Secrets: An Inheritance

If it wasn’t thought, it wasn’t so. If it wasn’t spoken, it hadn’t happened. Except that secrets, particularly the most deeply held ones, have a way of leeching into everything surrounding them.

~ Dani Shapiro, Inheritance
The late afternoon sunlight through the shutters in our bedroom.

I am constantly reminded of how critical light is, not only to our lives–let’s face it, we need the sun to exist–but to our imaginations, our creative process, our mental and emotional well-being, and the health of our relationships with those closest to us.

In my family, as in the author Dani Shapiro’s family, withholding truths about the past and never speaking about one’s feelings was as integral to our existence as breathing. Mama never explained the complicated relationships in her father’s extended family; she just said, “Papaw has half brothers and stepbrothers.”

In my white-bread, no-one-ever-gets-divorced, 1960s childhood, I had no idea what half brothers or stepbrothers meant. No one I knew had them. What did they mean? Papaw had a “full” brother who lived two doors down from him on the same street as my grandparents, yet I never saw the two of them together when I was a child. Mama took us to Woolworth’s 5 & 10 (my parents pronounced it five and dime) store where Papaw’s sister Vera worked as a Woolworth’s lady, but we never saw her or her family at holidays. And I only met Papaw’s mother two times that I can remember. The few times I saw them I was struck by how sweet, loving, and kind Papaw’s mother and his sister were.

One year old me with my Papaw

Mama did not explain Papaw’s lack of connection with his family until many years later when I was an adult and even then the information she shared was in disparate dribs and drabs.

I learned that my grandfather’s family was torn in two when his mother got pregnant with another man’s child at the same time that his sister, who never married, was pregnant as well. Papaw, who was probably a teenager and the eldest in his family, left home with his father and never completely reconciled with the rest of his family. I imagine my grandfather felt shame, anger, resentment, grief and loss. For decades he acted as if his mother, sister, and brothers did not exist.

Papaw segregated himself from the family members he judged harshly; he refused to associate with the ones who had, in his reckoning, sinned and come short of the glory of God. Although he could repair any machine or appliance, built most of his own house, kept bees, farmed, was the bulwark of his church, and could be kind to those in need of his help, he also could be a hard man–hard as the Tennessee marble he quarried to make a living when my mother was a child.

Riding a bike at a church youth outing, around 1972.

Talking about feelings was just not done in Mama’s family. My father’s family was the same, but worse, since his mother died when he was 4 months old and the grandmother who reared him died when he was only 5. He grew up with alcoholism, neglect, and abuse, so dodging slings and arrows not talking about feelings was the best Daddy could hope for.

My sister and I found our way by binding together as we navigated the slippery narrows of our family’s meandering ways. Not for us the open communication, not for us the answers to simple questions.

For the author and memoirist Dani Shapiro, she discovered in middle age that the beloved father she adored, and felt closer to than her mother, was not her biological father. Her parents had sought the help of a pioneering fertility “specialist” who helped low-sperm-count men by mixing their sperm with donations from sperm donors who were usually medical students. The true biological father could be masked behind a Russian roulette of possibility. For Dani she was devastated that no one in her family had told her the truth about her birth.

Isn’t it often the way that it is as much the hiding of it as the cataclysmic event that destroys the soul. If humans could bury their secrets in their backyards as they do their pets, leave them there and move on, the damage would be less. But secrets held and hidden, pushed down and denied, are like cancerous tumors that grow larger, infect healthy tissue, and kill. So much better to remove the tumor when it is small, before it grows, metastasizes, and destroys.

I have many friends who were sexually abused as children or adolescents by members of their family or extended family. I was sexually abused by a neighborhood boy when I was 5 years old. I have always diminished my abuse because it was with a stick instead of with his penis, but was it different? I have always thought so. At least he was not a family member or a clergyman, which would have been even more of a violation.

If I had been a member of a family who talked openly about unpleasant things, would I have been able to talk about what happened to me? Would I have told my mother and found a way to think it that did not feel as if it was my fault for being so compliant and not screaming and running? Maybe. Perhaps. At least I would not have been alone with my pain and guilt and shame.

In reality, if I had found a way to tell Mama–who came from her own home of shame and denial–I would have found my shame multiplied and magnified as she blamed me too. Shame in the shadows was the way in my family–as was for the majority of children I grew up with it and as it continues now in the 21st Century.

The sunlight of the truth is my answer. Speaking honestly what has been happened or is happening–as much as possible–has been my way since I became old enough to speak the unpleasant truths in my family. But let it not be said that a family truth teller’s road is an easy one or easily defined. Some truths are especially messy. It always seems easier to deny them, especially when the secrets have been denied for years. Toxic secrets in the Catholic Church, nasty big and little secrets in our federal government, poisonous secrets choking the life out of families across the country and the world.

Drain the cesspools of the soul. Speak when you are able. Write your story and share it, even if you are not fully heard–at least you are not alone with your pain.

~ Anna – 4/30/2019

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Creativity, Family, Home, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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