Sarah’s Puzzle

Sarah Martin had turned away from a long-term relationship and a successful business in Northern California in order to find a new path in life, and although she had no idea where this new direction would lead her, she was mostly enjoying the process. She hadn’t done anything like this for decades, and she felt lucky to be living out a sequence of unexpected adventures.

A few weeks into her journey, Sarah stopped in Oregon to visit Judy Klein, a friend of the family. Judy was in her late 70s at the time and living near her daughters in a cozy little condo. She had always been close to the Martin family, even after her ex-husband Roger had left her and their children, bought a sailboat, found a younger girlfriend, and moved to San Diego. Although not pleased at the time with these events, Judy had been mostly pragmatic about Roger’s departure. Roger was concerned that all the men in his family had died young, and he figured that he would, too. At 50, he decided it was now or never, so he got a boat and a more pliable female companion and sailed up and down the Pacific Coast for a while. Then, sure enough, he died at 55.

Sarah liked Judy because although Judy didn’t seem especially warm by outward appearance, she was a rock, and she was always okay with everything the children in both families did. She never judged the kids, and she was never anything but kind and good to the people around her. Sarah felt that no matter what happened in her life, no matter what rabbit hole she sprang out of next, Judy would always think of her as a good person who had somehow succeeded despite occasional evidence to the contrary.

For her part, Judy was especially fond of Sarah, the third of the five Martin children. Sarah, now 52, had never known much about her biological father, Jim Brunson, a test pilot who died in a plane crash when Sarah was a baby. Jim had been, by all accounts, a strikingly handsome and deceptively charming man. After an enlistment in the Army Air Corps, he entered college, met Sarah’s mother Lois, and flew her around in airplanes until she was swept off her feet. They got married, settled down in Kansas, and had two girls, Jennifer and Kate, in quick succession. About four years later, Sarah was born.

After Jim’s death, Lois married Bill Martin. She spoke as little as possible about her first marriage out of respect for Bill’s willingness to share in the responsibility of adopting and raising three young girls as his own. Bill and Lois had two boys to complete the family, leaving Sarah squarely in the center of the siblings, with a four-year age gap on either side. Sarah didn’t think much about her biological dad, having never known him, but sometimes her mother Lois might drop a guarded allusion that might be oblique, veiled, or impulsive, depending on circumstance. Occasionally, she would gain insight into Jim’s character in unexpected moments, like the time her sister Kate said, “I remember once in Kansas when Dad and I were sitting on a bench in the park across from that big old house we lived in. He pointed to the house and said, ‘You see all those windows? There’ll be a face in every one of them until I have a boy.’”

Sometimes Sarah felt confused and out of place in her family, even after all the years that had passed, and she found herself wondering about her identity during her hours on the road. Sitting at Judy’s kitchen table, Sarah heard herself say “Judy, sometimes it felt as if I was just dropped into that family and was not exactly a part of it. I had a different world view than the others. Jennifer and Kate — those two are projections of Jim, and the boys are projections of Bill. It was all so peculiar, with me dangling in the middle, and Mom doing double-duty with those four. It was classic middle child, and I had some difficulty communicating with my mother.”

Judy paused for a few seconds, then said, “Well, when Jim was test piloting planes for Westinghouse in Maryland, your mom took your sisters back to Kansas to visit relatives for a while. While she was there, she got a letter from Jim telling her he had met another woman, and he was planning to get a divorce. Your mom dropped everything, left the girls with relatives in Kansas, and went back to Maryland. It took her a while, but she got Jim back, and that’s when you were conceived. You were nine months old when your dad died in the plane crash, and your mother married Bill soon after that.”

Judy’s story came as a surprise, but it landed in Sarah’s lap like the last few pieces of a puzzle fit into the whole. She smiled at the irony, appreciated how very human her parents were, took great comfort from it, and felt the loose pieces within herself falling softly into place. Judy had played a vital role in this process, and Sarah would be forever grateful to Judy for being willing to tell the story.