What Lies Beneath
2011 is upon us and I realize it will be ten years since Ethan’s dad Richard and I divorced. That means we’ve been apart for as long as we were married. Coincidentally, my mother’s first marriage also lasted a decade. Only she had the misfortune of ending her marriage in the 1950s, a time when, as my dad once said, “Only movie stars like Liz Taylor were divorced.”
Because of the stigma attached to her situation, my mom made what I imagine must have been a heartbreaking decision. After she met my father, she pretended her first marriage never happened. In order to do that, she also had to deny that her two children, my brother Steve and sister Tina, were hers. Steve, who would have been ten the year my parents married, was already living with his dad and stepmom in California. My mom sent seven-year-old Tina to join him and started her new life.
Growing up, my older sister Angie and I didn’t know about our half siblings. On the rare occasions they called, they asked for Edie, never Mom. I had seen black and white photos of two children in 1950s-style clothes, but I couldn’t quite piece together who they were to us. While Steve resembled Greg, the oldest brother on The Brady Bunch, Tina looked remarkably like me.
“So who’s their dad?” I remember asking my mom.
“His name is Gene.”
“And he’s your cousin?”
“So who’s their mother?”
She started wiping at the sink with a sponge. “We don’t talk about her,” she said, not looking at me.
“Was she a bad person?”
“No!” she said. “No. Not at all.”
When I was ten, I met Steve during a trip to Disneyland. A year later, Tina and her husband spent a couple of days with us at our house. Neither revealed their identities. It wasn’t until the summer I was fourteen that I was told the truth.
Angie was twenty and out of school. Always a wanderer, she wound up in California where she looked up our mother’s “cousin” Gene. During a chat about our family, Gene absentmindedly began a sentence, “Well, when I was married to your mom . . .”
Now that my sister knew, my parents decided I should too. My mom flew with me to San Francisco and sat me in a hotel room with Angie and Tina.
My mom said there was something important she wanted to tell me and, in the silence that followed, I worried that one of us in the room was dying. Finally, she took a breath and announced, “Tina is my daughter.”
In response, I heard myself ask her, “Then who am I?”
It struck the others as funny. They laughed, relieved to have a tension breaker.
As my mother unfolded the story of her marriage, I thought about all I’d missed. Tina and her brother Steve, my brother Steve, both had young children. I was an Aunt. I’d always envied big families. Meanwhile, all these people were a part of me. They were mine.
As shocking as all this was, on some level, I’d actually always known. I’d heard Steve slip and say Mom; I’d seen my mom pore over Tina’s letters, then quickly tuck them in her apron pocket when she noticed I was in the room. I was simply adept at explaining these moments away to myself. Not wanting to believe my parents would lie to me, I collaborated with them.
As I lay awake that night under the stiff sheets of my hotel bed, I remembered every single slip-up and hint. I had ready access to them as though I’d been keeping a file and had, until then, simply misplaced the cabinet key.
It was disorienting to have so much new information to absorb, and it brought with it many questions, but it also brought a sense of calm. There were aspects of my family life that had never made sense. Now, finally, they did.
My mother and sisters found my initial response to the news humorous. But that question, which rose out of some deep place in me, strikes me as essential and correct. If my parents, the people who first defined the world, were not who they said they were, then who in this new reality was I?
I made a promise to myself then that, if I became a mother, I would always be honest with my child. There have been times I wasn’t sure it was the right thing, but I’ve held to it without exception.
When Dan and I first met, I was living with someone else. Paul is a really nice man, but with Dan, who not only understands disability from the inside out but is also a fellow poet, the depth of our connection was impossible to ignore. It was hard to tell Ethan, who was eight then, that Paul was moving out. Friends advised me to keep my explanations simple, emphasizing that we had grown apart and that it was in no way Ethan’s fault.
Ethan began to cry, which surprised me. He and Paul had gotten along but had never been close.
“Paul and I have grown apart,” I started dutifully, but it sounded hollow. “I’ll tell you the truth,” I amended. “As much as I care for Paul, I realize I love Dan more.”
Ethan’s tears stopped as though someone had flipped a switch. “You know,” he said, “I thought you loved Dan. You laugh a lot with him.”
We still went through a period of adjustment, but there was an underlying peace in our small household. Ethan may have had to live with a mother who was startled and sad, as well as dizzy with new love, yet he didn’t have to reside in the disorienting world of concealment where I had been raised.
I try to look back at my parents with compassion, especially now that I know firsthand how much of parenthood is actually guesswork. It’s even occurred to me that, given my strong feelings about my family’s secretiveness, I may sometimes err in the other direction. “Please, Mom,” Ethan has been known to say. “T.M.I.”
“The truth is I don’t know what I’m doing,” I once confessed to Steve on the phone.
“Well, honey,” he answered. “You came to that feeling honestly.”
5 replies on “What Lies Beneath”
This was wonderful and I appreciate the honesty of your piece. For several years I hid the fact that my son has a half-brother, until a friend asked me if that is how I want my son to view his family, with shame. You are brave to be honest with your son and it looks like you overcame your own experience with grace.
Yes, lives are made up of various secrets and what a shame that your Mother was so afraid of society and what people thought at that time, that she deprived you of a loving brother and sister. So glad that you now have them in your life.
I can relate to this story; my father was married before he married my mother and had two children- whom may own mother raised since they were toddlers. I didn’t find out that they were my “half” siblings until I was almost ten years old. I love how you ended the essay with an admission- that parenthood is guesswork and we are the products of the times we live in. Very touching!
“Who am I?”, indeed. There’s so much depth and honesty in this piece. Thank you, Ona.
The beauty of this piece lies in the fact that there is only love expressed, despite how much loss there must have been to find out what you missed, and all you did not know. So touching and effective. Thank you!