The Danger of Family Secrets


To this day my mother says, “It was a different time. That’s what families did in those days.”

She is talking about family secrets. Mine had a whole bunch of them.

My dead Uncle David, with his farm painting on the living room wall of my grandparents’ house, was a mystery to me.  He’d died in World War II. All my questions went unanswered. Finally an aunt said, “Don’t ask your grandma. It makes her too sad.”

That was only one secret.

The tap lessons that Sis got when she was 8 and I was 5.

“I want to take lessons!” I said.

“Grandma is paying for them,” my mother said.

There was no explanation as to why Grandma wouldn’t pay for mine.

Somebody bought me tap shoes and told me Sis could teach me. I learned one routine – Out, back, down, step, step, out back , down, step, step, out back toe, out back toe, out back toe, step, step.

Ha! It’s sixty years later, and I still remember.

When Big Sis got to play the flute in the band, I said, “I want to do that.”

But when my turn for band came three years later, my mother said, “Just play your piano instead.”

The piano was a monstrous ancient upright in the creepy basement, parked in front of the oil tank for our oil heater.  Bamboo curtains hung in front of it. The light from the window well filtered through the curtains into scary shapes. I only played the piano when someone else was down there with me.

When I was fifteen, my mother and I had a bizarre conversation by the basement fall-out shelter (another post).  Somehow it came around to me saying that I wanted to college.

“And how are you going to pay for it?” my mother demanded.

I was confused.

“Big Sis gets to go to college,” I said.

“Grandma is paying for it,” my mother said.

See the pattern? I wasn’t allowed to ask why. My mother had a way of preventing that with a look and a tone of voice.

Little did I know that Sis was getting these things from our grandmother because of a medical reason that no one ever discussed.

Older Sis went off to an appointment once a week.

“Where is she going?” I’d ask.

“Just never you mind,” my mother would say.

Then there was the strange Friday night when the police raided our bedroom – three sisters living in the half-story space with the slanted walls. I could only stand up straight in the center of the long narrow room.

Officer Carter came to the house, looking for drugs. My younger sis was dating a drug dealer, I found out that evening. The police officer went through every drawer in the bedroom.

“Oh, that’s my drawer,” I said innocently as he rifled through my undies.

Officer Carter did not find drugs that night. Younger Sis was out. As I straightened up the clothes in all the drawers after he left, I found a surprise — a prescription in a round package in my older sister’s drawer.

It floored me. I knew what those little pills were for, being in high school. All kinds of questions went through my mind, but my parents were in no mood to answer them.


My dad was an alcoholic, but I didn’t know it. I thought all dads came home from work, ate dinner, and went to bed.  When he died an early death, his problem with drinking was stricken from the script at the funeral. His mother, my other grandmother, didn’t want it to be known.

My mother had a meltdown when she found out that her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary was not when she thought because David, her oldest (and dead) brother, would’ve turned 49, had he still been alive. The truth came out that David was her half brother, a secret for all those years.

Older Sis and I grew closer when she told me what was what when I was 31 and she was 34.

A few years ago, I found a box about Uncle David when my mom and Sis were both in the hospital and I flew back to pack up their apartment since they could no longer live together.

More answers. My aunt filled in the gaps.

Maybe that explains why I am so brutally honest today. I couldn’t stand the not-knowing all around me.  We might’ve been a family physically sharing a house, but there were walls everywhere to keep us from knowing stuff.

I advocate for no family secrets.

It would’ve changed the person I grew up to be. More trusting. With higher self esteem. Fewer walls in my own relationships.

No more secrets.

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