Monday, September 10, 2012

Secrets and lies

My daughter and I recently returned from our second eight-day vacation adventure, this time to my hometown and the home where I grew up.

Our visit, as always when one returns "home" was an eye-opening adventure. As we grow older, we learn more about our childhood than we ever knew as children. The stories that are revealed can answer those questions from decades ago. And while sometimes we look back fondly on our childhoods, as we age, we take a peek, or maybe a longer look, at those skeletons in our respective closets.

Earbaby and I made this journey without her dad this year. His obligations were at the recently ended Republican and Democratic conventions, and even though he loves my hometown, he is exasperated at times by my relatives, their chaos, their lateness, their drama and their stubborn unwillingness to stick to schedules. He brings a book and spends many an hour sitting in a rented car waiting.

So it's a little less stressful when EB and I go alone. We can stay with my mother, instead of in a hotel and we don't try to adhere to a strict schedule. Piling multiple people in the rental (my family notoriously has raggedy-car issues), and changing plans mid-course doesn't really upset me. It's a sigh, and OK let's adjust.

Plus EB gets a chance to spend time with her mother's side of the family and since we laugh a lot, play games a lot, and go to Target a lot, it's a lot of fun.

But again, we usually find out a little more about our families' skeletons, and as we learn, we grow a little more understanding, tolerant and forgiving. Or we just get ticked off.

In the past few years, I've had occasion to speak to the secrecy of my parents' generation. They don't reveal much, and it's only after death of one relative or another, the reason for longstanding resentments come to the surface. It's finding out after the fact the pain that my father endured when the money he sent home while serving overseas was not saved for his schooling, but spent so his siblings could further their education. And instead of their showing gratitude, he was looked down on for being uneducated, although he did have a couple of years of college, no small feat for a black man in the South, post World War II.

Learning about your family explains so much of your childhood. None more so than the secrets and lies that are finally confessed.

I don't know why I thought to ask what happened to the dogs. Yes, I do. It was one of those advice columnists, Dear Abby, or Dear Prudence, or maybe even it was Margo Howard. But the question of how to tell the truth to a child about a pet -- this one was given away, but the child was told it had died and was buried -- started me thinking about Peace and Aquarius.

See, our dog had puppies, eight of them in fact. But while six went to the shelter, my mother allowed us to keep two, so Duchess wouldn't "grieve herself to death." We had three dogs for awhile, at least a year or two, and then we didn't. First Peace disappeared, which devastated my younger sister who had claimed ownership. One of her friends told her she saw the dog in an animal control wagon (the dogs would get out of the fenced yard and back then dogs getting out and straying was common). My parents weren't concerned enough to follow up. Then, Aquarius was just gone. My father used to take all three dogs to the park and let them play while he studied for his work, but he also didn't seem too alarmed by this disappearance. Well, my mother said at the time, Duchess probably ran them off.

But this last trip something made me ask, and my mother confessed my father took Aquarius away to "be with some other dogs." Well, did that mean he left her out to wander and be a stray, or he gave her to a family or what? My mother was vague on the details. She claimed to really not know what happened to Peace.

It's a small secret in the grand scheme of things, but I felt betrayed and frustrated. My father's been gone 12 years, no way to get a real answer now. And all those dogs have been dead probably 40 years, but it still made me sad that they must have felt abandoned and lost, separated from the only family they knew.

I did decide right then that I wouldn't keep weird family secrets from EB. I'll try to tell her the truth, even if it pains, or embarrasses me. Does a 13-year-old need to know about every skeleton? No. But when I think about my friends, some of us growing up in houses with domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, incest, and all other manner of dysfunction, it makes me wonder how many of those secrets and lies wouldn't be repeated if they had been brought to light.

We all grew up learning not to "put our business in the streets." Dad out of work or fired because he came in drunk too many times? Cousin arrested for hijacking cars? Parents fighting all night so you didn't get any sleep? Brother on drugs? Half-siblings out there nobody is supposed to know about? Teenager who got pregnant out of wedlock for the second time? Mom an alcoholic? You kept it to yourself and didn't even tell your closest friends.

We look back on our childhoods as idyllic days of hopscotch and Double Dutch; riding bikes all over the neighborhood, hide and seek after dark and rock teacher on our front steps when it was too dark to be anywhere but at your own house.

And as I walked around my neighborhood, at the still well-kept lawns, swept sidewalks, paved alleys with trash cans neatly covered, I wondered how many other secrets and lies lay hidden, how much pain our friends were also in that they couldn't reveal.

No wonder reality shows like Hoarders and Intervention are so popular. We're not looking for entertainment at others' suffering. We're looking for kinship among other people who are harboring terrible secrets behind closed doors and well-manicured lawns.

It really wasn't just learning about the dogs. It was about learning that parents can lie and show callous disregard while thinking they're doing the right thing. And it's about us learning about how to understand the context of the times, moving on, forgiving, and vowing not to repeat those same mistakes.

It's about looking back, and growing up.

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