Friday night I had gone to sleep after a lovely night of visiting and chatting with a dear friend who has a lot in common with me. She has different eyes because she is more than 20 years younger than I am, but she also has perception much deeper than her age. After going to bed, I spent the night in agony. The tell-tale sign of something not being right appeared as screaming matches in muscle spasms. My legs and feet were curling and cramping relentlessly. This was something I thought I had gotten under control months ago. I got up to walk the pain out because my usual mental skills to calm the spasms were not working. I went into the living room and tightly bound myself in blankets and the comfort of my chair.
Through the darkness, the room faded into the past. The fear of long-ago filled me and I began to cry. I was not sure if I was crying from the pain in my legs and feet or from past memories. I released my mind to go and I followed where it willed. It brought me to my attic where I was going through my mother’s artifacts after she had passed away. In a small black box tied with a red ribbon were the letters written by my mother to her father, who had abandoned her as a child of 15. The letters were scolding and filled with the pain of a young girl who felt betrayed. Growing up, my mother had told me and my siblings that our grandfather had died because of being poisoned in WWII. He had been poisoned but not from gas. The actual obituary and death certificate were at the bottom of the box. He died in a sanitarium from alcoholism. I was twenty-five when I found the letters and felt betrayed by my mother because she had not been forth coming. Now, some thirty years later, I understood her shame and disappointment in the relationship that should have been pure. I understood her secret. It also made things in my youth make more sense. It was why she would choose to defend her spouse over protecting her children. It was in her mind the only choice as she did not want her children to feel abandoned by their father.
My mother had lived with her shame and pain from her disappointment in her own father. She felt she had to do what she thought was right to make her daughter stronger. She tried to toughen me up to life’s disappointments and heartaches. We shared an unspoken secret which she took to the grave. She never spoke of any of her pain, even when cancer was destroying her body. As a young girl she shut herself off from me in many ways and spent her energy in correction and trying to perfect a not-so-perfect daughter. She never was demonstrative and physical contact was never present. The day I was married her parting words as I left the reception was “you can never come home again.” It hurt me to the core as I thought she was glad to be relieved of me, and to some point I am sure she was. Once I was on my own as a married young woman, she reignited our mother-daughter relationship as friendship. It only made it more acrimonious when she died three years later. We never spoke of the evil or terror that existed in our lives and home we had shared. She no longer had to protect me from secrets. As I sat next to her as her life slipped away, there was no remorse, no divulgence from either of us.
I cried for the loss. I cried for her pain and mine. I felt that we had a circle of women in my family who were very good at keeping secrets and there was some release in that thought. There was some forgiveness.
The light shifted in the room and I swaddled myself tighter. I looked to my dining area where I also sit and write. The room became the warm wood covered walls of my aunt’s dining room. I was transported to her home and felt the love I always felt when I was there. Her lovely image passed into my mind and I remembered the story she wrote about her life and sent to us all when my father died. She had journaled the life she and her brother shared when they were very young. I never knew my grandfather. He had died a horrific death. He and what would have been my uncle, my father’s older brother died in a car wreck when they were stuck on a railroad track. I have never seen the obituary for it. It was not a secret though growing up. My grandfather was a revered diplomat from Spain who had swept my grandmother off her feet at a cotillion. Their love was storied as a romance of the gilded age. My grandmother was pregnant with my aunt when her husband and young son were decimated by a train. My father was three. My aunt’s loved-filled story about their youth was poignant with the restrictions of the era for people of high society and propriety. Because my grandmother was so young the estate controlled their lives. Everything from living expenses to hair ribbons, my aunt wrote, was documented and declared. My grandmother never remarried and never worked a day in her life. I remember a sadness about her, even though I always thought she was so beautiful with her long white hair and soft blue eyes. But I also remember there was a coolness about her, an aloofness that never permitted granny cuddling or touching of any kind. My aunt wrote of distance from her own mother that I am sure was also what my father had felt. I am also sure there was some survival guilt he dealt with. My aunt’s story was filled with hijinks and pranks she and my father perpetrated on unknowing victims. This was his gift to me, his sense of humor. She spoke of his gift for words. And she spoke of the bond they had and how sad she was that it had deteriorated through the last years. Their shared demons were never spoken. Both however had dissolved their lives to some extent because of alcohol. But my aunt recovered earlier and became extremely successful, out living her older brother by many years.
As I sat in the darkness of the early Saturday morning, I grew up. The swaddling offered warmth as I sat and wept for all of us. The demons floated in the shadows. The anger and hatred that has been sulking within me for so long became unnecessary. It was not replaced with any great feeling of love or even absolution. But the significance faded and I felt relief. I felt my parents were human and therefore allowed their mistakes as did their parents. Their punishment was not mine to give.
Another layer has been ripped off. What is left is still very much so the heart of a very young child who trusts that all is for love in this world. Intellectually, I have grown in my understanding of human behavior. I feel for the loss of lives that were not fulfilled and I grieve for us all. I can view this world with an adult eye, but I have not learned to love any different. So with a trepid step, I move onward.


One thought on “Secrets

  1. Such a powerful, moving post and I thank you for sharing your story – part of the human story. Your family have had some very sad tragedies but it is remarkable to read of your understanding of this and also how it may have been passed down generations through behaviour and emotions unexpressed. I too have a difficult background, although not in the same ways as yours, and your post has made me reflect again on how my parents own backgrounds impacted on their lives and how they were with me. I got a lot from your honesty here. Thanks once again and sending blessings.

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