and protect Angus’s memory: one past to cover another, just as she built one life to encase an earlier one.

A decade ago, I began chasing Angus as a way to better know my mother. A year ago, I went to see him. I did this partly as a way of once more visiting my mother, of drawing from her, in my mind at least, the smile she had once given me in the garden. To make sure Angus did not slip away yet again, I carried all the information needed to find him: the name of the cemetery, his grid, row, and plot number. I had built an empty half-day into the end of a Bay Area business trip. When I finished my work, I got out my phone, opened Google Maps, and found the big national cemetery at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be a two-hour walk across the San Francisco hills.

For April it was warm. Sometimes I would reach the top of a hill and see the bridge shimmering in the heat and distance, bigger each time. As I walked, feeling myself growing both excited and tense, I told myself that I was excited to finally meet Angus and tense because I had not yet worked out what I wanted to say.

I found the cemetery down by the water, just as the map showed, along one shore of the lovely old fort called the Presidio, and walked through the stone gates. To my right rose the bridge. Before me opened a broad rolling landscape of precisely laid rows of white headstones. A couple hundred yards up the driveway stood a visitor center. Attached to the building, right next to the door, was a little box that said “Grave Finder.” You turned a ratcheted wheel to the last name you were looking for and it would give you the grave location. I turned it to Z—but found no Zahrt.

I checked everything and did it again. No Zahrt. I stood there like an idiot, alone and dumb amid thousands of silent headstones, and tried to figure out what was amiss. Either the Grave Finder had the wrong information or I did. I walked back so I was among the gravestones and again opened Google Maps on my phone. Again I checked my entry for the grave information. And then, knowing what was coming, I Googled “Golden Gate National Cemetery.” And I found that, behold, the Golden Gate National Cemetery is not the national cemetery that lies at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That cemetery is the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Golden Gate Cemetery is eight miles south, in a place called San Bruno.

I looked at my watch. My plane was leaving in three hours. I would have to visit Angus another time. For now, surrounded by dead strangers, I could only sit in the grass and laugh. My sister Cynthia laughed, too, when I called her later and told her the story.

“That man,” she said, “is simply not to be found.”

A month later, contriving another business trip and taking another long, warm walk, I finally found Angus, on a bright slope in San Bruno. The Golden Gate National Cemetery sits surrounded by strip malls and big-box stores and six-lane suburban boulevards. Yet its gentle rolling expanse and the well-kept severity of its close-mown grass offer dignity and peace. Norman’s stone stands near an oak tree among the graves of others buried in 1949, none of them killed in the war. Many of the stones designated these men as “Son of” or “Husband of.” Some had the names of wives, buried there, too, carved into the reverse side. Norman’s contains no mention of family.

I sat for an hour, thinking of him lying here for 50 years while my mother thought he was still in the Pacific. When we granted her wish and flew her to Hawaii to join him, we instead left him far behind. Now she was slowly dispersing in the Pacific while he laid buried neat and deep in San Bruno; it would take a lot of time and rain to bring them together. If we had saved some ashes, I could have sprinkled some on his grave. But we had not, and I did not want to leave a picture that would just get thrown away. My mother would not have liked that. So I took some photographs and walked past a few thousand headstones and past the big-box stores and back to the train.

My mother’s long-kept photo album today

Later, at home, I made a two-inch-square print of Angus’s resting place. I found the photograph my brother had emailed me from Maui years before, showing our leis floating over my mother’s ashes, and I made a two-inch-square print of that. Then I opened my mother’s crumbling photo album and slipped the pictures into the two remaining empty sets of corner mounts. I considered pulling those mounts off and pasting the photos closer to one another. But I thought, No: My mom had glued those holders in that way, and I shouldn’t change it. This was as close as I could get them.

David Dobbs

What Mom Was Like

David Dobbs reconstructs

Finding Angus

David Dobbs family secrets

The Story Behind the Story of “My Mother’s Lover” | Neuron …


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