Grandma Tilly kept the faded newspaper clippings tucked safely in her Bible. Her Bible rested squarely on her lap, held gently in the soft folds of her cotton dress with the tiny flowers of pale pink and blue.
Every day. Always.
It’s hard to know what will happen to a family when their story becomes headline news.
I was only seven years old when the details reached our tiny corner of the Pacific Northwest. I was too young for the news to be anything more than hushed secrets heard through walls but for my father, it changed everything.
My brother and I were Family Number Two. Dad had already raised two children – sons – before us that were closer in age to our mother than our own father was. But a 25 year gap couldn’t keep their love from growing and soon he had fathered a second set of children. My parents divorced when I was six, and Dad moved back to his home state of Wisconsin.
But we remained the two children he was closest to and would call after most often. How could we know that being first in his mind would seal his fate forever?
The news reached him by telegram. He was a contractor, working on a job site far from home. This strong man – my father – could pound a nail clean in with one powerful whack of the hammer. He had no idea that everything was about to crumble beneath him.
URGENT. THERE’S BEEN AN ACCIDENT. YOUR SON IS INJURED.
He wasted no time. He dropped everything and rushed to his child.
Far from home.
Across the country.
In Washington state.
All I knew was that my daddy was home. The big, strong man with the whiskery face that would tickle my cheek when he scooped me up in his arms.
I had no idea why his knees buckled at the sight of my brother, Robby, alive and well and gearing up for soccer practice.
Hushed secrets were heard through walls.
“It was Billy? ….oldest son…..was shot…..the funeral……….Oh God, you’ve missed the funeral.”
There was no way to undo what had been done.
An assumption made in the flash of a moment that divided a family forever.
Years later, my brother and I spent our summer vacation with our father in Wisconsin. We stayed with him at his childhood home. Late one night when only the hushed sounds of sleep could be heard through walls, I snuck into the sitting room and took Grandma Tilly’s Bible from the shelf.
With a racing heart and shaking hands, I carefully unfolded the yellowing newsprint and read the article with tear-blurred eyes.
William “Billy” Smith, on family leave from the Marines to meet his newborn son, was shot and killed on September 6, 1981. He and a friend worked odd jobs together to earn extra money. To make ends meet. They were headed to the home of Fredrick McCallister, age 91, to help fix a leaking faucet.
Mr. McCallister was confused. He thought the young men were intruders. He fired his gun and killed my brother.
Billy’s friend made it out and called for help. But Billy was already dead. They took the elderly man into custody. Mr. McCallister died of a heart attack on the way to the police station.
Billy Smith was survived by his wife, Brenda, and newborn child, Billy, Jr.
I returned the faded clippings, tucking them safely back into my grandmother’s Bible.
Exactly as they had been.
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