Family Lies

I’ve never been good at any form of lying; I prefer to deal with life and people straightforwardly, to have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.

My father made this hard. He burdened me from a young age with secrets too big for a child, things I could not tell anyone because they would get him into trouble or hurt people’s feelings or whatever. The very worst of these set off a cycle of pain and revenge that had decades-long repercussions – for me.

When my parents separated and Dad and I moved to Pittsburgh, he was still a young and handsome man, with no intention of staying single. He dated a number of women, some of whom I liked, some I didn’t. But it wasn’t long before he met Nancy, and we both fell in love with her.

She was very young – barely ten years older than I, she might have been only 19 when she met him – beautiful, sexy, a good cook, and, perhaps surprisingly, very loving and attentive to me, as well as head over ears for Dad. He courted her with attention, pet names, worldly sophistication, custom-made jewelry…

I suppose he was presented to her parents some months before I was. They were Slovaks who had immigrated to the US soon after WWII, and owned a blue-collar café on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Devoutly Catholic, they would never have allowed their daughter to be in what they considered an adulterous relationship: my parents had been married in the Catholic Church, and were divorced (actually, at that time, only separated) only in the eyes of the law: the Church grants no divorces. Nancy still lived at home with her parents, under their control to an extent that might surprise a young American woman of today. What could she and Dad do?

They lied.

They told Nancy’s parents that my father was a widower, valiantly raising a young daughter on his own after the death of his wife. My mother.

This went down smoothly (and I didn’t know about it) until things had progressed enough that it was natural for Nancy’s parents to invite us all over for a meal one day, to meet the poor motherless child. Then I had to be instructed to go along with the lie.

I was stunned and terrified. On the one hand, I loved Nancy very much and was afraid that, if I said the wrong thing, I would lose her from my life forever, because her parents would not allow her to be with my dad. On the other hand, I was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of actually saying such a tremendous lie as that my mother was dead. Children, consciously or otherwise, believe in the power of words and wishes: surely to speak of my mother as dead was disloyal, tantamount to wishing her dead – and then, who knew, she might actually die – and it would be my fault.

It was a crushing burden to lay on a nine year old. I remember being acutely uncomfortable through that first meal, afraid someone would ask about my past and my mother, and I would have to speak the dreaded words: “My mother is dead.” I don’t think anyone actually said anything; perhaps John and Mary thought or had been told that it would be kinder not to mention it to me, so I was at least spared any “Oh, you poor thing” scenes. But my interactions with them were thereafter constrained by my fear that I would say the wrong thing, let slip that I had a mother and a brother still very much alive somewhere. To not be able to talk about someone is also to make them die a little.

About a year after we arrived in Pittsburgh, my mother came to visit, all the way from Bangkok. According to my dad, her primary reason for visiting was to get the divorce papers signed, and he later claimed that I overheard her say so, but I do not remember this. I also don’t remember how she found out about the lie I was being forced to perpetuate – from me? from Dad or Nancy? Most of the subsequent events do not exist in my own memory, but I heard about them later, over and over, in varying versions from Dad and Mom both.

However it happened, Mom did find out, and was rightly appalled. But, whatever she may have said about it at the time, she took no immediate action. I continued to live a lie with Nancy’s parents, and don’t recall whether I was aware that Mom knew about it.

It must have been the following summer that the three of us drove cross-country in my granddad’s old VW camper. Dad and Nancy dropped me off in Texas with my aunt Rosie (perfectly fine with me – Rosie lived out in the country, and had horses! as well as cats, dogs, and my cousin Casey), while they went on to Mexico. Some weeks/months later they picked me up and we went back to Pittsburgh in time for the school year to begin. A few months after that, around Christmas time, Dad had to be hospitalized as a result of a parasite he’d picked up in Mexico. It wasn’t life-threatening, but bad enough that I was shipped off to Rosie again, where I attended the tiny Coupland public school for a few months.

Meanwhile, Dad and Nancy proceeded with plans for a big, Catholic wedding, to take place in April (1974) in her home parish with the family priest. That’s when Mom struck.

Dad had managed to keep Mom from learning enough details about Nancy to contact her parents directly, but Mom worked around this obstacle. She wrote to the archdiocese of Pittsburgh, to let them know that Dad and Nancy could not be married in the Church, since Dad was still, as far as the Church was concerned, married to Mom. I suppose it was the beloved family priest who had to break this news to Nancy’s horrified parents. I guess it was too late to back out of the wedding altogether, but the ceremony was hastily moved to a chapel at the University of Pittsburgh, to be conducted by a Unitarian minister.

I did not know any of this, having returned from Texas just in time to be in the wedding ceremony, in a lovely dress that had been made for me by Mrs. Garcia in Coupland. My dad’s old friend Harry came up from New Orleans to be his best man, and my grandparents from Shreveport. For me, it was a thoroughly happy occasion, and I truly believed all the words I was given to recite about how we’d be a family forever and ever. I had no idea of the tensions that underlay it all.

At some point thereafter I was told that John and Mary now knew the truth about my mother, so I wouldn’t have to lie anymore. I don’t think they ever asked me one way or another. I might not have had an easy relationship with them regardless, there was such a gulf of culture and experience and belief between me and them. But, knowing that they now knew we had all lied was almost as bad as the lying itself had been. I hated that I had been dishonest, and it didn’t occur to me that, as a child, I wasn’t responsible for what I had been made to say. I had already shouldered many adult-sized emotional responsibilities in my young life, and assumed that I was supposed to, though this one was larger than most.

This was all ammunition in the continuing war between my parents, which by no means ended with their divorce or any of their remarriages. With this and other weapons, they fought through me for 40 more years. It never stopped, until now: my father is dead, and I no longer speak to my mother. Perhaps, left finally in peace, I can now get past it all.

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