Family Secrets

I cautiously approach the living room where Grandma and Mom are sitting and talking in hushed tones.  I look over at the empty chair – his chair – the armrests worn a deep burgundy. It seems so wrong – the emptiness. I stare at it, and suddenly hot tears blur the image, and when I refocus my eyes I am not here anymore. 

I am in Emmaus, when the roses are all in bloom, twisting and turning their way through the arched trellis – the entrance to my grandparents’ backyard. Suddenly I am  inside, looking at the little girl with the pixie haircut, freckled nose, and tanned arms, dressed in a yellow blouse and purple pedal-pushers from Artie’s Thrift Shop.  She’s curled up next to her grandfather who smells of Lifebuoy soap and Listerine. He is telling her about the time he had to work at the store on Sundays, selling supplies to the miners of Freeland, Pennsylvania.  She’s heard this story before and many others. “Tell me another story!” she sings out when he is finished with this long-ago tale. She rests her head on his chest.  She can feel the thu-thump of his heart.  She puts her other hand over her own heart.  Yes, the thu-thump, thu-thump is exactly the same, two hearts beating as one…

My mother interrupts my thoughts, pulling me back to the present.  Suddenly I am twenty-one again, more grown up than I want to be.  I was the last to leave the viewing, pulling up the coverlet around my grandfather.  “Kiss him goodbye,” my mother had whispered to me.  But when I leaned down to touch the cold cheek with my lips, it didn’t feel like my grandfather…didn’t smell like my grandfather.  Where was the smell of Lifebuoy soap and Listerine I knew so well? 

  “I finally told her, Lynne,” my mother says in a weary tone. 

I look at their swollen, puffy eyes and blotchy cheeks.  I know that I am looking into a mirror of my own face.  My heart is broken. I am broken.  “Told her what?” I ask, truly puzzled.

“I told her that you’ve known that your grandfather wasn’t really your grandfather.”

My grandmother locks her watery blue eyes with mine.  “I’m so glad he never knew that,” she whispers.  “He never wanted you to know.”

I never understood that.  I still didn’t.  And why did my mother feel compelled to tell her today of all days?  All those emotions erupting into confessions – as if a thousand Hail Mary’s could change things now.  And the only Catholic in our family was left behind in the cemetery on Hamilton Street, across from the apartment that my grandparents had shared when I was four years old. 

I look again at my poor Grandma.  She was his entire life.  He had worshipped the ground she walked on – truly.   “Grandma, how could you think that I would have loved him less?  When I found out, I loved him even more for taking care of Mom and you and loving us all so much.  I couldn’t have had a better grandfather if I had been allowed to choose one from all the grandfathers in the entire world!”  I practically explode as my words ran off like a stampede of scared horses.

“He still wouldn’t have wanted…”

I cannot understand my family.  Everyone says you are always supposed to tell the truth – that “Honesty is the best policy!” – and yet, there are always these deep, dark secrets that we are never ever to find out. As I stand looking at my mom and my grandmom, I remember the time I had been playing in my grandma’s bedroom and had opened one of her dresser drawers to find some dainty little handkerchiefs with letters embroidered on them. I carried them out to the kitchen to ask my grandma if I could keep one and who was B.M. T. anyway?  Later, I understood why she had grabbed them from me and angrily told me they belonged to my mother. “But shouldn’t the initials say B. M. S.?” I had asked her.  She never replied and stormed off to the bedroom to hide the secret they held away from my sisters and me forever. Nothing left to do but shrug my shoulders and wipe away tears of confusion and righteous indignation. They were just handkerchiefs…

I found out the truth quite accidentally.  My best friend in junior high, Michael Amsterdam, had a father who worked as a surgeon at Einstein.  My mom said she knew him and that he’d remember her.  She had been head nurse of three floors at Einstein before she married my dad.  But Michael’s dad had no recollection of Betty Mae Sulima.  I was angry with my mom for embarrassing me (You know how hormones rage in junior high, and I sort of liked Michael and wanted to have this connection with his family!). My mom decided she had to tell me that Michael’s dad wouldn’t know her as Betty Sulima – that her real name was Betty Teele.  I wasn’t angry with my mother then, but I sure was hurt and disappointed.  I didn’t see the need for this family secret.  Look at all the trouble it had caused between Michael and me.  And if I’d had known, maybe I wouldn’t have announced over and over again that I had inherited my grandfather’s hazel eyes (We were the only ones in the entire family with eyes that looked blue if you were wearing blue, or green if you were wearing green).

My grandfather and I had had a special bond – our love of nature, dogs, horses, swimming, picnic, and even cold baked beans!  It was my grandfather who drove around the Lehigh Valley looking for horse farms where we could stop to watch the horses grazing in the pastures.  It was my grandfather who hiked up the Pocono Mountains with me, teaching me the names of the trees and the birds.  It was my grandfather who taught me how to float or how to synchronize my breaths, strokes, and kicks so that I could swim.  It was my grandfather who brought home Easter chicks and built a coop, my grandfather who brought home my first dog, and my grandfather who watered the lawn in the middle of January so that we would have a skating rink in his front yard the next morning.

As I look at my mom and grandma, I realized that I should have told him that I knew, and that it didn’t matter…it never would have mattered.  But my grandmother is saying something. I tune in to catch the end of her explanation…“…glad he never knew.  So glad.”

I wait until darkness comes and  kneel down beside my bed to say the childhood prayer that my grandfather had taught me…Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. When I finish, I call out to my grandfather, “Can you hear me now?  I loved you even more when I found out the truth – if that’s possible.  I love you!  You will always be with me, here in my heart…always. No secrets between us.”  I put both hands over my heart  before I close my eyes.  Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump…two hearts still beating as one.

 

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