Secrets of Silverdale, 2015 Judge’s Choice
By Gina Hill
The streetlight cast an amber glow around the woman’s bent head as she stood on the street corner tapping out a text message to her mom, I’m here. Long trip. Roads good. Jeep ran ok. Idaho looks like photos Grandpa sent. Will call later. Heart you & Grams.
Her four-legged pal wrapped his leash around her legs, impatient to be on the move. “It’s not dark for an hour or more, Jake, let’s explore.” She slipped the phone into her back pocket. Enchanted with the elaborate workmanship on the brick buildings, Judy strolled along the wide streets looking at colorful flowers hanging from lamp posts, American flags waving gently in the breeze. She stepped into the empty street to get a better view of the Silverdale Gazette office on 12th Street.
Her phone rang and a smiling, dark-haired cowboy wearing a white hat popped up on the screen. Travis! She frowned, thumbed the off button, and walked back to the motel.
Judy unpacked her suitcase and propped her grandfather’s silver-framed, black & white photo on the desk. She snapped wrinkles out of her clothes, hung them onto the wooden hangers in the armoire, deciding what to wear her first day. “Okay, boy, one more trip outside for you, then to bed.” Judy sucked crisp air deep into her lungs and wrapped her sweater tighter.
The next morning she walked to the Silverdale Gazette office.
“Judy Sutherland! Welcome to our big town.” Dick’s voice boomed as his long legs strode across the wooden floor to greet her. He scratched Jake behind the ears. “Great to see you two…a dozen years if it’s been one since we last worked together at the Tucson paper.”
A tall, slender woman appeared from the back room and extended her hand, “I’m Susan, Dick’s wife.” Judy shook her hand, surprised by the warmth of her grip. “Dick and I share this wonderful old store space and now, you do too…welcome! I never had the pleasure of meeting you when we were in the desert…I traveled an awful lot. But now I’m in Real Estate and use the front area by the window.” She pointed a tapered, red fingernail at the oak desk piled high with listings, contracts, and file folders. “Real Estate is really booming, who’d of ever thought after being in the dumps for so many years. Hope you like it here half as much as we do. Have you found a place to live?” She plunged on without an answer. “I’m happy to show you the rentals and small homes for sale. Having a dog could be a problem for a rental. You’re the brave one, moving to northern Idaho, sight unseen.”
Judy nodded and remained silent…Susan had no idea how providential the timing was for Dick’s job offer.
“Dick is an amazing boss and mentor,” Judy said. Not like the other men in my life she added to herself. She turned to Dick, “If you’re having fun, I’m sure it’ll be more than just a job. I also have personal reasons for coming.”
Dick slipped his hand under Judy’s arm and guided her to the empty desk. “Voila…your new home.” He perched on the edge of the oak desk, marked with years of use. “Judy, get yourself set up this morning; Susan will show you around this afternoon.” Judy sat down and the chair rolled downhill on the slanting wooden floor, bumping into the desk. Jake yipped, jumped up in surprise as she rolled over his tail.
“Apologies…forgot to warn you about these old floors. We positioned your chair so you’ll roll INTO the desk. Many houses in Silverdale have floors just like this, not unexpected after a century of settling.”
The morning went by quickly as Judy set up passwords, email and voicemail recordings. Susan finished working with a young couple and called to Judy across the room. “Can you believe its noon already? I’m starved…you game for a burger and huckleberry ice cream?”
“Ummm, that sounds fabulous. Do we have time to drop by my room so I can change into comfortable shoes? These new pumps are killing me.”
While Judy changed shoes in her room, Susan noticed the photo. “Who’s this handsome gentleman?”
“That’s my grandfather. He and my grams were struggling to make ends meet on their ranch east of Tucson years ago—the bank was ready to foreclose. The note Grandpa left Grams one day said he was going to the Northwest to try silver mining; he’d be back as soon as there was money in the bank. She discovered she was pregnant with my mom after he left. He wrote Grams occasionally the first year or so and sent enough home to pay off back mortgage payments, taxes and replenish cattle. He moved around a lot, but referred to the Silverdale area more than once. He seemed discouraged that silver wasn’t as easy to come by as the grand stories he’d heard, but he wouldn’t give up…he was on a mission! The letters quit coming—he just vanished. He abandoned Grams and Mom.
Judy leaned forward in her chair, shoelace dangling, eyes brimming with tears. “Grams has waited for him all these years. She loves him still. Mom never met her father.”
“My goodness…quite the story. How do you fit into this?”
“Grams is my best friend. I lived on the ranch off and on since I was little, especially when Mom was struggling with my dad’s issues. Grams taught me to ride horses.” She cinched up her shoelace and stood abruptly. “Susan, I’m embarrassed…spilling my guts here…” She plunged on anyway. “His name is Henry Sutherland. Do you know any Sutherlands?”
“There are lots of miners all around this area. Your trail is pretty cold. ”
”I want to discover what really happened. Grams is very sick. Mom’s plain fed up with men. I’ve missed not having a grandfather. Sutherlands are known for their pit-bull tenacity and I’m on a mission, just like Grandpa was…or is.” Judy lifted her chin and squared her shoulders.
“It’s a small town, Judy, somebody must know about your grandfather.” Susan’s nails tapped out a rapid-fire rhythm on the table top, her brow furrowed in thought.
“Huckleberry ice cream…yumm…I’m hooked. That was a great lunch, thanks,” Judy said as the two women drove slowly around Silverdale. She caught Susan’s contagious smile and found herself humming a tune under her breath.
“I felt like I entered a time warp the first time we drove into this charming town,” Susan said. “Many historic downtown buildings have been loved back into pristine condition while others are crumbling.” She turned down a tree-lined street. These lovely homes were owned by mining executives, bankers and doctors—check out these different styles.” She stopped the car and Judy peered out the window. “That’s a Queen Anne with gables and gingerbread trim. Out my window is a Craftsman-style bungalow… see the strong rooflines and porches? “
Susan wound up and down the streets. “These tall, narrow houses rented rooms to the miners.” She made a sharp left up the hill, and a hairpin turn took them to a neighborhood of beautifully restored homes alongside others with boarded up windows. Susan pulled off the narrow road onto a swath of dirt and they climbed out of the car.
“Take a look at this beauty.” Her red fingernail directed Judy to a set of stairs climbing up the side of the hill to a cozy bungalow. “The owners ‘took it back’, meaning they restored it to the original, vintage condition.”
“How many hundreds of steps did we just climb, anyway?” Breathless, Judy collapsed onto the white wicker rocker on the wide porch. She glanced one direction, then the other. “Where’s the garage?”
Susan smirked. “You’ll get used to Silverdale…garages are expensive and hard to find…these steps are the only access to the house. Back in the day when the mines were booming almost 4,000 people lived here. They were resourceful and built wherever they could.”
“Really? What about when there’s four feet of snow on the ground?”
Judy crossed her arms. “As cute as this place is, I’m not about to carry 40 pounds of dog food up the steps in the snow…that would really suck.”
The women returned to Judy’s motel room after viewing a few more houses. Susan studied the photo again; the man’s face had been on her mind all afternoon, nagging and illusive. “See you tomorrow. I’ll research more housing options.”
After Susan left, Judy sat down at the yellow Formica table in the motel room. Wrapping cold hands around a steaming mug of coffee, she leaned her cheek on her hands and listened to the surface bubbles crackle and pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies®. Jake curled up on her feet, happy to be out of the car. She ruffled his fur; he arched his back and made contented little grunts.
It sure is peaceful here. Wonder how Grandpa fits into this life…is he alive…a rich mine owner…is this the area he really came to…why did he abandon Grams?
She tugged the phone out of her pocket and called her mom. “You’re gonna love this place. I learned about turn-of-the-century homes today. Somebody said ‘Silverdale is Mayberry with a laptop’. Most people are proud to live here, proud to have been born here, and proud of their mining heritage. I‘ll be learning about the miners and how they lived, the rich history that imbeds itself into the fabric of life here, and, hopefully, Grandpa. How’s Grams?”
“You have me itchin’ to hop on the next plane,” her mom said, “never been out of the desert. By the way, your cowboy is mad as a wet hen the way you bolted. I done what you asked, though, and didn’t tell him a thing.”
“I sort of miss him,” Judy said.
“I wouldn’t let this one get away if I was you.”
“Mom, the guy was so in my space. His talking marriage scares me. I needed to get away, to think, to clear my head, needed space to breathe. Men are irresponsible jerks and don’t stay around. Evidence Grandpa and Dad. Like I’m really gonna set myself up to be tromped on like that? Hardly.”
Dick jumped out of his chair when Judy entered the Gazette office one morning. “I have a great idea. I want you to write a story about the history of miners for your first assignment. You might start at the Senior Center to interview elderly men. Susan mentioned your quest to find your grandfather, so feel free to show his photo and see who remembers him.”
The old miners all talked at once. One talked about renting rooms in the tall, narrow houses she’d seen, others lived in downtown hotel rooms. Many remembered waiting in long lines every morning to pick up their box lunches prepared by the hotel before going to work. Others spoke of living up the canyon and walking a mile or more to the mine.
They looked at Henry’s photo with perplexed faces. “Ma’am, it’s been 40 years, don’t want to discourage you or nothin’, but…” Another said, “yep, he shore ‘nuf looks familiar. Weren’t he a Tramp Miner? Like old Joe over there. Joe mined from Missoula to Nevada.” Judy’s heart sank…Nevada? When she questioned Joe he said, “think I remember them blue eyes, but were a long time ago, ma’am, sorry… not sure I kin hep much.”
Judy returned to the office, threw her notebook down on her desk and slumped into the chair.
“Hey, where’s that bright smile?” Dick asked.
“There’s no hope, these old timers can’t remember their own names.”
Dick gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. “Hey, this doesn’t sound like the Judy I know…you’ve just scratched the surface. Chin up. Susan and I are doing our own research too… really want you to find this guy. It’ll be front page news.”
Judy followed every lead she could find, but turned up nothing. One morning Susan and Dick announced they wanted to show her Deer Canyon. As they drove up the steep canyon there were remains of old mines and perpendicular jagged rock walls peppered with fir trees.
“Judy,” Dick said, “we want to introduce you to someone, don’t want to get your hopes up, you’ve had some dead-ends, but Susan has been putting two and two together and…”
Susan broke in… “An old hermit with a snowy-white beard that strongly resembles both you and your grandfather’s photo shops at the grocery store. He even has your baby-blue eyes. He was in an accident years ago that left him with amnesia… has no recollection of family. He lives in a run-down house with no heating or plumbing….figured you’d want to check him out.”
Judy clutched Jake against her chest and whispered a little prayer. Jake whined and licked her cheek with a pink tongue.
They found the house, parked the car, and walked up to the porch, stepping over splintered, spongy boards. Rusty hinges creaked as the door cracked open and piercing blue eyes peered out. “Whadddyawant?” He popped his head out the door and looked at Judy. Venturing further onto the porch, blue eyes locked onto blue eyes… “Hazel?” He seemed confused, but stepped closer, a gnarled hand reached out, and a light bulb seemed to switch on deep in the dark tunnel of his mind. ”Hazel, is that you?”
Judy froze. This almost had to be her grandfather—no it HAD to be him. She clapped her hands together. “Hazel…that’s my grandmother. I look just like her, don’t I?! People say that all the time.”
Disbelief gave way to amazement to remorse at the years wasted in anger she and her mom harbored at his alleged abandonment. She bit her lip to keep the tears from flowing. Did her dad have as good a reason as this lonely old man standing in front of her? Logic took her down the path and she wondered if she’d misjudged Travis too.
“Grams has been waiting for you to come home for a long, long time—Grandpa—I’ll bet you’d like to see her, wouldn’t you? Let me take you to her.”
Henry’s broad smile showed he understood; Judy took his hand and guided him gently out onto the sunny porch. She cast a questioning glance towards Dick.
Dick pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his eyes. “How much time do you think you’ll need? Oh hell, just take the time you want to get your blasted family squared away. Just be sure you get yourself back here, we have a newspaper to run.”
Judy saw Susan slide her arm around Dick’s waist and yearned for a special love like this…with Travis. She hadn’t allowed herself to think how much she missed him. She smiled…maybe Mom’s right. I shouldn’t let him get away.