Introduction: Family and Friends
Family secrets. Friend and colleague secrets. Big, frightening, serious secrets. And those small ones we keep only out of embarrassment or so as not to hurt a friend. For example:
Should you tell your six-year-old grandson that there is no Santa Claus? And what do you say when it is his ten-year-old cousin who has outed to him that Santa is really his Dad?
Should you choose the extended family’s Thanksgiving feast as the moment to inform right wing conspiracy fanatic Uncle Harry that Abbie, the friend you brought to dinner, not so long ago was Abe?
Should you tell your partner that you and Terry did have sex at the office party last month? If so, do you also admit that neither of you was as drunk as you pretended to be? And while you are on the subject, do you mention it was not the first time? Or the second?
Should you tell your teenage children, one of whom is demonstrating for abortion rights and the other sure it’s a sin, that you had an abortion before they were born? And bore a child whom you held once and then gave up for adoption? Or that if anyone asked you which she should choose, you’d say the abortion, any day?
Should you tell your partner that you still have the letter his girlfriend wrote to you all those years ago – the one in which she assured you he’d promised her he was leaving you?
Should you tell your son that the bleeding ulcer that supposedly killed his father wasn’t an ulcer at all, but cirrhosis? The tyrant drank himself to death. And not a moment too soon.
Should you tell anyone that your father has been raping you, even though he has warned you not to, even though you are afraid your mother won’t believe you, or worse will hate you, even though you are so, so ashamed?
And now, the secrets you should keep – or not – from friends and colleagues.
Should you tell your friend, who for some reason wants no one, including you, to know, that her daughter spilled the beans? That you do know she has cancer?
Should you die never having told the friends closest to you that your daughter is a lesbian, because admitting it makes you feel you failed at motherhood?
And those are just a couple of the things we do not tell our friends. There are so many. That they are looking old and fat, especially in that outfit. That the Botox was a bad idea. That they aren’t pulling their weight in this friendship you thought you had. That their lover came on to you. That you are unspeakably envious of their new car, their apartment, their job, the praise everyone is always showering on them, their life.
Which secrets should we tell? Which should we keep to ourselves? And why? And how? The splendid writers, illustrators, and musicians who have so generously contributed time and talent to this special Short Takes section ponder these questions and more. My gratitude to them, to our poetry editor Cynthia Hogue who selected the poetry you will enjoy here, and to Naomi Stine who helped me choose the prose.
A Long Silence
“Why don’t you talk to your brother?”
I was around six when I first asked my father that question. The answer never varied: a shrug. If I pressed him, he’d add: “I have nothing to say to him.” Evasion via quip was how my family handled secrets – an uncle who went to prison for a never-named crime, a cousin friendly with gangsters, an aunt who didn’t speak to her father for 30 years.
Family combatants sometimes resolved grudges by falling into each other’s arms, usually at a funeral where the combination of nostalgia and shared grief could overcome bitter resentments. This scenario would not work for the Barnett brothers. I remember the morning I walked into the kitchen ready for school, to see my father wearing his best suit, my mother dressed in black for Uncle Milton’s funeral.
There’s no one left in my family who might shed light on my father’s secret. The mystery deepens when I recall that during our weekly phone conversations Dad never failed to ask, “Have you talked to your brother lately?” If I answered in the negative, I’d hear, “Stay in touch. It’s important.” My brother Phil, in his phone check-ins heard a similar plea.
Secrets accumulate the way squirrels stash autumn’s acorns in locations they’ll soon forget. Each spring seedlings emerge.
Secrets reproduce too, so I wonder if multiplying secrets were at the heart of my family’s disharmony. I lived on the east coast with husband and two children. My brother and his family lived in California. Our parents had retired to Florida. Geographically we’d settled as far apart as possible. Years went by with no visits between my brother’s family and mine. We spoke only sporadically.
Twenty-five years ago, soon after my father died, Phil and I met with three first cousins. “Uncle Ed,” as they’d called him, had been a favorite with his nieces and nephews. Seated around a table at a hotel restaurant, we shared family stories. When I asked about the history between Dad and Uncle Milton, the cousins, all older than Phil and me, seemed reluctant to share “classified” information. Fragments emerged. Milton was a party goer. He danced, drank, gambled. My father did none of these things. When cousin Rhoda leaked the snippet that could become a novel – “your mother dated Milton before she married your dad” – cousins Mike and Lila clammed up.
I’ll never know the whole story. Did Mom settle for the more sober, serious, Ed? Or did she choose him as the man more likely to make a good husband and father? I imagine asking her and can almost hear the response, delivered with a slightly belligerent edge: “What do you think?” My parents get A+ in holding on to secrets. I may have to write that novel.
to unearth the secret of inner peace
maybe under a stone I couldn’t lift
or swivel free. I followed their dust
in the hills of Chiang Mai province,
in the open temples on the banks
of the Ganges, and kneeling
with cupped palms full of rice
and mango as alms at dawn in Laos.
But this morning standing in my shower,
in Vermont seeing how much of me is skin
and under the warm water, I breathed in
a world – those who laid the pipes,
smoothed the grout over fresh placed tile,
the hands that weaved the towel I wrapped
around myself, and on the wall of the fogged room
the print a student made and framed.
I am stilled in this wave of other lives,
some now bones. I am that kiss
my parents began, each breath
part shadow, part light.
I was the oldest and by far the tallest kid on my cul-de-sac. As an only child, I relished my right to boss my friends and their younger siblings. There was never any question about who would teach bike riding, climb the island tree first, light the Ladyfinger firecrackers, read out loud to the others, and direct the summer costume song fest.
Though viewed as fearless by my little world, I crumbled nightly when I heard the words “Time for bed.” I knew, if I were lucky enough to even fall asleep, I would soon be swallowed by a wave of strange, guilt-ridden nightmares. My grandma had died quickly and mysteriously in her fifties when I was eight. Like children sometimes do, I blamed myself, her only grandchild. The night before she fell silent forever, she had telephoned me from her hospital room. My mother had reluctantly given me the receiver. “Come spend the night with me, Honey,” my grandma had implored. “There’s an extra bed here just for you.”
My mother, of course, did not drive me to the hospital. For the next several years, I never told her about my morbid, reoccurring dreams of burning graves and coffins – likely sparked by the creepy “Mummy” comic books I read sneakily in the back seat.
The new boy on the corner of the cul-de-sac had given me the forbidden books. For the first time, I played with a kid as big as me, though just barely. When we read comic books in his bedroom, I imagined the smell of damp socks and discarded Kool-Aid cups to be a signature brotherly scent. One afternoon I stopped by to find another boy, husky with buzzed hair, also in the room. I had looked forward to our usual quiet reading time together and my tummy clenched when the two boys started punching each other. I was starting to leave, when the bigger boy grabbed me by the arm.
“Stop it!” I snarled, my upper arm burning. “Hold her, so I can kiss her,” the brute barked at my friend, who stood frozen. “I mean it!” the big boy said. I was shoved just hard enough that my lips crashed into my assaulter’s. We were all startled; I was able to scramble out of the room, into the front yard, and to breathlessly run home.
That night, I sat glumly in front of my Friday night bowl of Cheez-Its while my parents sipped their cocktails in the living room. “Did something happen today?” my mother asked gently. Dad gave me a warm gaze. I wanted to tell them, I did. My stomach swirled with guilt. I looked down at my bare toes, rubbing them from one foot to the other, just like when sleep refused to come.
A Sorry Song
Black pitch a windowless room
the pre-revolutionary Marco Polo.
Hush severed by the ring of a vintage 1960s Soviet phone.
The irritated desk clerk roused at an
My little boy begins to cry.
I wrap the coils of the cord
around my fingers.
Mother’s voice, muted, from the States –
Dad coma kidney failure.
Alone when he died.
Father Paul, my dad’s best friend, was an infatuation. Nobody ever wondered
if he might actually have loved my mother. He had a calling –
we shouldn’t probe into God’s business.
Jay, the traveling peddler, didn’t have a prayer. My grandmother
clutched those rosary beads like a rabbit’s foot — they were blessed
at the shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa before my grandmother
crossed the Atlantic on a boat.
My mother, Rose, was a good looker; ought to be worth something.
When Grandma hollered, her Polish chickens shed feathers
that wafted up to the ceiling, like the matzo balls I tried to make years later –
floaters, not sinkers.
Grandma didn’t tell my dad about our bad blood. Enough that he saw
Grandpa was a drunk. Henry was a gentleman, a college boy.
He knew what to overlook. Besides, he was already smitten by then.
Grandma was right about good looks.
Mother did as she was told. But, boy, that peddler sure could dance!
Grandma bet the whole hen coop that sooner or later someone would notice
how the cousins walked with crooked necks in broad daylight
down 14th Street, a twin-walk, mouthing with identical inflections
a secret language, as if miniature mirrors had been slipped under
their tongues. You could put two and two together. A time bomb.
Needed to get her daughter married off, quick!
Damien and Thaddeus babbled in gibberish just like those girls,
dressed in matching black outfits I saw at the train station in
Swampscott. Grown-up then, I could spot a misfit. Always gave me goosebumps.
When my brother Ray got sent to Elgin, he entered their void.
Don’t stare, Mother would scold me. I couldn’t help it when the policemen
The widow, my mother, had a few glasses of wine the night of the funeral.
She took on the glow of a young girl.
We had all seen it before the spectacle – riveting —
her giddy reminiscences of Father Paul.
In the letter she left me – Open it after I die (breathless,
she could hardly wait) – I read how the peddler
held her when they danced close. I almost felt sorry for her.
Dad couldn’t dance.
“Mom, would you hand me my purse?”
She looks up from the bed as she reaches for her bag, her blue eyes are earnest. “You both have to swear you won’t tell anyone. I have a lipstick that makes you invisible when you’re wearing it. The secret is you have to use three coats.”
My husband and I share a glance. This is new. Comical, but concerning.
“We won’t tell,” I promise. “Honey, did the doctor change your meds?”
“Yeah,” she says as she rummages through her treasured Gucci bag. “He said it would help with the pain and maybe even slow the cancer.”
She pulls out lipstick tubes, Chapstick, and pots of gloss. Murmuring to herself, she examines each one before setting it to the side.
“Where is it?” She flips her bag over and shakes everything out onto her lap.
Looking up again, she confides, “I heard someone in my room last night. They stole my favorite jeans.”
As she scoops the items from her lap back into her bag, I open the door of her narrow closet. Neatly stacked on the top shelf are the three pairs of jeans that have been there for weeks. “You mean one of these?”
“No, Mom. The pink ones, the ones that let me fly. I bet whoever took them took my lipstick too.”
Late night, long after we’ve gone home, she roams the halls, IV pole in tow. The nurses move her to the room directly across from their station.
In the morning, the frustration in her voice is clear as she asks, “How could they see me? I was sure I found my lipstick and I know I put on three coats.”
I suggest maybe it just looked like the one she’d lost.
“Oh,” she says. “Whoever stole it left a fake one so I wouldn’t know!”
I assure her I’ll keep an eye out for the missing jeans and lipstick.
“Thanks, Mom, but don’t forget, it’s a secret.”
“I won’t forget, honey. I promise you I won’t forget.”
On a cold January afternoon, just a few weeks later, she becomes invisible and flies away from the body she’d lived in for thirty years.
Behind my tears, I see her soaring, light, bright, free from pain. Her pink jeans peek out from under her blue and white hospital gown, her lips a vibrant red.
Violin Sonata No. 9 in C Major, K. 14 (version for flute and keyboard) : II. Minuet
The Secret of the Turkish Brass Bell
It is our daily ritual, born in Paris.
I hold a little brass bell in the form of a small Turkish Anatolian man. Ted and I have a secret name for him – Anatoly.
The figure atop the bell is squat, primitive, with a small, pointed head, a figure built for carrying loads, a laborer. He is naked, save for a loincloth and a sort of cowl hat. I am not certain if this bell is something my parents picked up during our three years living in Turkey, or if the form of the man dates from the ancient Hittite Anatolian civilization, but I believe it does.
But for the past several years, every evening at six, if Ted and I are both at home, he rings the little Turkish bell. It is a ritual that began after one of our early trips to Paris, when he discovered how much he loves kir, that pretty “apéro,” a combination of white wine and a small measure of crème de cassis.
Ted mixes the kir with precision and joy, like an apothecary preparing a tincture. First the white wine is poured, then a small measure of the cassis is drizzled on the top, such that they do not mix – and the denser blackcurrant liquid drops to the bottom.
Ted and I lead lives that are both separate and together. The tending of this balance requires much care, attention, and love.
And so, with the kirs served, Ted tinkles the bell and, careful to ensure eye contact, we toast the end of another day with a drink that resembles a sunset.
It has not always been easy to maintain our ritual as, surprisingly, many countries do not regard crème de cassis as a staple. In restaurants, Ted patiently explains to the bartenders how he would like the kirs to be prepared and I cringe that they will feel patronized. Recently, at a new trendy Ottawa restaurant, a bartender reattempted to prepare the kirs to Ted’s specifications but repeatedly failed, offering us the uniformly pale pink drinks gratis. As we left, the poor man had the bottles lined up and was still attempting to pour these drinks and staring at his failed attempts glumly. I wonder, if we went back, would we still find him practicing?
What would the little Turkish man from Anatolia think of this hedonistic habit? For us, it marks the conclusion of another day of life, of work, of love, and of pleasure.
You’re about to tell me a secret. You know you shouldn’t, but you’re going to anyway. You’ll whisper the words, or you’ll speak them. I’ll watch your face as you struggle with which way to go, and even though you’re going to look kind of shifty and crimped, the twitch at either end of your mouth is going to turn into a smile.
I think, how could you even think of doing this? It was given to you for safe keeping. All of it. The dark of it. The shame.
I look into your eyes. I swear I can see Time there, doing all that it can to slow itself down. There’s an eternity in this one moment – it’s speaking to you. It’s telling you: you can still change your mind–you don’t have to do this.
You begin. Your breath spews the words toward my ears. They tumble out, twist, distort, but more than that, they betray.
There. It’s done.
You’re leaving. As you walk away, I can feel the lightness in your step, and I now feel grimy and smudged all over.
I didn’t have to listen.
Level 1. The ones I like.
Level 2. The ones I tolerate.
Level 3. The ones I absolutely can’t stand.
Sometimes I don’t feel like doing a wash for two weeks, you know, especially with the drought. Or I’m just feeling lazy. That’s when I really appreciate that third level of underpants.
Gift or Curse
“Thank you for meeting with me,” Lisa said. “I wanted to learn more about your special gift.”
“More of a curse than a gift,” muttered the old woman.
“My friends call you the Secret Keeper. They say that people tell you their darkest secrets and you never repeat them.”
“Yes, that’s true. How do they know?”
Lisa was surprised. “You’re a legend! When did you first realize you had this power?”
“Power? I have no power. I can only listen. But to answer your question, I was in my teens when friends began telling me things they needed to share, but didn’t want anyone else to know.”
“What could be so important in your teens?”
“Nothing, really, but when you’re that age the smallest things are blown out of proportion. My best friend told me she stuffed her bra and begged me not to tell anyone. Of course, I wouldn’t. Another girl feared she sinned because her boyfriend French-kissed her. There were many simple and naïve secrets back then. I honored their trust and never told anyone.”
“And when did the secrets get more serious?”
“I suppose in college. Everything gets more complicated as we get older. One day my roommate passed me a note that read, ‘I’m pregnant, don’t tell anyone.’ I was shocked. I thought we were all virgins.”
“And were there other secrets that shocked you?”
“Many. I worked as a clerk typist in New York between semesters. On nice days I went to the nearby park to eat my lunch. One afternoon an elderly lady sat down next to me. She said she needed to tell someone about a terrible thing that happened many years ago. I thought, “What could she have done? Stolen a cookie recipe? But her story sent a shiver through me and it still does.”
“What was it?”
“The woman said, ‘My unmarried sister gave birth to a baby right on the living room floor. No one even knew she was pregnant. In those days our whole family would’ve been disgraced. The infant was so tiny and it didn’t cry, so I picked it up and threw it into the fireplace.’”
Lisa blurted out, “That’s murder!”
“Well, she wasn’t sure if it was alive, but the image haunted her. She never told anyone until that day. When she finished her story, she thanked me for listening and said she felt so much better. That’s what they all say. They need to tell someone they trust.”
“Were there others like that?”
“Yes, a man confided that he was burdened with guilt because he helped his terminally ill friend commit suicide. Then there were so many abortions. The women knew they couldn’t keep a baby, but they still felt bad about it.”
“Did you ever break your promise and tell a secret?”
“Once, to prevent a disaster, no one ever knew.”
“May I tell you something?” asked Lisa.
“I thought you would.”
All in a Day’s Shopping
The motto for rural communities hoping to stay alive? Buy Local. But sometimes what you want isn’t available. Fancy underwear is one of those examples. Specialist doctors are another. When the need for the a physician requires a two-hour drive, one also takes advantage of department stores like Macy’s, where this tale begins.
At the mall entrance, my significant other turned left for men’s clothing, and I took off straight ahead to lingerie, cell phones synchronized for the inevitable call one of us would make to the other: “I’m ready. Let’s go.” The curvy drive home through redwood trees and vineyards was easiest to maneuver during daylight. There was never time to dawdle.
I found the panties I liked, the see-through black ones with off-white lace identical to those at home, but some of mine were no longer in the best of shape and needed replacement. My preference was high-cut, but these, the only pair on the shelf, weren’t labeled. Off to the dressing room, trying them on for comparison purposes over the older ones I already wore, following proper procedure according to the sign outside the door.
“Buzz,” shouted my phone. “OK. I’ll meet you at the front door in a minute. These aren’t the correct fit anyway.”
I slipped off both pairs at the same time, separated them, then redressed.
Forty minutes of driving took us to our usual spot in the last town before winding roads: cheapest gas, something to drink, and clean bathrooms. Phillip pumped; I headed to use the facilities. Pulling my panties back up, I felt something strange: a small piece of cardboard. Looking closer, it was the price tag attached to the new underwear. My cheeks reddened, envisioning my dirty old underwear gracing the dressing room bench. I’m seventy years old, and I’ve stolen underpants?
“You’re not going to believe what happened,” I told Phillip when I exited the convenience store. “You know the underwear I tried on? I stole them. I’m a $27 thief!”
You did what?” He looked shocked. I explained how it happened. He started to laugh, then stopped. “Your underwear costs $27 a pair?”
Secret ‘YESipe’ ™ for Letting Go of Perfectionism©
This is a blissfully messy concoction that is the secret for letting go of perfectionism.
Get your hands dirty, your face smudged, feel the freedom in your body and the pounding of your heart as you release yourself from the captivity of having to be perfect. You will get to be in the sensation of being in the unexpected!
First build a fire; a temple of flames – large, and golden and crackling, a fire that dances sparks into the air of endless time. Feel the heat on your skin. Breathe in the scent of the primitive warmth. Stand in the glow of its magnificent spirit.
Next, find a large, deep, dark, fire-stained cauldron; one you can put upon on the flames to boil the ingredients down to their essence. Fill the vessel with water and bring to a rolling boil.
Inside a medium size cooking satchel, place a generous mixture of “perfection paralysis.” Include:
- 1 heaping tablespoon of I am not good enough
- 1 cup of fear of failure
- 2/3 cup of overwhelm
- 3 teaspoons of not knowing where to begin
- A handful of immobilization
- ¼ teaspoon of fear of success
- 1 tablespoon of unrealistic expectations
- 2 cups of fear of making mistakes
Toss the satchel into the boiling caldron and add your radiant voice exclaiming, three times, “I get to release my beliefs about having to be perfect!”
Breathe. Breathe and enjoy the process of breathing. Feel your body. Notice sensation. Watch the perfectionism simmer into oblivion.
A Murderer’s Daughter
The week before Christmas, Mom and I had turned flour, butter, and eggs into tree-shaped cookies while Dad committed murder. Neighbors pointed fingers and stared but never again saw us the same way. Parents rushed to extinguish friendships I’d had with their teenagers since kindergarten. Like the one chipped cup, they worried I’d spoil the set.
Dad’s crime birthed him into a family of inmates who wore uniforms the same color green as his eyes. Gone was his dream of a cottage with a picket fence and a thirty-year mortgage. Instead, he got thirty years in the big house surrounded by towering walls and barbed wire. Long after conviction, his closet smelled of Old Spice. Although I shouldn’t have, I missed him. When I was six, my fear of the dark spawned the nightly ritual where he’d pulled an imaginary guardian elf from behind his ear and placed it on my shoulder. When I needed them most, my father and the elf weren’t there.
Five years into his sentence, correction officers found Dad dead in his cell. The coroner said sudden cardiac death was the cause, but the funeral director disguised facial cuts and bruises consistent with a beating. In the eighties, an inmate’s death didn’t matter to anyone but his wife and daughter.
Days became months. Months turned into years and then decades. The friends I lost were nurses and teachers while I made a career watching over my shoulder. Needing love but settling for acceptance, I bared my body and soul in meritless relationships, absorbing mental and verbal abuse like a dry sponge until I met a man who saw beyond my father’s crime. We married. His family didn’t know I was a murderer’s daughter. He kept my secret, I had his family’s respect, and they didn’t doubt his sanity. I wore my wedding ring on a long, slender finger resembling my father’s, and I wondered if the ability to murder passed through DNA. I remained childless because I couldn’t risk a hand developing in my womb and then someday committing murder. My babies were the stories I conceived in my heart and nurtured to paper.
Time passed, taking with it many who had remembered the crime committed that December day. The internet, with its limitless memory, became the one to watch. I suspected my husband feared more than the internet revealing my secret when he carved a roast and rushed to wash and hide the knife, thinking I didn’t notice. I’ll forever be a murderer’s daughter.
secrets, what happened to her
at thirteen in the crimson glow of that
darkroom light clipped to the linen shelves
her sole witness in that dank downstairs bathroom
Still she sat in full view
for hours, hunched over on the
telephone stool in the hallway, the receiver
pressed tight to shut us out; she barely spoke – just
wordless murmurs – until my mother insisted she hang up
This is our secret, he must
have said into her unguarded
adolescent ear, just between us; you are
special; she listened intently, transfixed by his
low rumbling monotone, hearing that she was visible
I’ll never know what potent
poisons he poured into her, that
man more than three times her age
and now, a lifetime later, I don’t know when
or how she will ever step out of that small dark room
Mary survived the Holocaust by pretending to be Catholic. She had no idea it would take almost fifty years before she could tell anyone she was Jewish. When she was sixteen, she urged her mother to jump off a train headed for a concentration camp. She jumped after her but never saw her mother again. Farmers, who lived near the tracks, hid Mary. A few months later, Mary found a way to forge papers with a new name and religion so she could work in a munitions slave labor camp in Poland. After the war, she married a Catholic Polish partisan, raised their two sons in Toronto and did not reveal to her sons she was Jewish until her husband died in 1992. After Mary died ten years later, Richard, her older son, learned from one of her friends that she wanted to have a Jewish Star put on her gravestone.
I never met my cousin Mary, but had heard how she survived the war. Recently, when I learned about her gravestone, I wanted to see it. But I only knew the first and last initials of Mary’s married last name. I contacted the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and told them Mary’s maiden name, where she was born and the year of her birth. Three days later, I received an email with twenty-eight documents about Mary, her husband, and a birth certificate for her son who was born in a displaced persons camp in 1946. I jumped to my feet as I stared at my computer.
“Richard!” I said as I tried to figure out how to pronounce Czerwinski, his last name. I searched the web for Toronto phone numbers and couldn’t find him. I searched for business phone numbers and found the correct name and age for Mary’s son.
“I found you.” I shouted. I hesitated and then nervously called.
“Hello.” A man with a cheery voice answered.
“Hi. Is this Richard?” I asked, not wanting to mispronounce his last name.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
I told him my name and said, “If your mother’s maiden name was Rosenstrauch and she was born in Tarnopol, Poland in 1924, I’m your cousin.”
“Wow. You know more than my friends know,” he exclaimed.
We arranged for a visit. Richard and his wife Jan welcomed me into their home as if we had known each other all our lives. The day after I arrived, we went to the cemetery.
As we walked back to his car, Richard said. “I haven’t been to the cemetery since my mother died and I’ve been meaning to arrange to have a Jewish star sand-blasted onto her stone.” A few months later, he sent me a photo: Mary’s secret was finally out in the open.
My Mother’s Secret
She was dying.
I saw it, standing beside the hospital bed: her eyes rolling back, white moons in the overhead light, just a brief moment before she summoned them back. To him.
My father didn’t see it, though he’d held hands and said prayers over hundreds of deathbeds in his half-century of ministry. But he’d conducted two services that day, and at nearly eighty even his charismatic energy was flagging. So he saw only what he could: the love.
I slipped out of the room.
I knew. Knew it would be soon, a matter of hours. I didn’t know if my mother did. And if so, whether she’d tell my dad.
And if she didn’t, whether I should.
My sister and I adored our parents. But we always understood: their love for each other was all-absorbing. It didn’t exclude us; on the contrary, we were gathered into its magnitude, not dimmed but subsumed in its light.
Yet tonight it seemed a bright globe that I was outside of. As if telling dad, who would trust my judgment – I had a profession, degrees – would break into sacred space. And yet…
Wouldn’t they want to be together when she took that final step into darkness?
I couldn’t ask my sister. She was on the way here, and we didn’t have cell phones then.
I went back into the room.
They were holding hands. Hers were parchment over skeleton, the long fingers that could press no more music from piano keys, woven luminous with his. He must see. But her smile was radiant in the planed face.
He turned then. The light of her smile in his. “Well, we’ll be going now,” he said. He cupped her hand between his. That frail shining architecture of bone. And said, in unconscious metaphor, “I leave you in good hands.”
And she said, looking up at him from that great love and from the growing shadows of that great distance, “And we know whose hands they are.”
She knew. Not the weary nurses, padding through antiseptic halls on thick soles. Not the doctors with their sterile medical jargon. Not their hands. But she had no energy for anyone but him. For this moment with him. Her last look at the human face which, for her, reflected the great love. We see Christ in the features of men’s faces… And the peace he would have always in remembering that look.
We went home.
At three that morning my body arched as with an electric shock. And then the phone rang.
Mother, beloved mother, I kept your secret. I did not betray you.
Then why these three o’clock nightmares when I wake up sobbing, sobbing because in my dream you turn away from me?
Bubba Still Tends Bar
the streets smolder with enough heat
to blister bare skin.
Guthrie’s 20-foot neon sign buzzes and flickers
casts a mustard-yellow glow across
the dumpster-lined alleyway.
All the locals come here after a day on the fields —
drillers, welders, engineers, even the lawyers.
My first visit was as a 14 year-old
kid with my best friend. Our Vision
skateboards took us to where we shouldn’t be,
while parents were busy at church.
I tugged at the red metal doors,
nudged them open,
sleuthed the danger.
Skulking behind the crowd,
the cacophony of the juke box, laughter
and clinking glasses, unnerved my bravado.
But, it was a dare worth taking,
one that earned me bragging rights at school.
Tonight, it’s the same red and white checkered floor,
the same oak bar extending the length of the galley.
The glassware and liquor line the shelves;
not an ornamental plant or cocktail waitress in sight.
Spuds MacKenzie is the only new addition –
he sits between the Hendricks Gin and Crown Royal.
At the back we can see the black safe, the one
that took Bubba’s finger tip all those years ago.
A yellowing piece of paper taped to the door reads,
“No one fuck with my money!”
The mural of Old Towne leads to the bathroom.
We climb up on the chrome and vinyl stools.
Local celebrity pictures cover the walls.
Buck, Merle and Harvey,
stare at us with a secret monochrome recognition.
Bubba, still tends bar.
I order a Cali Squeeze Slo Brew
You order an Alabama Slammer.
On the juke, “The Streets of Bakersfield”
pulses under the chatter and clatter –
“I came here lookin’ for somethin’.”
The Cat Man
He saw me before I saw him. Dressed in a shabby red and black check jacket and pants, he paced the subway platform, talking out loud. Snow blew down the stairs into the station, small, cold flakes that left a light dust under my boots and on the tracks. Once I slipped my token into the turnstile and turned left, I made accidental eye contact. No longer wearing the habit of my order, I wore a street-length black coat and the still-required short veil. He left off pacing and shuffled toward me. Soon we were face to face. I was expecting a confrontation based on old stereotypes. Maybe the Flying Nun or the teacher wielding a ruler.
“Wanna know what I have in my backpack?” he asked. I shrugged and lifted my eyebrows, hoping to discourage him. Since I wouldn’t answer, he did: “Cat food. Cans of cat food. I feed the cats in my neighborhood. That’s because nobody cares. I got no friends. They got no friends.”
The IRT rolled into the station. I moved toward the open doors, Mumbling, he followed me. I found a seat between two elderly men, one reading The Daily News, the other napping. A moment later, Cat Man appeared over me, swinging from a strap as the train accelerated into the tunnel. When his knees brushed mine, I caught the odors of whiskey, cigarettes, and urine. As the train rattled forward, he began. He was a Vietnam vet. After deployment, his girlfriend left him.
“Nothing, not one stinkin’ phone call. She broke my heart. So, what I got left? The cats. They know who feeds them.” Cat Man continued his story, punctuating it with questions, which I answered in monosyllables. He was not discouraged. Eventually the questions became personal.
“You a nun, right?”
“You live with other nuns, right?”
“Yes.” This was going somewhere. Then he asked the question that interests everyone.
“Is it true you can’t have sex?” I flushed and nodded. “Do you miss it?” he persisted. Except for the thrum of wheels, the car felt thickly silent. I told myself that if I didn’t get away soon, I’d be sorry. As the train slowed into the Fifty-Ninth Street exchange, I rose, slipped under his arm and said,
“This is my stop. Goodbye. Take care of yourself.” I spoke gently.
As I hurried away, Cat Man shouted through the wheeze of the closing doors. “Goodbye! Goodbye. You’re the nicest person I ever met.” I turned to wave before plunging into the crowd toward another train.
However inconspicuous I wanted to be, I stood for more than myself in public. Would that become a burden or the challenge of a selfless life? With final vows approaching, I had to decide.
A secret by nature is hidden and sometimes painful. But there’s also one that is a joy, a ruby tucked away that you can hold at will, its gleam filling your whole being.
I became a kid in 1956 when at five I knew the time was right for me to take my first leap of separation from my family. As all those like me were doing across suburban America, I threw my lot in with the kids of my town, with our neighborhoods, backyards, streets, new houses, empty lots, and woods. There was nothing about our town we didn’t know. I propelled myself and my allegiance into that parallel universe, the one our busy parents had forgotten existed and so didn’t conceive of supervising, unwittingly giving us a gift – freedom to explore and be who we were.
This universe is my lifelong secret, my ruby. Only I know its facets – I can behold any of them whenever I wish.
This didn’t mean we children lived in bliss. Discord flared in some homes. Neighbors grappled with what made the other different, sometimes successfully, sometimes igniting terrible prejudice. Our nation was doing the same.
So we created our universe by weaving ourselves over and under the ugliness the adults made, as if we were satin ribbons on a treacherous loom.
Adventures, especially daring ones, were a big part of our universe. Winters in New York were brutally cold with continuous ice and snow. One day my friend Geraldine asked me to go ice skating at the sump with her, her brother Jimmy, and his friends. This huge catchment basin, surrounded by a high, locked chain link fence, filled with water much of the year, freezing over in winter. NO TRESPASSING signs were everywhere. I said yes.
Jimmy’s friends scaled the fence, flinging themselves over. He gave us each a boost and we were catapulted onto the embankment. We sat and put our skates on, backsides wet and freezing. The boys skated away to the drainage tunnel at the far end.
I followed Gerry as we step-glided towards the center. Suddenly, a loud crack and scream and I saw my friend’s left skate crash through the ice. Flailing, she tried to balance by stepping hard with her right skate. Several more cracks and I watched Geraldine sink up to her waist in ice and frigid water.
I started towards her and stopped. My conscience admonished: Save her! One voice said: Yes! Another: What can you possibly do? Another: You’ll fall in! My reactions confused me. Which was I – brave, rational, or cowardly?
Whichever – later I decided all three – it was moot. Jimmy came flying over with a long stick. Geraldine grabbed one end, he the other. Somehow, he pulled her out without crashing through. None of us told a soul. Geraldine was safe and so was our universe.
When the door to his studio closed, I was alone with the piano teacher. His wife and young daughter were in the house, somewhere, in the shadows.
I sat rigid, in the middle of the piano bench, my nine-year-old feet barely touching the floor. The piano teacher sat beside me on the bench, always to my left. I held my back straight, my arms at right angles to the keyboard, my fingers placing the right amount of pressure on the keys. His fingers were also exerting pressure: up the inside of my shirt, down the back of my pants.
Dressing for my weekly piano lessons, I chose the longest tops I owned. I tucked the tails of my shirt as far into my pants as possible, so that I could sit on them. I wore long pants, belted as tightly as possible around my waist.
But my armor only delayed the invasion.
About two years into piano lessons, my friend Margaret and I were riding our bikes, flying as freely as 11-year-olds on summer vacation in the ‘60s could. I wore a crop top and matching shorts in hues of orange and yellow. We were one block from the piano teacher’s house when Margaret, also his student, suggested we drop by.
All the fun of my crop top and short shorts left. I knew his eyes would settle on how the top fell over my budding breasts; how the fringe of white pom-poms dangled across my bare stomach. I knew he would stare at my legs, long and bare beneath my shorts.
Margaret rang his doorbell. He came outside. I stayed as far away as I politely could, my legs tightly straddling the cross bar of my bike, seeking protection behind the tire; my arms folded across my bare stomach. Did Margaret have the same experience? I will never know. We never talked about it.
One autumn afternoon, Margaret’s mother came for tea. I was asked to stay in my room. I overheard Margaret’s mother tell my mother that two students, sisters, had told their mother about the piano teacher. They were going to the police. Would other families support them? I heard my mother say, “If he’s ruined, how will he support his family?”
I sat alone on my bed, across an abyss of silence.
Shortly after, the piano teacher moved to Nova Scotia. My mother never spoke to me about him. She found me another piano teacher.
Today, at seventy, I want to reach across that abyss of silence and secrets to tell that little girl the shame was not in wearing a crop top or short shorts, or in the armor by which she tried to protect herself. The shame is in the cloak of silence the adults wore.
They were all practically the same.
I hope you are well.
The weather here, in Malmo, is rainy and dreary.
I don’t go out much, I spend my time working. My current assignment is to write a brochure for a hotel in the center of Stockholm.
Take care. I will write again tomorrow.
I don’t remember when I started reading the letters, looking for a misstep, but I could not have been more than eleven years old. I never found one. The letters held no clues. Uncle Manny stuck to his story: a dull life in Sweden, living there for work.
Every Sunday my two brothers and I would pile into my parents’ forest green 1968 Impala, and head up to the Bronx. As we crossed the Triborough Bridge there was the usual chorus of, “How long do we have to be there?” and “Can I stay home next week?”
When we arrived, we would climb the dingy, grey granite stairs to my grandparents’ fourth-floor walk-up apartment. My grandfather would greet us at the door, and the wooden planks would squeak and grumble as we made our way inside. The air was thick and smelled of old age and defeat.
The visits were all too predictable. My grandfather, who had grown up in a small Jewish village in Poland, would yell in Yiddish, about all the people who had wronged him that week. He yelled about his no-good brothers, the neighbors who were too noisy, and the shopkeeper who overcharged him.
There was only one thing he never yelled about: his son, Manny.
At some point during our visit, my grandfather would present my mother with a stack of typed letters from Uncle Manny; one for every day. The letters would be passed around, accompanied by comments like, “Boy it sure does rain a lot in Malmo” or “Manny sure does work hard.”
Over the years, we had many opportunities to tell my grandparents the truth – that their son was married to a non-Jewish Swedish woman and had two beautiful children, Laila and Johan. We never told. We were convinced that if we betrayed Manny he would be disowned by my grandparents, and he would disown us, in return.
My generation is now quite close to our Swedish cousins. A few years ago, as I sat in Laila’s kitchen, in Malmo, eating Swedish apple cake, she asked, “What did grandma and grandpa think about my dad?”
“I know they really treasured his letters.” I answered.
“Do you think they ever knew about us?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied. I then added, “I imagine he was trying to spare his parents pain.”
“Yes, that is what I think too,” she sighed.