Nikki Burdick had something on her mind. She was eager to get it out in the open. So right after a lunch that featured the best from-scratch split-pea soup I have ever tasted (it’s the ham bone that does the trick, she insisted), Nikki, my wife’s first-cousin, and I slipped into the cozy office of her spacious rancher in Clermont, Fla., on land where undulating fields of orange groves once flourished.
We settled in. Nikki, who grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., has been toting around a heavy burden for much of her life; talking about it, she hoped, would spark a cleansing, bring closure.
Here’s some context. My wife told me long ago that, growing up in Northern New Jersey during the 1960s, she had no idea Nikki existed. To better appreciate the situation, it’s important to consider the tenor of the times. A time where Hollywood informed us that father always knew best. A chapter of our history where married couples on TV slept in separate beds. Where drug addiction and homosexuality were taboo subjects.
Leaning forward in her swivel chair, Nikki’s usual Florida sun shiny countenance melted into one of seriousness.
As she grew older, Nikki credited Anna, my wife’s sister, for reaching out to help her cousin connect some of the familial dots. “She’s my lifeline.”
“She told me stuff about the family,” said Nikki. “My parents had not told me anything. I would take any scrap of information about aunts, uncles, cousins.”
Nikki continued. When one of her aunts asked her about how someone named Pauline was doing, the question launched Nikki into a tailspin. “I didn’t know who Pauline was! I got up, went into the bedroom and took a Valium.”
As it turned out, Pauline was Nikki’s father’s secret wife. It brought back memories, she said, which, today, added another important piece to the puzzle. “He would leave at night. I would ask my mother, `why isn’t Daddy here?’ My mother would answer, `don’t ever ask that again!’”
But it begged the question: If Pauline was her father’s real wife, who was Pearl?
What Nikki was able to cobble together was her father’s no-tell marriage to Pauline wasn’t a happy one. “My father left Pauline. She sued him for alimony. It went through a lot of therapy.” Intuitively, along with more guidance from Anna, Nikki learned that she was born out of wedlock.
While sorting out the players, the acts, the scenes of a life where the curtain rose on a trusting child who was kept backstage, Nikki roped off a poignant memory of her times with Dad.
“He bought me books. He’d pick me up and we’d go to New York City and stay overnight. We saw “My Fair Lady’ and went to Ripley’s Believe it Or Not. He would engage with me much more than my mother.”
During a period where her mother worked split-shifts at the Van Dyck restaurant while her father was immersed in his work as a powerful labor union. Once, while riding in the car with him, she found a gun tucked away in the glove box. He told her to put it away.
As ruby red streaks of dusk settled on Central Florida, Nikki said she is compassionate. She loved her parents and appreciated that they did what they thought was right in order to protect their only child.
She was again painfully reminded of her father’s ultra- private nature after her cousin Anna pointed her in the direction of a decades-old story in the Troy, N.Y., Record. There, on Page 1, was an account of a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its chairman, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, led a witch hunt, attempting to ferret out alleged communists in the U.S.
The star witness that day was Nikki’s father. “I was shocked to read his testimony, but I was more shocked to see his face in the paper. That made it real.”
The surreal account took place when Nikki was not yet 2. As an adult, it prompted her to meditate more deeply about her father. “Was he a closet communist? If so, did he leave the communist party because he and my mother had a baby?” Questions, she admitted, which may never be answered.
Despite growing up “angry” and “simmering,” Nikki’s the eternal optimist. Toward the end of our talk, she assumed a softer, forgiving tone. It was an arrow that pointed directly to the upbringing her father and his siblings suffered through as orphans leading up to World War II. It brought this warm and welcoming fixture back to earth, a high-octane soul beloved for her fun-loving, mischievous streak. The time she takes to nurture friends and neighbors as part of her open-door policy. The affection she puts into everything she tackles—split-pea soup and so much more.
On a Halloween night during the Great Depression, Nikki’s grandfather, who was left to raise five kids after the death of wife, schemed with his business partner and set fire to their candy shop in Norfolk, Va., and then collect on the insurance. But the plan went horribly awry. Both men died in the inferno. The children, now orphaned, were shipped off to live with relatives in Greece.
Nikki takes all that into account. “I’ve had things happen to me that are very strange,” said the retired medical transcriptionist, who believes in reincarnation. “Having an identity is very important to a person. And although she weaved her narrative with how “Anna is my lifeline,” Nikki saw a silver lining in the blank spaces. Others’ sins of commission and omission, she said, have galvanized her to soar to a higher level of consciousness. “There are people whose approach to life is let things happen to them. I turned into a person who makes things happen. I pay attention to things.”