With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Sometimes I get like this. I am sure that my existence is a tragic mistake, that I have come into this body and will leave it without a trace. I don’t know why I was born.
Under such conditions of abject hopelessness, my mind sometimes helps by offering clues, a trail of bread crumbs to follow through the dark forest. Just in time, it conjures an image, a black and white snapshot taken in the summer of 1946. I haven’t seen it in years. I hold this unexpected message, this hieroglyph, before my mind’s eye.
My mother sits on the front porch of a homemade cabin on the lake, the Ford woody parked in the dirt driveway, “Just Married” soaped across the rear window.
Mama smiles into the camera, long gangly legs an upside down V, chin in her hands. Finally alone with her at the honeymoon cabin, Papa snapped the picture of his new bride, her face radiating like a flower.
I float in Mama’s belly, the unseen third in the picture, the undeniable evidence of my parents’ crime, the hidden pretext for their hasty marriage only days before. My soul hovers over the scene near my body forming in the womb.
I enter this tender moment from the past to find out what it has to tell me. Something unexpected comes up, something I didn’t know before.
It is a picture of passion.
These are my precious lovers, my bride and bridegroom. My love for them is fierce and protective. They are mine, loved with the uncivilized ardor of the first-born, caught in a love triangle with father and mother, a child who loves like a lover and, in a strange reversal, also feels a mother’s love for the young couple. And then a third love, the love of comrades, partners in crime, we three against the world. For wasn’t I an accessory to the getaway when we drove night and day across the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas, singing love songs all the way to Central Texas, fugitives from the stifling world of the faces in another set of photographs, more unexpected callers arriving now from my memory to bring additional clues?
The wedding pictures. The obligatory formal poses of bride, groom, and wedding party, followed by informal shots of the reception. Printed on stiff, high-contrast paper with a matte finish, the deep velvety blacks somehow contribute to the elegance of the figures celebrating with champagne in the dark Victorian drawing room. How different from the spontaneous grainy snapshot taken with a simple box camera on a bright, hot Texas day.
When I saw these pictures as a child, they looked like something out of a fairy tale: my tall, beautiful mother in a white satin wedding gown to the floor; her sisters, heads crowned with coronets of roses, their off-the-shoulder bridesmaid dresses swirling with roses as well. They were as glamorous as movie stars.
In photographs of the reception, grown-ups were caught unawares, faces skewed in mid-sentence, mouths full of wedding cake, eyes half-closed. I thought it funny to see my fashionably-dressed relatives looking not altogether dignified. But two photos from the occasion stand out for their puzzling deviation from the festive mood. What was the mother of the groom saying with upraised forefinger, while her son looked down a bit sheepishly, pretending to study the top of an overstuffed chair? Why was she scolding him in the middle of his wedding reception? Or was she warning him? And in the other shot, why did the mother of the bride, formidable with matriarchal power, look a little grim? Wasn’t she supposed to be happy?
I see now that the rooms of dark mahogany furniture and flowered chintz drapery, the decor of polite society, speak of the “do”s and “don’t”s of the Victorian era. Within the confines of heirloom silver and monogrammed, white damask tablecloths, indiscretions were covered up to protect reputations. So the wedding must be staged, and the guilty couple dispatched to another place for a while. One must not speak of these things. They become family secrets.
Thus, the circumstances of my origin were never mentioned. I discovered the essential facts for myself by performing simple arithmetic. By then enough years had elapsed for my mother and me to have a good laugh over it; besides, times had changed, and our society was deep into the sexual revolution. Soon it would become almost fashionable for women to choose to have children out of wedlock, with only small concern that their offspring would be referred to in whispers or jeers as “the little bastards.” I grew proud of my parents’ rebellion. I thought of myself as a real love child, conceived in heat and passion.
Why then am I being presented with the old photographs? Aren’t the issues dead and buried? Buried, but not dead, comes the dusty reply. The keeping of secrets can become a way of life handed down through generations. We still don’t talk about my mother’s mother having married her dark, handsome lover with the tiny beginnings of their first-born already floating inside her. Social change takes time. Older laws still hold sway underneath, like layers of an ancient city discovered by latter-day builders of skyscrapers; laws older than memory, buried with the primal passions of childhood deep in the self. If my very existence has its origin in a sexual secret, then some part of me, marked like a star-crossed lover, pulls back in spite of myself to keep the stories of my own sexuality secret, hidden like illegitimate children.
The photographs ask for something else. I look again at the scene of my beloved bride and bridegroom starting their forty-year marriage in a cold-water cabin with an outhouse, under the willow trees beside a lake in Central Texas. All traces of family censure are gone, and the message my two bandits send me from this precious moment is not one of reticence and fear, but one of gaiety, expectation, and openness to life, my mother’s shining face a St. Christopher’s medal I can hold to my heart. “Love child,” it says, “I will protect you in your travels, while you discover why you were born.”
Let me proceed in that spirit then. Let the old bonds be softened, the old laws rewritten. Let the dutiful daughter step aside so that the other selves may have their say. Let the old gods of silence and secrets, of infants sacrificed on mountainsides, bow to more friendly deities. For life is ever mysterious, and we can only put our trust in it, even though we may have no clue as to our ultimate purpose or destination. In the here and now, some secrets are best shared.
My military security clearance was “Secret.” That meant I was allowed to know more (more what?) than soldiers whose clearance was “Confidential,” but not as much as those few who held the prized “Top Secret” clearance. One way, in my own mind, to balance the disparity in power and authority afforded higher-ranking officers was the smug knowledge that I held a higher security clearance than many of those who outranked me.
We were constantly reminded that before any “secrets” could be given to another person, that person had to have both the proper clearance and a “need to know.” Just like a high cover charge at a nightclub, those principles helped to keep a lot of “riff-raff” out of my business, which was useful on a daily basis. I doubt, though, that it prevented anyone from learning what they wanted to know; they could just go through other channels.
In this context, I am curious as to why we place such a premium on information (actually, on who “owns” particular pieces of information) that we devise complex systems to safeguard “secrets,” many of which already are, or soon will become, public knowledge. Consider that the official documentation of how to construct a nuclear weapon is among the most highly classified information in the government’s files, yet any person with enough curiosity and persistence can find it all at a good research library.
Events of the last few presidencies also cause me to wonder how effective we are at keeping secrets. All around us is the wreckage of those whose careers and personal lives were built on the liquid foundation of secrets. Trying to plug the inevitable leaks consumed them, and the foundation drained anyway.
When I look at myself, I find that this business of secrets has a deeper context but is fundamentally the same. One of my sergeants, who had taken a fatherly liking to me, once told me, “Just remember that the only real secret is something no other human knows, besides yourself. Some person can find out anything you say or do. Only what you think and believe can be locked up inside.” His words have had a lasting impression on me.
Why? Because he had an understanding of human behavior that made him more of a statesman in uniform than a soldier. From him I learned that something inside us compels us to talk about things, even when we know that it makes us completely vulnerable. He knew, from personal tragedy, that this is especially true in matters of the heart. He also knew that, ironically, we are best off when we go ahead and open ourselves, especially when that communication involves the person with whom we are most intimate.
I think we are just not meant to have secrets; the more we try to hide, the more people see. However, since a lot of what we think, know, and do is no one’s business but our own, I am not saying that we should flaunt ourselves in front of the world; I am saying that, for me, a key to joyful living is to live openly as I am.
When I share my most closely held secrets, the innermost part of my deepest heart, with the one person who loves me because of those feelings that I usually keep tucked away, something magic happens — life is most alive, love is most intense, and I am the most myself. Funny, isn’t it — she is the only one with the proper clearance and a “need to know.” And, as the sergeant would understand, she is the only one I am willing to be so vulnerable with that I have no need for secrets.
Donald E. Jones
Raleigh, North Carolina
When I first returned to living with my parents, my mother used to scold me for telling secrets I didn’t even know were supposed to be secret. Her reasons for not wanting certain things known seemed trivial and silly.
I think people in the old days were deathly afraid of being “talked about.” Scandal probably did more harm then. Now, we tell each other our own scandals, thus disarming malicious gossips. People in general are more broad-minded and open.
After a while, I noticed that my mother had stopped fussing at me for disclosing secrets. When I pointed this out to her, she said, “I just gave up. I figured you’d already told everybody everything I didn’t want them to know.”
My Aunt Emma was tall and skinny — bony, almost. I don’t know how she stayed that way because, boy, could she cook! Whenever I think of her, I see her in the kitchen, with a little blue-flowered apron tied crookedly around her waist, as if she were in such a hurry to start mixin’ and messin’ around that she didn’t have time to tie it right.
I adored Emma. She was my link to the female world. My mother was a stranger to me then. I didn’t know who she was, and I was certain she didn’t know who I was. Emma, though, was different, really different.
There were a lot of secrets about Emma. I called her “Aunt,” but she wasn’t the sister of my mother or my father. She didn’t like to talk about herself. When I pestered her with questions, she would shake her head and say, “Shhhh, honey, that’s a secret.” If I persisted, the way kids will — “But why Emma? But why but why?” — she would pause for a moment over the floured board (her passion was baking), straighten up, and give me A Look. That took care of that.
For some reason, I felt I was the keeper of Emma’s secrets, even though I didn’t have a clue as to what they were. I never asked my parents about her life, where she came from, or why she would appear in our house suddenly and stay for months — baking the sweetest, most delicate orange cakes in the world, crusty little rolls with soft insides, blackberry tarts, thin, little roll-up pastries with cherries oozing out the ends — and then disappear. To ask would have been to violate the tacit pact between us.
As long as Emma was in the house, there would be cinnamon toast and hot tea waiting for me when I got home from school. I would throw my books on the counter and fling myself at the kitchen chair. Emma would pause in what she was doing, wipe her hands on her floury apron, and sit down with me. We would drink tea and talk about life. As long as it wasn’t her life, Emma was willing to talk about anything. She made me feel special and grown-up by the serious way she considered even my weirdest questions. I started with, “What makes the sky blue?” and worked my way through dreams, boys, the Curse, who is God, what was before the Beginning, and is there a heaven for cats? Emma did her best with every topic.
One day after school, I knew the moment I walked in that something was wrong. I came in the back door as usual, right into the kitchen. Emma wasn’t there. No smell of cinnamon hung in the air. I heard angry voices way upstairs — my mother’s voice and . . . Emma’s?
I had never heard her speak angrily. The women must have heard the kitchen door bang behind me, because the voices lowered, then stopped, and then I heard Emma’s high-heeled shoes coming down the stairs. I stood in the kitchen full of alarm. When she first came in, Emma didn’t look at me; she just marched to the stove. Her mouth was pressed tight, as if to trap words that were trying to escape. She gripped the teakettle’s handle so hard that I could see her knuckles whiten. After turning on the flame, she stood staring at the kettle, not moving a muscle. It seemed like hours until she took a deep breath, every muscle in her body suddenly seeming to relax. She turned to me, and there she was again, my friend. I nearly quivered with relief.
“Tea,” she said. “And no cinnamon toast today. We’re going to have something special.” She opened the oven door and pulled out a still-warm pie, her famous, incredible, real-lemon pie, with a meringue top as high as a beehive hairdo. “Dig in, kid,” she said. “I was saving it for supper, but, what the heck, let’s live.”
She didn’t have to say it twice. In a second and a half I was knee-deep in lemon meringue heaven. Anxiety — or perhaps relief — had created in me a monster appetite. In any case, my tummy was bulging before any conversation began. When I finally came up for air, I noticed Emma had hardly touched her little piece of pie.
“Aunt Emma,” I said, “do you love me?”
She looked up, startled.
“You bet I do, honey,” she said. “You know I do.” She got up from her chair, came over to mine, and, standing behind me, hugged me tight, chair and all. “You know I do,” she said again.
“Aunt Emma,” I said, still inside the glory of that hug. “Why do people who love each other have secrets from each other?”
There was a long pause, and then she bent down to kiss me on the cheek, finally loosening her arms from around me.
“Honey,” she said, as she sank back down into her chair, “secrets make a person special. Sometimes they’re the only special thing a person has.”
We drank the rest of our tea in silence.
I had no appetite for dinner that night, but they made me come down and sit through it anyway. Emma wasn’t there, and I never saw her again.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Joshua Tree, California
My brother and I, each on our respective ladders, scrape and paint a million-dollar Tudor home with swimming pool and locked entrance gates. I shout to be heard over the radio, “What about other lovers? While you’re apart from each other, I mean.”
He says, “Look. In a year I’ll graduate and start a job, and so will she. We’ll be married a year or so later, get our M.B.A.s, have kids maybe two years after that. Why should I hurt her by telling her stuff that won’t change any of our plans — in fact, won’t affect them in any way?”
Six years later he’s comfortably right on schedule (baby girl in July), while I still struggle with esoteric and practical approaches to honesty.
Are there degrees of honesty? Are secrets dishonest? Will I show this to his wife?
People sometimes ask me why I am so adamant about being openly gay. I am out of the closet, I say, because I know firsthand the pain that secrets inflict.
Growing up was rough for me. In elementary school, I was often sick and had to be sent home. In junior high, I was a popular target for violence. The one parent I had, my mom, seemed mostly inconvenienced by my troubles. She begrudgingly took time off from work to collect me when I vomited at school. When I was being beaten almost daily, and the school authorities were of no help, I asked her to intercede on my behalf. Not a chance.
From the time I was nine or ten until I left home to go to college, we fought horribly and constantly. I felt betrayed, angry, hurt. She mostly worried about “what the neighbors would think” if they heard us shouting. This, of course, only made me shout louder.
I thought she was weak, cowardly, unfeeling, and indifferent to me. As it turned out, I was wrong. But I didn’t know how wrong until my twenty-first birthday, when she told me the secret she had kept hidden since I was born.
She and my father (a nonentity in my life) had never been married, let alone divorced (as I had been told). Pregnant, and with nowhere to turn, my mom had decided to keep me and raise me on her own. The instant I learned this, all my impressions and memories about the past turned inside out.
Finally, I understood the risks she had taken. I understood how frightened she had been of exposure: her job with the McCarthy-era federal government might have been taken away from her; the landlord might have thrown us out of the apartment because of the “morals” clause in the lease.
These days, every magazine and talk show has a story about the tribulations of single parents, the troubles of latchkey children. No one talked about it then. No wonder she avoided the P.T.A. like poison.
When I think of all the years we spent hurting each other, I am very sad. The necessity of maintaining that one secret cost us both so much.
My mother didn’t have any choice about keeping parts of her life a secret. I do have a choice. And I would dishonor the lessons of those difficult years if I were anything but open about my life now.
Raleigh, North Carolina
When I went steady with Jeffrey Waage in sixth grade, he gave me a little model of a dinosaur. It was a secret. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone — not about our going steady, but about the dinosaur. All the other girls who were going steady got ID bracelets.
Looking back, I think our secret was so cool. And, as long as it mattered, I never told.
New York, New York
In the Gospels, Christ says that one day that which is secret shall be shouted from the rooftops.
Perhaps there really are no secrets from a cosmic perspective.
The first time I heard the word “schizophrenia” used in the same breath with “Dad” by my mother, I made a point of looking it up in my Random House Dictionary: “a psychosis marked by withdrawn, bizarre, and sometimes delusional behavior, and by intellectual and emotional deterioration.” The words, black and plain as “scheme” and “Scheherazade” on the same page, seemed too clear, too simple for the man who, the night before, had beaten me with a baseball bat — the same 31-inch Hillerich & Bradsby with which I had socked two hits in a Little League game just hours before — for something I did not do.
So that’s it, I remember thinking. Dad beats me because of schizophrenia. Dad hates me because he is sick. It’s that simple.
I was twelve, and why my father did what he did had been kept a secret from me until then. “Schizophrenia” was, I suppose, offered as some sort of revelation, one of many simplistic explanations for one of the myriad things that cannot be explained.
One afternoon, I came home from school to get my gear for baseball practice. The long walk up Chestnut Street, one of Logan, West Virginia’s many sloping drives, was an exercise in fear. It was the beginning of the three-hour period before Dad came home — a long, terrible silence.
There were days when nothing would happen, or when all the tension building in anticipation of his violence drove me far from our house. Somehow, these days and nights seemed even more unbearable than the endless hours of his vicious tirades. He knew how to hit without bruising, eventually limiting his blows to my stomach and lower back. I knew how to cry so that no one could hear, and I cried for long nights without end.
But on this day I remember feeling good. I had baseball practice and, therefore, an excuse to be away from the house. I walked through the living room to see my older sister playing with her Barbies and their orange van by the worn green couch, while my younger sister concentrated on her blue plastic loom, weaving one of her countless potholders.
As I put on my shorts, I could hear the front door open. I could feel and hear the thud of his heavy work boots as the floorboards bent angrily. I could feel his shadow on my bedroom door.
With bat, glove, and cleats in hand, I opened my door. He was sitting in a chair, staring straight ahead, his handsome features twisted into his strange smile. He didn’t move, but his lips quivered with inaudible whispers, speaking to people I could neither see nor hear. I watched for a few seconds, a lump in my throat.
My older sister continued to play, heedless of the haunted man seated so near to her. But my younger sister got up, carrying her fabric loops, and walked toward Dad. She sat on the arm of his chair.
Dad started giggling. My little sister also started laughing delightedly, thinking, I suppose, that they were sharing a joke. Then she began draping the multicolored fabric loops over his ears.
I knew I had to get out, but I remember turning at the door and seeing my Mom crying, my younger sister laughing with my father, and my older sister’s face caught in the confusion, mirroring the span of emotions that spiralled through the room as we all beheld another vestige of Dad’s tormented, and tormenting, selves.
I left, thinking only of baseball, walking as fast as I could to practice. On my way, I stopped by the railroad tracks to swat stones into the Guyandotte River with my bat.
In the grain of that Hillerich & Bradsby’s wood were etched, it seems to me now, the enigmatic secrets of my father’s identity. With that bat he had shown me how to lean into a pitch, how to swing with my weight, how to explode into a baseball with the same fury he turned on me. When I made the Little League team earlier that spring, he was the proudest of all. Locked in my bat were contrary lessons of fear and courage, of pride and shame, and resolving those contradictions was left to me, a boy.
I was never a good baseball player, but the diamond still holds for me both magic and comfort. I remember thinking clearly on that day that I never wanted to leave the tiny field at Logan High School, nor did I want gentle old Paul Hale to stop hitting fly balls to me in left field.
The walk back home was slow. When I started to make the climb up Chestnut, I could see the flashing blue and red lights. Two police officers, several ambulance attendants, and two men in suits were leading a laughing, raving man in a straitjacket out of our deteriorating hilltop house. I could see neighbors’ faces pressed to windows, mouths moving in whispered speculation.
What Was Wrong With Dad — that travesty of offered “truths” that mocked the secrets of his behavior — changed with doctors, with hospital wards, with the frequent moves from town to lonely town, with every passing day.
My father is dead some eight years, and that bat is also lost to the past. His legacy, however, lives: as I cannot comprehend the explosive extremes of his life, I cannot resolve the conflicting feelings I have, either for him or for myself.
I am now twenty-five and I, too, hear whispers.