A Letter to Mom, #3
The third in a series of four letters I wrote to my Mom with stuff I couldn't/wouldn't/didn't say to her when she was alive.
Unlike a lot of my friends who are dealing with parents in their eighties and nineties, both you and Dad are already gone. Can you believe Dad’s been dead over forty-five years? I have to say I have a hard time remembering him. He’s like some ghostly figure who appears to me in a dream. I figured out that I only actually lived with him for eleven years. You married him when I was five and I went away to school when I was sixteen. With all the traveling he did for work, he was probably only home fifty percent or even less of that time. He died when I was twenty-two. I was already long gone from home at that time. I know he loved me, but we didn’t really know each other.
Pretty much everyone from your generation has died. Uncle Bernard’s wife Opal is still alive—she’s in her 90s now, probably nearing 100, but even some of my older cousins, especially on Dad’s side, have died or started to occupy nursing homes and assisted living centers. That’s because you were forty and forty-two, respectively, when Jarrett and I were born. Dad was seven years older than you. I don’t know how you kept up with two toddlers. If I’d had a kid at the age that you had me, they’d be twenty-six now, out of college and trying to start their life in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s been a mess here, Mom, since the pandemic hit. I suspect it’s not unlike 1949, the year Marlee died of polio. I’m glad you didn’t have to live through the COVID shutdown. You wouldn’t have enjoyed the confinement, the anxiety, and, especially with the vitriol.
It was especially hard for elderly people and kids, and it would have reminded you too much of the polio epidemic. So many deaths since the pandemic started in 2020. And the saddest part? We have a vaccine that too many still people refuse to get. If only there had been a vaccine when Marlee got sick. Although I probably would have never been born, I suspect your life would have been much happier.
My point in all this is that this is not the best time to go on a quest to uncover the truth about a long-buried family secret. Everyone who knows anything is already gone, and, while you all were living, I never asked you or anyone else who might have known the questions that haunt me now.
Early on in my life, I developed an aversion to asking questions. I either accepted things at face value or kept my questions to myself. Maybe it was because of all those people asking about my red hair. I suspect, though, it was something much more deeply-seeded than that—something in our family’s culture that discouraged questions. You never liked to pry. I assume that’s because you didn’t want anyone to pry back.
It’s ironic that my faith community now, Unitarian Universalism, is all about asking questions. One of our most revered hymns, We Laugh, We Cry, by Shelley Jackson Denham ends with the words “even to question, truly is an answer.” That was not how you raised me, though. Our Roman Catholic faith discouraged questions, and I worked hard at being a good Catholic kid. Some of my friends now joke that they were thrown out of Catechism class because they asked too many questions. I was never thrown out of class. I bought it all hook, line, and sinker.
Perhaps that’s why for much of my life I accepted your perfectly acceptable story about who our father was. According to you, our “real” father, a man named Robert L. Smith, who went by Bob, had a heart attack standing in the buffet line on a Sunday afternoon after church, in a restaurant owned by your future second husband, Norman W. Marquis.
You had a sixteen-month-old boy and were four months pregnant with me when Bob died. A little more than five years after Bob’s death, you married Norm, and he adopted Jarrett and me so we could have a father.
I now know that story was a lie.
I wince every time I say that. It’s hard for me to think of you as a liar. It’s especially hard to think that you and Dad conspired to lie to us. I suspect that Dad (Norm) crafted the story and convinced you to go along with it. Yet, for some reason, I mostly blame you for it. You’re the one who told us the story—you’re the one who perpetuated the lie. Dad rarely talked about it. He was just happy to be our dad.
I know now, Mom, why you were so anxious all the time, why you worried so much, why you never felt at home in your own skin. You were terrified that your secret would be exposed.
Did Aunt Babe know? She had to have. Is that why you felt an obligation to take care of her even though you didn’t really like her? What about your brother Billy who you couldn’t stand? What did he know? Were they critical of the choices you made and is that why there was so much tension between you? You once told me that Babe never helped you out after Bob died. Was that why? Was it because she knew the truth and didn’t approve of what you did?
I’ll never know the answers to many of these questions, but that doesn’t stop me from aching to understand, Mom, from working to piece together the truth from a tattered cloth you wore thin by trying to rub your sins away.
Annette's Wanderings, including a serialized memoir, If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing, is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.