When I first discovered a “family secret” it came with a heavy price. Now I had to keep the secret.
I discovered the secret daughter that my grandmother had when I saw the picture on grandma’s dresser. She only had two pictures in her entire apartment and they were side-by-side on the dresser. The picture on the right was my mom and next to it was the other daughter. They were in matching 5×7 frames and the “secret” daughter was in a short frilly dress with her hands over her head and she was wearing ice skates. Grandma talked about her all the time. My mom never mentioned her…ever. Grandma never asked me to keep this woman secret but I did for a few years. I first saw the two pictures when I was about 6. I could see the “other” daughter was a star of some kind and I figured that’s why I never met her. I thought of Grandma as poor, so I guessed her secret daughter didn’t want anything to do with her. I thought that’s why Grandma seemed sad sometimes.
On my 10th birthday, Grandma had a surprise for me. She said she had tickets for the train and we would go together to Chicago and see Sonja. My heart almost exploded. Finally I could see that other woman on Grandma’s dresser and find out why she had been gone for so long. My secret aunt!
I told Mom I was going to see Sonja and mom was excited for me. She told me I’d love the train ride and Sonja was magnificent. I never hear my mom use that word before and I thought she might be jealous of her “secret” sister but I kept silent and counted the days until I would meet Sonja.
The cab ride from the Union station to the Chicago Amphitheatre was the fastest, scariest ride of my life. We entered the Amphitheatre and the usher took us down front to the first row. When the ice skaters came whizzing by they would throw snow off their skates right in my face.
Then she came out. Sonja was beautiful, just like her picture on Grandma’s dresser. Everyone applauded loudly and she skated right passed us and waved at Grandma and me. Grandma was smiling the entire night.
We took another scary cab ride to a downtown hotel and I could hardly stay awake for the elevator ride to the room. When we got to the room I asked Grandma why Sonja had a different last name if she was her daughter.
She looked puzzled and laughed. “I only have one daughter”, she said, “but I wish Sonja Henie was my daughter. She’s from Norway and she won the gold medal you know.”
That was the first of many assumptions about life and people that I got totally wrong.
Sonja Henie would have been 100 years old today. Happy Birthday Aunt Sonja!