"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, October 15, 2009


For this week's assignment we were given a selection of themes from which to choose for the focus of our writing. I chose pretending. There was a limit of a thousand words, which Carrie (who chose sugar as her theme) met brilliantly, and which I came close to.

The gathering was called so we could process the news I’d received the previous week – news that changed everything without really changing anything at all. We were in Frank’s spacious suburban daylight basement, just the four of us without spouses or kids. For the first time ever, I was unsure of my status as big sister, and didn’t know where to begin.

I looked at my three younger brothers, noting the curly hair and bright blue eyes they all shared. The oldest, Frank, the athlete he’d been in high school still very evident in his tall frame, now a doctor. Mark, looking so much like Tom Selleck, with a quiet gentle presence that never quite fit my picture of a football coach. And Geoff, the spoiled afraid-of-nothing youngest; small, wiry, working as a mechanic – so different from his older brothers. Looking back at me they would have seen a short, plump, middle-aged teacher with wavy hair, hazel eyes, and a sharp if-it’s-true-it’s-good-for-you tongue.

“Start from the beginning. Did she offer you half-and-half for your coffee? How did she tell you? And why then?” Geoff, still the baby in our eyes at 30, and already making jokes about the situation, prodded me into a story they’d all heard pieces of in the preceding days.

I took a deep breath, sat on my hands to still the tremors that moved in the day our Great Aunt Bea revealed the family secret, and relived the story one more time.

“Bea and I were visiting in her apartment like we always do. The clutter wasn’t any worse than usual and the fact that a 19th floor studio in a subsidized building could have such an amazing view of Portland still left me in awe. I’d gone over because I was confused about my feelings around Daddy’s dementia and I knew she would help me sort through things. She sat like a queen (can’t you just see her?) in her wing chair under a thick cloud of Tabu and Virginia Slims smoke. I sat across from her on my usual kitchen chair under my matching but subtler cloud of Oscar and Salem Menthols. Go ahead and laugh. I know. We are so much alike.

“After we talked a bit about Bea’s latest health drama, and had our usual laugh about how hard it is to be a big sister – her with Mommy and me with you guys, she asked about Daddy. I told her how tough it is for Mommy to deal with a husband who’s slipping further into dementia every day. I told her the four of us were worried this might be Alzheimer’s because it can run in families, especially when it strikes young. I told her we didn’t want to have to consider that our lives might end before we hit sixty; I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around having only twenty more years to look forward to.

“As we often do, Bea and I talked about what a mean, self-centered jerk Daddy has always been. How it was one of the reasons it took so long to diagnose his illness. How we all thought his anger and stubbornness were only a bit more extreme than usual. How it took his walking naked up the railroad tracks in the middle of the day to cut through the denial. I told her I couldn’t bear the thought of ending up like him.

“ ‘Darling, I have something to tell you. I can’t stand to see you worry like this.’ 
You know her voice – whisky-soaked and purring and full of that happy regret she gets when she’s gearing up to say something she’s not supposed to.

“I know it sounds weird, but I knew what Bea was going to say; like I’d been waiting my entire life for that one moment. Time slowed like it did that summer the car almost went off the cliff. My whole world narrowed to Bea's pale powdered face framed in those elfin silver curls, the sparkle and arch of her eyes, and that bright pink lipstick.

“Then she said, ‘He's not really your father.’ 

“I think I said something stupid back like, What do you mean?

“I can still hear her answer as clearly as if she’s sitting right here. ‘Your mother was married before she married your daddy, and she and her first husband had you. He left her before you were even born. You deserved to know sooner, but they wouldn't let us tell. Your mom said she’d never speak to us again, we’d never get to see you kids again, if any of us breathed a word.’

“Bea kept saying us and I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘Everyone else in both families knew. Even the cousins. You and the boys were the only ones who weren’t told.’ ”

This was a part of the story I hadn’t shared before, so I stopped, took a deep breath, and searched the faces of my brothers for their reactions.

Frank, jittering with excitement, jumped in before I’d exhaled. “Remember when I found that mistake in Grandpa’s Bible when we were little? Remember when Grandma said someone had written the date wrong and then she changed it? The date wasn’t wrong and Grandma knew! You were born in 1951 and Mommy and Daddy weren’t married until 1953 because she was married to this other guy in 1950.”

Mark, with a look of stunned concern on his face, shook his head and said, “Leave it to Bea to find a way to tell the secret. I still remember when she told me about your daughter, which none of us boys knew about either.”

And Geoff, laughing like this was the funniest story he’d ever heard, said to his bossy big sister, “Since you’re really only a half, does that mean we only have to listen to you half the time now”

photo from Flickr


Anonymous said...

Families are so full of secrets, all of them.

tricia said...

I love this piece. So real. I think everyone has had a conversation like this where suddenly the fog on the window lifts and we are able to see through, which is why I LOVE that photo you chose.

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh families and thier secrets! Nice Deb :)

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Well, "met" is kind! Economy of words is seldom my problem! : )

That picture is HAUNTING and perfect!


Midlife Roadtripper said...

“Since you’re really only a half, does that mean we only have to listen to you half the time now”

Gotta like that. Most interesting ideas for writing prompts. Is this your writing group that comes up with them. You may have posted that earlier and I missed it. Figures.

Jessica Nelson said...

I love how you ended this, but sheesh.
And guess what. *big, deep sigh* I have a cousin who thinks my uncle is his dad. Everyone knows he's not except my cousin, but no one is supposed to tell him.
It's horrible. I don't know why people keep secrets like this. This kind of secret is more painful as a secret than as truth, in my opinion.
But what do you think? Do you think it would've been better to have known as a child that he wasn't your biological father?

Bernie said...

I have read this one "Pretending" and the one about the Biblical mistake and they are written so well that I was holding my breath through the whole thing--especially the Biblical Mistake piece. Are these just an assignment that you completed or is this story a true story of what happened to you? You are a fantastic writer. I would like to read your book about God had no daughters. Where would I go to get one?

The Unbreakable Child said...

deb, love the way you wrote this and ugh to family secrets...

Amber said...

Very good! I love the add on to the other story. You always wonder what happened...


Hilary said...

0h those dangerous secrets. Nicely done!

Go Mama said...

Nice work. I love how you portray each brother with a different take on the news.

And how you take us to the reveal:

"I knew what Bea was going to say; like I’d been waiting my entire life for that one moment. Time slowed like it did that summer the car almost went off the cliff."

kario said...

Ouch. I hurt for that big sister. And I want to slap Geoff. Just a little.

Love you.

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