Stories are vehicles for witnessing truth, for creating histories, revealing secrets and solving mysteries. People in my family have always been storytellers, but not always reliable ones. (Is this narrator reliable? Is this my truth, his truth, wishful thinking, or somewhere on the edge of plausibility?) And the stories tended to be only pretty ones. Darker topics got glossed over, painted with roses, or quietly ignored.
Only one person, my mother, would speak of anything negative, or difficult, or tragic. She was the self-described pessimist of the family.
All families have secrets, but most people born into most families get to know at least some of the past and some of the secrets. If you’re adopted, of course, you may not know much at all.
I have always felt adopted, though I was born into a family with two parents and four siblings. I am more than two decades younger than my nearest sibling; my brothers and sisters had all left home by the time I was born; and my father died when I was 13. So I’m the product of a single-parent home, too, because in my teenage years, it was just Mom and me, living on her small earnings as a housecleaner and babysitter, and the Social Security check that arrive on the third of each month.
Between the two world wars, my parents raised a complete, close-knit family—two boys, two girls. My father worked as the dairy-herd manager and my mother kept house, on the farm where they raised their children. They survived the Great Depression. Both boys served in the Second World War and came home mostly intact. In 1949, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
All this, before I was born, in 1950.
Nearly all of the family histories, and therefore nearly all of the family secrets, were never disclosed to me (except my own). When I asked my much-older sisters about war or poverty or other hard times, I was flatly told, no, they couldn’t recall much of that. They only wanted to remember the good things, they said, and I was asking about troubles that did not need attention.
Apparently I was always too young (even after I married, graduated college, bore a son) to hear anything negative, except from my mother, who only hinted at certain difficulties. “Everyone says your father was a saint,” she told me after he died. “He wasn’t a saint, you know.” No, I didn’t know. I thought he walked on water, so what did that mean?? She wouldn’t say.
Left with not much except the repeated banalities, “Life was so good on the farm.” “What a wonderful place to grow up.” “Our parents loved us all so much!” I’m left to re-construct, or invent outright, the lives that influenced me, brought me into being, and then told me little or nothing that I actually wanted to know.
So my stories are my own now, reconstructed to be as close as I can, to what I know is true.