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I know many, many secrets. My policy is—if they don’t ask, don’t tell.
In my series for Poisoned Pen Press, Lottie Albright collects family histories. I do this too. Once because it was my job for a historical society, now because of my desire to preserve my own family’s history. Although the immediacy of some of my connections have been altered by death, I am a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a sister-in-law, a granddaughter, and a daughter.
People tell me things, Through the years I’ve developed an instinct for what’s proper to reveal, what would simply be mean-spirited to talk about, and what is better left alone forever.
I’ve noticed often people wait until they are in their fifties to delve into troubling issues about their family. They ask because puzzles simmer somewhere in their subconscious. The fact that it’s bothering them is proof of their need to know.
If they ask, and I know, I tell.
For instance, a beloved cousin, once asked me if her father—I’ll call him Dave--was her real father. In a flash, I knew he wasn’t. Stunned that I knew this, I asked my own father and he said no, her mother had had an affair. How did this cousin know? How did I know? For my part, it was the memory of a hushed conversation, overheard in childhood. She wanted to know. Her reply was “never mind, as far as I’m concerned Dave is my real father.” Nevertheless, this knowledge put her lifelong suspicions to rest.
She asked, so I told.
Recently a dear friend of mine whose father had died young remarked that her mother never remarried because she “didn’t want someone else raising her kids.” I knew better. Her mother couldn’t remarry because her dying husband had exacted a death bed promise from her that she never would. My parents did not like this man. They thought it was incredibly mean of him to bind this woman to widowhood. Nowadays, the “death bed promise” would not have the sacred solemnity as one made years ago. It would have been cruel to shatter my friend’s image of her father.
She didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.
People in their eighties often have a compulsion to tell family stories. They tell because they want to set the record straight. They are delighted when nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great grand-children pump them for information.
Recently when I went back to Anderson County Kansas to visit my husband’s grave, I located the grave of an aunt who had a falling out with the family. She had asked for a private burial in a secret location. But someone knew and had taken the time to put up a wee flat stone with only her first name. I think I know the cousin who did this. I had extra flowers with me. I hesitated to lay them at her grave, but I did. I turned to leave, then went back and collected the bouquet because I wanted to honor her secret. I felt like it was a scared charge to keep. Then I wept for this tragic aunt who chose separation in death as well as life.
No one will ask, so there’s no need to tell.
My favorite book of poetry is the Spoon River Anthology. The author, Edgar Lee Masters, was from Anderson County. Spoon River is set in a cemetery, and in each poem, the deceased rise from their graves and account for their lives.
Writing your memoirs is a priceless gift for future generations. Urge your relatives to do this and begin doing it yourself. I would love to know how each person in my family viewed their own life.
They were gone before I could ask. Now they can never tell.