It seems like secrecy is in our lives everywhere we turn; be it books keeping secrets until it is the right time to reveal them, people keeping secrets to make themselves seem innocent or to avoid hurting someone, but mostly families keeping secrets from each other. Most secrets in families are kept to protect each other from the reality of the truth. My family has secrets from before I was born. The thought that comes to mind when I think of family secrets are my mother’s secrets.
One night, my dad is in a talkative mood; he sometimes gets conversational like this when he has had a little too much to drink. I can tell right away that he is saying things that he normally would not say. This night, he is telling me repeatedly how good of a woman my mother is. He says that if he had been smart, he would not have cheated and gotten a divorce; he would still be with her. He continues saying, “There’s a lot of things that you kids do not know about,” and I of course, being a smart ass say, “like what?”
He tells me a story that my mom told him back when they were still married. He looks at me and I know instantly that he is very serious. He looks into my eyes and tells me that my mom was sexually molested when she was a little girl between the age of eight and ten. My throat immediately shrinks to the size of a pea and I become short winded and unable to breath properly. It is almost the same feeling one gets when going outside into a brisk wind and below freezing weather; I try to breath, but I feel like someone is sitting on my chest or has hit me in the stomach.
“Do you know what I mean when I say this?” I slowly nod my head, my pupils now so large that a watermelon could likely fit through them. Of course I know what this means, my mom was molested as a girl. How could I not know about this? How could she keep this secret from me? Dad gets this slight look of anger and tells me that it was Mema’s father, my great-grandfather. My mouth, now very dry, slightly drops open without my recognition. I am utterly shocked by this news and have no idea how to react. I, of course, do what every normal person does in the face of extremely bad news: I deny it and refuse to accept it as the truth. I say that it could not have possibly happened and Dad tells me again that it did. He said that when he found out, he was furious and has never looked at my great-grandfather the same; I do not believe I ever will either.
My dad, mom, grandparents, and possibly even my step-dad all know about this; and here my brother and I have been in the dark for at least thirteen years. My brother, now 22, may still be in the dark, I do not know. To this day I have not spoken about this to anyone besides my dad that night. I do not even know if he remembers telling me. He told me many things that night. He told me how my mom and he came to have my brother. He said that he almost bought a corvette, but he found out that he was having a baby and that plan was ruined.
He also told me something else that shocked me: there was another pregnancy. I again froze and could think of nothing to say. My dad, seeing this, went on to explain what happened. He said that shortly after Bo, my brother, was born, Mom had an IUD put inside her for contraception. He explained the basics of the procedure and how the intrauterine device worked so I could understand. He said that the doctor made a mistake during the procedure which caused the IUD not to function properly, and she in fact did get pregnant. He explained how they exhausted all possibilities of saving the baby and every scenario ended in the baby being deformed at best, dying at worst, and possibly my mom even dying. He told me how they had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy.
I was completely taken aback – to think that I technically have another brother or sister is hard to imagine. My dad then continued and said how depressed my mom was for a while and then she got pregnant with me and became happy once again. He told me, much to my surprise, that I was their miracle baby. He said that they did not know what was going to happen because the mishap with the IUD could have caused damage to Mom’s uterus. He said that this is the reason they named me Johnathan, A Gift From God. I now went from shocked to a little embarrassed and red in the cheeks.
“What is reality
to this synthetic doll
who should smile, who should shift gears,
should spring the doors open in a wholesome disorder,
and have no evidence of ruin or fears?” (Sexton 44).
My mom appeared to be this perfect woman who did not have any problems; but “I remember hearing her cry in the kitchen” (Cofer 35). Her tears may have been over my dad and their divorce, or now thinking back, her crying may have been from a combination of events. She has always tried to stand strong. Perhaps her silence is kept out of protection for her sons, or maybe her past is simply too painful to share and she wants to put these times behind her. But then I have to wonder if she really has put her past behind her. Every time my great-grandfather is mentioned, she acts perfectly normal and I even see her smile about some memories. Does this mean that she has forgiven him for what he did and she chooses to remember him by good things? I doubt I will ever know, for this is my curse: my mom will never tell me, and I, out of fear, will quite likely never tell her that I know.
I just cannot imagine what my mom has gone through, from her abbreviated childhood to her unfortunate pregnancy. I sometimes wonder how my mom deals with these heart wrenching secrets, alone. Or did she tell my brother? Would he tell me if he knew? These painful facts have now become our family’s secrets. Even though we all may know my mother’s past, we keep from sharing her reality with each other.
Like Andrew said to his father in the movie Garden State, “We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but, for the first time let's just allow ourselves to be whatever it is that we are” (Garden State). I wish I could just do that; just sit down and talk; but this very silent and private worrying is the nature of family secrets. I will always be here for my mom; but until then, out of respect, I will stay quiet too. There are just some things parents do not think their children should know, and we as children do not want our parents to find out that we in fact do know. It is an endless circle.
Atwan, Robert, ed. Convergences. Florida State ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s,
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. “Lessons of the Past.” Atwan 35.
Sexton, Anne. “Self in 1958.” Atwan 44.
Garden State. Dir. Zach Braff. Perf. Zach Braff and Ian Holm. Fox Searchlight and Miramax