“There are only two things. Truth and lies. Truth is indivisible, hence it cannot recognize itself; anyone who wants to recognize it has to be a lie.” Franz Kafka
My mother’s lies taught me two things: First and most harmful, it was acceptable to lie, and second, secrets are impossible to keep.
I had a beautiful half-sister who died a horrible premature death several years ago; she was in her mid-forties. In fact, it was her birthday a couple of days ago and it was the anniversary of my brother Anthony’s death. My sister Grace found him with a needle in his arm on her birthday. She was already far gone by then and I’m certain, finding her (our) brother lifeless in her own home, must have sealed her fate.
My sister Grace or Gasha (the way we spelled it), as she was known to close family, was a troubled child. She wore thick glasses and was labeled “four eyes” by her siblings and peers. We also called her monkey because of her button nose; kids can be mean and her brothers and sisters were the cruelest of all. I am not claiming innocence; in fact, I may have been the worst culprit. Perhaps it was the secret I held onto that drove me to cruelty.
My parents argued a lot; in fact, they argued night and day. My father would come home from work at midnight and my mother would dig in her hateful claws. Having been exposed to this behavior early on, I worked hard to tune them out and fantasize about a quieter world that I knew existed elsewhere. My memory of their relentless rage goes back to pre-school and a time when I was too young to understand the complicated world of adult anger. One particular memory is vivid because it involved a lie I did not understand at the time; I may have been five or six years old.
Many angry words were exchanged during one very loud shouting match and most of those words were as difficult to comprehend as a foreign language. For some reason I held onto something my father said, “Grace is not my child.” At the time I thought it was odd for my father to say such a thing and so, I dismissed them from my thoughts. Every so often I found myself daydreaming and reflecting on these words. As I grew older and more inquisitive, I wondered why my father said this to my mother. I looked at my sister differently because of what my father said. I naturally wondered who her father might be, if it were not my father. I was not aware of an affair my mother had with her first husband while she was married to my father.
When I turned nine, there was a lot going on around me; my only living grandparent passed, my mother was divorcing my father and marrying my stepfather, and I was repressing my sexuality (I remember having some strong feelings toward one of my mother’s male friends). My mom and I would occasionally spend quality alone time together — rare because she had seven children. On one of these occasions, I decided I would ask her about Gasha. My mother had a way of drawing me in as a close confidant and then shoving me away. I can’t blame alcohol because she wasn’t a drunk, but her father was an alcoholic and physically abusive; perhaps it was his influence. As a child I longed for the kind of closeness where you felt honest love and affection — not likely to get it from my mother, but I never stopped trying.
We were sitting on her bed watching an old black & white film and she was running her fingers through my hair. I may have been as happy at that moment as I would ever be with my mom.
I looked up at her and said, “Ma, who is Gasha’s father?”
My mother pushed me to the edge of the bed and said, “Where do you get these ideas?”
I told her that I had overheard an argument she had with my father a few years earlier and she told me that I was imagining things.
“Who would Gasha’s father be if it wasn’t your father? Honestly Chris, I worry about you.”
I wanted to believe my mother, so I let it go . . . until a few years later when this happened:
I was having dinner with my father at the restaurant where he worked. Our meals were very special to me and we always spoke openly and earnestly. I’m pretty sure I was in my teens at this point. I had accidentally seen my parents marriage license and came to learn that my mother and father didn’t marry until I was three years old. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t bother me. My dad told me that they couldn’t marry because my mother’s first husband was in prison and there was a law about divorce and incarceration back then. He said that they married as soon as they legally could. I shrugged and decided this would be a good time to ask about Gasha. I sort of tricked my dad and acted like I knew for certain that Gasha was not his biological daughter.
When I asked him who Gasha’s father was he said, “Joe is her father, but I adopted her and so she’s my daughter now. How did you know about this? Did your mother tell you?”
I shared that I had overheard an argument between the two of them when I was a kid and he grabbed my face and squeezed my cheeks; something he did to show affection. He hardly ever said anything negative about my mother and I wish I could say the reverse were true.
When I asked him how she ended up with Joe while married to him, he said, “Your mother has always been a bit wild.”
Truer words had never been spoken. Now that I knew my suspicions about Gasha were true, I had to consider what this meant for my relationship with her, how I felt about my mother lying to me, and whether or not I should share the truth with Gasha and our siblings. I knew early on that it would not be fair to share the truth with her. It was my mother’s place to tell her the truth. I was tormented by the lie. I did not approve of my mother’s infidelity and I could not understand why she denied the truth all those years ago. In my mind, I could never truly trust my mother again — in truth, I doubted her always. I’m also certain that I felt betrayed by my mother and it has had an affect on every loving relationship in my life.
My mother did eventually tell Gasha who her biological father was. I’m not sure when or where it happened. My brothers and sisters found out at some point as well. It seemed to me at the time that no one cared about the indiscretion or the lie. I questioned my own reaction to it: had I made too much of it? Did it really matter? As an older adult I am obviously still questioning the lies I faced as a child and young adult — there were many others.
I recall often looking at Gasha and wondering who she resembled. When she would behave a certain way that was odd to me, I would explain it by considering who her father was or was not. Gasha had a severe eating disorder and made several bad choices in her life. She was angry, she isolated herself from those who cared about her, she refused to acknowledge her disorder, and she trusted no one. I cannot help but wonder if the knowledge that she was conceived during a torrid affair, had had a huge impact on her life and her ability to cope. Knowing her biological father was willing to allow my father to adopt her, must have tormented Gasha throughout her life; her self-worth was shattered.
My mother had a very complicated relationship with her and Gasha was resentful of the way she saw my mother treating the rest of us; she seemed to always feel slighted. I was aware of both the way she was treated and the way Gasha perceived it. I had conflicting feelings about my sister. There was a part of me that believed she didn’t belong and I’m not proud of those feelings. At the same time, I felt sorry for her.
Gasha’s downward spiral was difficult for me to watch. She married trailer park trash and she had a child with him. Freddie shot himself in the head early on in their marriage. I remember visiting her in Knoxville, Tennessee and thinking that there was hope that she’d come out on top of all the drama in her life. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Bulimia took hold of my sister in her early 20s and never let go. All four of my mother’s daughters suffered from some sort of eating disorder as a result of my mother’s obsession with weight. Gasha lived in complete denial — the disease and the consequences of starving one’s body of nutrients destroyed her life. Her two children suffered the most; watching her abuse herself on a daily basis, had to be impossible to observe. Out of respect for my niece and nephew, I will refrain from commenting on their current lives.
The question is, was it the lie that destroyed Gasha’s life or was it her personality and the circumstances of her illness? I guess we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that shielding her from the truth all of those years was not productive or right. If her biological father had stepped up and assumed his role asher father, might she have been stronger and felt more loved? I have to believe she would have embraced her father and adjusted to her circumstances. After all her two oldest sisters had the same biological father. But after being adopted by my father, Gasha, was instead forced into a situation she did not ask to be in and was prevented from being with a man she might have loved. I’m not a psychologist, however, I am fairly certain that Gasha was thrust into a situation that would have caused anyone pain and anxiety. It was a lot for a young person to take on and in truth, she had to endure the ramifications of this terrible lie, on her own. It’s a small miracle she was even with us into her forties.
When faced with the reality of a difficult truth or keeping a secret, always go with the truth. As hard as it is to share that secret and cope with its consequences, that reality is far better than living a lie.
“When you check your own mind properly, you stop blaming others for your problems.”