Family secrets

One theme of “Annie’s Ghosts” is family secrets. It seems that many families have secrets. Sometimes they don’t come out until generations later. Sometimes they come out when the individual involved dies. Sometimes the person who just couldn’t be told dies and sometimes it is at another life point. I recently had lunch with two long-time friends who responded to my description of the book with stories from their families of a person who was a secret in one way or another. Here is my story.
I was raised knowing my grandparents on my mother’s side. Although we lived in different states, we visited them and they visited us. We had pictures and sent letters and received and sent gifts. We, the “kids”, my sister and brothers and I, were told that my father’s parents had died “a long time ago”. Then when I was 15 my father told us that his mother was still alive, that she had been in a hospital for a long time but now lived in a nursing home, and that he had visited her and that we were going to meet her on our trip East that summer. My memory is that I was surprised and a little confused but glad to hear that we would meet her. I had heard a few stories about her when my father talked about his childhood, which he didn’t do often, and was curious. My mother was very clear with us that it had been Dad’s decision not to tell us before now, that he couldn’t bear to say that his mother had been so sick, and that in a way, he had been upset and maybe embarrassed by her illness. She said he had asked her not to tell us, and that she thought it was his place to decide that.
The true story was that she was mentally ill and had been committed to a hospital when my father was still in college, about 1938. It wasn’t clear whether he had seen her or written to her until shortly before we were told. At some point she had been moved from the hospital setting to a nursing home, not an uncommon path in the early 1960s, since she didn’t need such specialized care.
The end of the story is that we did meet her once, and she fed us cookies. The odd thing is that, as far as I or any of my sibs remember, we never had any further contact with her. What my father knew or didn’t know about her and her family is a tale yet to be explored.

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