I learned [family secret] from one grandmother, then the other.
First, it was Millie, my father’s mother, in the house in Pennsylvania, which smelled of smoke and deodorizer, in the living room decorated with small crocheted blankets of coarse rainbow yarn.
My grandmother’s third husband, Grandpa Floyd, was watching pro wrestling on the television as Millie told me stories about our family, her shrill voice competing with the TV and rising in crescendo when she tumbled into something new.
“You didn’t know that!” she exclaimed as she let slip a secret about Uncle Phil.
I was such an all-knowing little girl. By the time I was nine, I knew about Uncle Jack, the used car salesman, and his gigolo ways. I knew about how Aunt Jeanie went nutty when my granddaddy chased away her one true love. I knew about my great grandfather’s penchant for South Mountain moonshine that made him see snakes slithering on the ceiling, which he begged his youngest daughter, my grandmother, to chase away.
I knew all these stories because Millie told me: in long soliloquies in the kitchen as we made sweet tea; at the honey-oak table as we sucked on hard candies, shaped like strawberries, which we pried from a sticky hunk in a green crystal dish; and in the living room as Grandpa Floyd rooted for “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the ring or Cal Ripken, Jr. on the diamond and the smoke of my grandparents’ unfiltered Pall Malls rose and swirled into the air purifier and came out spritzed with medicinal-smelling mint.
Her gray eyes sparkled. She had more. “Well, you know your daddy [family secret], too.”
Not long after, I heard the same story from my mother’s mother, Betty, in the old yellow and brick Victorian in downtown Hagerstown, which smelled of fried chicken livers and coffee cake, in the sunroom where Pap Pap, as silent as the little dog under his arm, watched westerns and ate peanuts.
Betty wore silk scarves around her neck when she went out and pointy-toe shoes, which showed off her tiny feet. She had a closet filled with wigs she thought might one day come back in style.
I was nine going on ninety, an “old soul,” she told me. She took my side when I complained about my father—about how he made me eat meatloaf and threatened to send me to finishing school when my elbows rested on the table. “It’s always do this, do that, ‘do as I say.’”
“You know [family secret] made him that way,” she said that afternoon.
For several years, I carried my knowledge alone. I looked for evidence of [family secret] in old boxes in the basement; in photo albums that went back to black and white; in a shoebox of love notes between my parents, which I secretly read by flashlight; and in the dusty jewelry boxes of dead relatives, whose last remains were mother-of-pearl buttons, costume jewelry, and grotesque chunks of wax.
I searched for [family secret] in my father’s eyes, in his voice, in the drawers of his nightstand, in his jars of pennies, and in the back of his closet, where the baby-blue tuxedo from his wedding to my mother in ’72 was stuffed in a dry cleaning bag.
I thought I detected traces of [family secret] in moments, in habits, in absences. I blamed [family secret] when Dad picked fights with Mom about her housekeeping. I suspected the weight of [family secret] in those silent moments when my mother seemed to drift away, lost in thought, her left hand plucking thin the black hair of her eyebrows.
I romanticized [family secret], turned it hyperbolic and Shakespearean. [Family secret] defined the way we were, made what we were somehow counterfeit, a substitute for the way things were supposed to be.
Once, I almost stumbled into [family secret] directly.
Dad and I were out getting hot dogs—at least, that is why we stopped. But I was a “difficult” girl, who didn’t “eat hamburgers and hot dogs like a normal kid,” so I asked him for a pretzel instead.
We were in a booth in a tiny A-frame restaurant lined with wood paneling when a man approached familiarly.
“Jerry!” he exclaimed as he strolled our way.
I wondered if this was another great uncle; there seemed to be so many of them when I was out with Dad. Usually, in this situation, I was supposed to stand and wait to be introduced. Instead, Dad handed me money and pushed me toward the counter for a pretzel.
“I haven’t seen you since [family secret],” I heard the man say as I walked away.
Then they were out of earshot and out the door of the restaurant. By the time I got back with my pretzel, Dad was sitting in our booth alone.
“Who was that?” I asked, preparing to disclose, finally, that I knew [family secret].
“Someone I haven’t seen in a long time.”
My sister is seven years younger than I am, but when she grew old enough, the grandmothers told her [family secret], too.
By then, I had lived with [family secret] for years. For a while, I had looked for traces of it in my prepubescent features—worried [family secret] meant I wasn’t who I thought I was at all. Then I developed an uncanny resemblance to Betty and figured out the math.
It was soothing to have [family secret] together, away from the old ladies who didn’t understand the impact a family secret could have on the young. My sister and I worked together on the puzzle, shared evidence and identified patterns of behavior with roots stretching back before our births.
Conjectures became truths: [family secret] was why our father didn’t like music and wouldn’t let us listen to the radio in the car.
It wasn’t until I was grown that I told my mother I knew [family secret].
I was nineteen and in love, and I had come home to beg my father to come to my wedding. He was incensed that his oldest daughter, the first in his family to go to college, would make such a mistake. “You have a chance to finish college debt-free,” he told me. “You don’t know what you are getting into.”
Then he turned to me with gritted teeth and asked: “What would you do if he died?”
For sure, this was about [family secret].
“I’d be happy for every day I had,” I told him.
In my childhood bedroom later that night, my mother found me in tears. [Family secret] was why Dad wasn’t coming to my wedding. [Family secret] meant Dad didn’t believe in love, I wailed.
“I don’t think your father was talking about [family secret] at all. He’s not still hurt about that. He’s over [family secret].”
I saw how I had disregarded my mother: [family secret] had always been there, as one of the worry lines around her eyes.
Before she died, Millie told me the story of [family secret] again. This time, she dug through a shoebox to prove it, producing a faded black-and-white photograph of my father and [family secret].
When Millie passed a year or so later, I wondered what happened to that photo. Did my mother slip it into the trash? Did my father see it and sink onto his mother’s too-soft bed to cry? Did one of my aunts discard it with Millie’s old greeting cards or tuck this remnant of her brother’s past into a faux-leather purse?
I thought about what would happen to [family secret] when my father died. As a young newspaper reporter, I had revealed another man’s family secret to the world. He was Baltimore’s first black fire lieutenant. For his obituary, I interviewed his brother, an octogenarian whose memory went back further than the captain’s
second third wife wanted it to. “His kids didn’t know!” the woman yelled.
As I grew older, though, my perspective on [family secret] changed. My first marriage lasted a decade, but after it ended in divorce, I sometimes caught myself wondering if the emotions I had felt were real and marveling that the relationship had ever even happened. Would it feel any less surreal if the end had been marked with a gravestone instead of a decree?
I’ve also had the privilege of watching my parents fall in love again. Instead of growing apart, they’ve settled into retirement on adjacent bar stools, enjoying the same soap operas and the same fried foods, with more than forty years of family secrets behind them.