Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Family Secrets

My father used to have a theory -- explained to me one night as he held a large ring of keys in the palm of his hand.

"No one will ever completely unravel the mystery of another person's key ring or his life," he said, turning the keys over in his hand. "It will be part of the eternal mystery one carries to his grave."

And so it was. For, among the items on my father's keychain were the keys to ten safe deposit boxes at ten different banks, scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area.  Accompanied by my parents' estate lawyer -- with his pricey meter running -- I had to visit every one of those banks and have the safe deposit boxes opened.  Each and every one of them was empty.

I got another startling reminder of family lies/secrets/mysteries while going through some old family photos and brittle, near century old news clippings the other day.  I picked up an obituary for my paternal grandfather, who died in 1921, and read that, among his list of survivors were his wife Elizabeth B. Lyons McCoy and his two children Molly, 4, and Mary, 8.

Mary?? My father James McCoy was eight years old when his father died and his sister Molly was 4. I looked for another obituary. Same thing.  And I wondered why his mother would falsify the name and gender of her eldest child.  I knew that she did everything she could to prevent her children from knowing about their father's death -- from telling them that he was on a business trip to moving from Tucson to Los Angeles as soon as possible. Perhaps disguising his name and gender, she hoped to prevent his classmates' parents from reading of the death and mentioning it to their children and their children passing the news on to James. But they did anyway, teasing him on the playground "Your Daddy's dead! Your Daddy's dead!"

When James insisted that his father was on a prolonged business trip, some of his classmates took him to the Catholic graveyard and showed him his father's grave. James fell on the grave screaming, the intensity of his grief driving his classmates away and causing him to break out in sobs, tears running down his cheeks, when he told me the story nearly 60 years later.

Or maybe the Mary designation was something a bit darker -- an inspiration for the times, years later, when our father would dress my brother Mike up in girl's clothing when he was a small child and call him "Michelle", usually as a punishment for not being as macho as he expected. Perhaps it was a form, as it was for Mike, of baffling, horrifying abuse.

We'll never know for sure.

Although I long had the impression that there were no secrets kept in my family of origin -- it surely seemed that every aspect of my life was open for examination and critique -- Mike and I learned in our early twenties of a major secret our father had kept from us.

It started as simply as a  trip to the grocery store. Mike, who was visiting during a college spring break, and our father went to the grocery store because Father insisted that he could accomplish in minutes what took our mother an hour because she always met and talked with friends in the store. But once in the store, our father stopped short and stared at an attractive woman, about his age, pushing a basket in the same section.  "Mary," he said. She looked at him startled, then smiled. And they talked there together for over an hour. Father introduced Mike as his son, but never indicated to Mike who this woman might be. As they left the store, Mike asked him. "Oh," my father said casually. "That was Mary, my first wife."

His first wife??? Mike couldn't wait to get home and call me with the news. And he had an extra scoop that he had extracted from our mother: our father and Mary had been married in the Catholic church, separated after less than a year of marriage and finally divorced two years later, after father had met our mother and wanted to get re-married. That was why our parents hadn't been -- couldn't have been -- married in the Catholic church.

Some years later, the day Father died, my mother gave me a transcript of his divorce proceedings that showed his abuse and general insanity -- which he had always linked with the stresses and drudgery of parenthood -- had been an issue long before he had any children. It lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders and my heart as I had, unwittingly, taken as fact his comments that having children totally destroyed his life.

Some family secrets are a matter of pride. Despite the fact that divorce was rampant among Bob's grandparents on both sides, his parents kept the fact of his mother's brief first marriage, which produced his older brother Don, a tightly guarded family secret.  Even Don, who was only two years old when Bob's parents were married, had no real idea, though he sometimes wondered aloud where he fit in the family dynamic. After all, Bob -- Robert Miles Stover, Jr -- was the Junior and the youngest brother Miles was a sort of reverse junior -- Miles Ronald Stover.  It wasn't until Don was 18 and enlisting in the Marines that he finally saw his birth certificate and found out that Bob, Sr. was not his father. He never forgave his parents for keeping the secret of his identity from him.

And Bob's parents never did come clean about the past. Bob learned of the family secrets above from his plain-spoken maternal grandmother who had little use for what she saw as the foolishness of family secrets.

Are family secrets always foolish? Always hurtful?

Most seem to start out with the intention of protecting oneself and/or others from shame or embarrassment. Many are rooted in conventions of the past: when divorce was a rare scandal, when cancer was a word never spoken, when "what will other people think?" had more power than it has for many of us now.

Some are meant to protect children from feeling excluded or different.  It's quite possible that my in-laws didn't tell the eldest son Don that Bob Sr was not his father because they wanted him to feel comfortable and included as a member of the Stover family. I'm sure they had no idea what an emotional impact suddenly finding out the truth would have on Don when he was 18.

Some family secrets exist out of kindness and a desire to build positive relationships in the present.

Siblings who spent their growing years at each other's throats may choose to relegate those painful memories to the past in their adult years, never speaking of the rancor that once existed and choosing to focus on mutual forgiveness and warmer family ties.

Some parents prefer to let memories of their own youthful indiscretions stay within, never to be shared with their children. Whether this is simply a matter of shame or protection or a desire for personal privacy, this choice underscores the fact that we don't always owe our children or grandchildren or other kin a full account of our lives.

There may be parts of our parents' lives that will be forever unknown to us. There are secrets our children may keep from us for the same reason we chose to remain silent on certain aspects of the past. While we always hope that those close to us feel free to confide, the fact is, there are some things not meant to be shared.

We may wonder at the family secrets that, once revealed, seem inconsequential from our point of view. But, going back to a different time or a dramatically different place, we may begin to understand.

My maternal grandmother, for example, had a secret she jealously guarded from other residents of her small Kansas farming town: she liked to have a glass of red wine after dinner each evening.  She would travel to Olpe, another small town about 20 miles from her home, to purchase a bottle of wine once a month.  She would hide it in the trunk of her car, bringing it into the house only quickly, furtively and under cover of darkness.  She would hide the bottle in the back of a kitchen cabinet. And when enjoying her glass of wine, she would draw the curtains, put her wine glass on a spinning spice carousel in the cupboard -- in case someone dropped by -- and would come into the kitchen for a sip every few minutes as the evening went on.  During my visits over college spring breaks, I would join my brother -- who lived with her -- in laughing about this furtive behavior.  But Grandma was convinced that a town scandal would erupt if her imbibing came to light and swore us to secrecy.  And, having lived her entire life in small Kansas towns, she knew much more about the unique culture of these towns. She may well have been right in her concerns. For the rest of her life, her secret was safe with us.

We may feel hurt if a family secret is about us or about something we feel we should have known before it was revealed, intentionally or unintentionally.  But the intention of keeping the secret was probably not meant to be hurtful. A parent was being protective. Or he or she was too ashamed to come clean. Or perhaps we were too young -- or considered to be too young -- to understand the complexity of what was kept secret and the importance of keeping the information within the family.

Or perhaps an adult child prefers not to discuss certain details of his or her life out of a desire to maintain a sense of boundaries and privacy. It isn't an indictment of you as a parent, but a sign that you have done your job well -- raising an adult with good emotional boundaries.

Family secrets can be hurtful, but looking at the often good intentions, the often time or culture-bound rationale or the personal foolishness behind these secrets can help explain the past and, perhaps, mitigate the pain these old secrets bring to the present.

We all have our secrets. We all have keychains or items or actions that may be forever mysterious to those who come after us.

We may forever puzzle at long-ago secrets that will never be unraveled, never be revealed. What's life without a little mystery?

My father's keychain and his 10 empty safe deposit boxes may have been a posthumous joke -- or a sign that whatever may have been in them will never be found -- or a sign, quite likely, that he meant to hide away bits and pieces of his life in all of them and simply never got around to it.

We'll never really know -- and that's just the way he wanted it.


  1. This was all fascinating. I guess life would be quite dull without family secrets. The problem is that these secrets are so painful to the ones who have been so hurt by them. They are only fascinating to those outside the family.

    I appreciate your openness about your family and its secrets. I marvel at your own mental health. I am amazed that you have somehow come from such abuse, shame, and secretiveness and emerged as a well-grounded, wise, and compassionate woman. Your resilience is inspirational.

  2. Family secrets are always such a puzzle. I am like your husband's grandmother in that I don't see their value.

  3. Ooooh! You've really got me thinking about my own family and re-counting to myself the secrets that I know about! It's surely a fact that everybody's life underneath is fascinating -- and unexpected...Your family and your life are certainly no exception. Great post...

  4. Per usual I have read your blog with furrowed brow. You do that to me.
    I am amazed at how normal you are considering what you and your brother have lived through with your father.
    My family dragged every specter proudly out of the closet and laughed about it.
    I do agree that time periods determined what should be a secert. Things not talked about in the 50's are now sitcom material.
    Arkansas Patti

  5. You have enough material here for a couple of books!

  6. I've been doing genealogy for over ten years now. Some family secrets have been uncovered. Sometimes tragic, sometimes not. I think they're all interesting.

  7. One of the fringe benefits of my blog has been that when I write about some family event, my father reads the blog and then emails me corrections. Our memories of events aren't always consistent. There is a big family secret that my father is unaware that I know. I haven't had the courage to ask him about it and I wouldn't publish it in the blog until I talked to him. I really should take a trip to San Diego to visit him...

  8. I so agree with "Retired English Teacher" that your resilience is awe-inspiring. I haven't read all your postings since you began this blog and so you may have already blogged about how you managed to come out of the abusive atmosphere of your home so seemingly unscathed. You and your brother both. Where did you learn the compassion that is threaded through all your stories?

    Your posting today reminds me of what my forties and fifties taught me--that life is Mystery.


  9. First of all, I must thank you and acknowledge you for sharing things that COULD be terribly private, your not-for-blog secrets, that do so much to help us think, learn, process, understand and grow. Your stories are so deeply personal and yet you share them with such clear, clean honesty that it is clear you have not only survived but thrived.

    Not all secrets are meant to be shared with everyone -- nor probably should they be -- but you bring to our attention the very important observation of what protecting others can do to them. Hurt in the name of kindness. That's something that merits a great deal of thought. Thank you -- again.

  10. Every family has their own dark secrets. Most of them are very painful. I think it's quite normal for large families. Even ordinary :)

  11. Gosh I have missed coming by here so I have to catch up while I am here tonight.
    This post gave me a lot to think about and wonder with my own family.
    It really is amazing what you have shared with us about your life. I can not imagine what you must have thought when you found ten empty safe deposit boxes. But to find a Mary in your fathers life like you did must of been a real shock. Can't believe he just casually told your brother that was his first wife. Wow. Remarkable
    I wanted to tell you thanks for coming by my site and leaving me such wonderful encouraging words. I have really been blessed to have friends like you to help me get through these last few weeks and in my case years. lol
    Been wanting to write you an email about the latest and I will hopefully be able to share it soon. It just hurts so much to even write about it.
    I do appreciate you and God Bless You