The KXLY Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie was the 1939 version of the Man in the Iron Mask. Aunt Sister thought watching TV in the middle of the day was a waste of time, but my Aunt Anna had her phone number called and missed out on a jackpot of $150. My job was to write down the amount of the jackpot, the direction of the arrow, and the word of the day on the back of last week’s church bulletin.
Grandma Ledbetter sat on the blue couch, drifting in and out of reality as Alzheimer’s slowly destroyed her memories. Aunt Sister called it Grandma’s second childhood, and I was used to her calling me by my brother’s or cousin’s names. Aunt Sister was my mom’s older sister. She was sent to the convent at thirteen and became a Benedictine nun. She came to live with her bachelor farmer brother Uncle Clay when her mother could no longer do the housework.
“Mark,” she called. “Go down and bring up two packages of pork chops from the freezer. I think we’ll have them for dinner.”
“Okay!” I got up from the matching blue armchair and headed for the basement.
I looked at the old white-haired woman with gold wire-rimmed glasses and a bun. “It’s Mark, Grandma.” The look in her blue eyes scared me.
“We keep the meat in the upright freezer. Don’t touch the old chest freezer.”
I blinked. “I won’t, Grandma. I promise.”
“Well, you see that you don’t!” The tone of her voice had an edge like a serrated knife.
Thinking back on it, my seven-year-old self knew something wasn’t right, but it didn’t seem important at the time.
Grandma died when I was twelve, and Aunt Sister returned to the convent. Uncle Clay stayed on for twenty more years until he died of a heart attack. Uncle Clay’s will stipulated that we couldn’t settle the estate while Aunt Sister lived. Three weeks after her death, my brothers and sisters, and cousins gathered on a snowy Saturday to clean out the house. Everything went but the freezer.
Our voices echoed in the empty rooms, and as the twilight deepened, my relatives and brothers and sisters left for home. I found my mom standing in front of the chest freezer. She made the sign of the cross when she saw me.
I looked at the freezer’s glowing red light. “What’s in there, Mom? Why is it such a mystery?”
“It’s private, Mark. I can’t tell you, and you can’t open it until after I die.”
“Oh, for shit’s sake,” I said. “What the hell could be so special about it?” I grabbed the lid latch, but it was locked.
Mom came to my side and looked up at me. “I’m tired of keeping it a secret. I’ll tell you but trust me. You don’t want to know.”
She told me, and I kept it plugged in until she died.
I picked the first Saturday after her death to drive to the big, deserted house. I brought several boxes of drawstring garbage bags and a pair of winter gloves. When I left, the red light was off, and I’d removed the bodies of twenty babies. Mom said there was no birth control, and women sometimes resorted to infanticide to control the size of their families. My bachelor uncle and his nun sister also did the unthinkable. I buried their children behind the barn with their brothers and sisters and wished Mom had never told me.