Everyone in my Nova Scotia hometown kept secrets. In my family, some secrets were alluded to while others remained buried deep. Some were told by our mother in a drunken moment but never brought up again. Some came as a shock years later after the death of my parents. I hated and loved those secrets. They were both terrifying and comforting.
I snooped as much as I could. I read letters hidden in trunks, pretended to play solitaire while listening to hushed talk from the next room. Families are like icebergs. What you see is merely the tip of whatever the members of the family allow you to see but underneath is where the big stuff is.
As a child, I yearned for a father who was a dentist or a shop owner instead of an opera singer who had sung in the great halls of Paris and now taught voice lessons in the living room. I wanted a mother who made cookies and wore an apron, who went to PTA meetings. But my mother was a stunningly beautiful clothing designer from New York, an alcoholic who filled our Christmases with trepidation.
We could talk about baroque music, the Impressionists, preparation of baked Alaska, the proper way to hunt pheasant, but some topics were verboten. My siblings and I knew to avoid personal taboos like failure, fear, insecurity, alcohol, or anything else considered “improper.”
My parents keep secrets for the same reason Carl, in my novel, A Brief Lunacy, kept them. Sometimes shame. Or memories too painful to mention. It was easier for my mother to talk about how important it is to place the fork on the left than to reveal that her father chose to jump off Niagara Falls, leaving his wife and five daughters destitute. It was more comfortable for my father to discuss whether Finnegan’s Wake was the greatest novel ever written than to admit that he’d slept with most of the gay tenors and baritones in Paris. And in the novel, for Carl to tell Jessie about the atrocities of Hitler’s war and his own part in them was more than he could endure.
My mother spoke only of their lives before the “Falls” incident, how dashing their father had been, gifts he brought from all over the world. And every once in a while she’d talk about bananas. “Isn’t it a strange thing that I’ve never had a banana?” she’d ask. Last winter, several years after my mother’s death, my cousin, whose mother was one of the younger sisters, remarked about how difficult it must have been for all five girls and their mother to share a single banana for a Sunday treat. “Oh, no,” I said. “My mother never had a banana as long as she lived.” There was silence at the table until I understood for the first time the pain my mother felt about growing up poor and the way she chose to ease it.
I didn’t meet my father until I was almost three because he was away in Europe. I wanted to know about the war but he wouldn’t talk about it. I knew he was in army intelligence and landed at Normandy. I knew he stayed in Europe after the war was over, doing something. But all he would say about his experience was, “I became a pacifist the day I pushed bodies out of the way to wash my socks but it had to be done.”
“But Dad, what did you do there?”
“It was a hard time.”
Only when he became an old man, did I discover that because of his fluent German, he liberated a concentration camp and spent two years in a house-to-house canvass of the German people about their knowledge of the atrocities.
I wish I had known about the banana before my mother’s death, talked to her about her childhood poverty. I wish I had reassured my father that I loved him no matter whom he had slept with and that I cried over what he must have seen in that camp.