Things I Wish They Had Told Me
By Marjorie Roth
Ours was a close family even though we were scattered around the country. When I say family, I am talking about my father’s family. There were eight surviving children who as adults continued the bond of their childhood. Growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, running the general store, being the only Jewish family probably contributed to the closeness. The stories that came down to me from my grandmother described how the children seemed to hang together in couples. All her children had nicknames which added to the intimacy. For example, my father was called Lovey. We treated it as a proper name, so my cousins called him “Uncle Lovey”. There was a family story about my uncle who, as a shy child, when asked his name would answer “My name is Jody, but they call me sweetsum”. There seemed to be a birthing arrangement of boy-girl-boy girl. The close pairs of siblings – Alda and Lovey, Morton and Sis, Dora and Jody – represented that.
But in general, other than historical stories, the past was past and was not referred to, at least where we children were concerned. I was an observant child, but I understood I was not to ask questions. I observed that cousin Tess and husband Edwin seemed distant, but when he stopped showing up at family gatherings, there was no satisfactory explanation given us. It was much later when Grammy would talk openly to me that she explained Edwin had been something of a playboy and had given Tess “a certain unmentionable something” that caused her to end the marriage.
There was also an understanding that when we reached age 13, there was a change in our status. With the annual small birthday check I received from Aunt Dora was a note saying I could now drop the ‘aunt’ and call her Dora. I was surprised when I read this, and was never able to call her name without the “Aunt” preceding it, except on rare occasions when I was many years older than 13.
I became aware that my status had changed when Grammy began to talk to me more openly about family history: wonderfully moving stories about the family, including deaths of two infants, abortions she had had in the middle of the night in Kissimmee, Florida. I think there was more fear connected with those events than she acknowledged. However sad it was, it was necessary.
So I learned a great many things about the family’s functioning from Grammy’s chatting with me. Most of what she told me were of events that had been profoundly disturbing to her, but were part of life experiences that one looked on as still painful, but accepted. There are things she did not tell me though. For example, the suicide of her firstborn son who was in his early twenties. He had been discovered in his room by his six-year-old brother who later committed suicide at about the same age. As I write this I realize she did tell me of these events, but it was my mother who explained that Everett, the favorite, had killed himself because Grammy was interfering with his plan to marry his adored sweetheart, and was so conflicted by the push-pull of the struggle that he needed to end it. Years later Arthur, the younger brother who had found Everett, was already married but [and this was never clarified] had done some illegal investing which could only be handled by the large insurance policy paid after his death.
There were other stories that illustrated Grammy’s great attachment to her sons, and her competition with their wives or sweethearts that made for painful conflict. The feelings of resentment that remained, especially with the daughters-in-law, were largely suppressed. We appeared an exceptional family. The siblings wrote to each other weekly, so everyone had the news of what was growing in the garden, how good the corn and tomatoes were. Carbon copies of these letters were sent to all siblings. We of the next generation made fun of this and mocked the idea of knowing what everyone was eating.
I was 19 before I learned that my father had been married before. His fiancee had developed TB (tuberculosis) and would only live a year. They married anyway and had that year together. My mother told me of this in an impromptu way but it explained what I had felt was her insecurity with my father. Had he loved someone more than he loved her? She never resolved this worry. When he had his first coronary, thinking he might die, he wrote her a letter – talking of how she might manage and of his devotion to her. She carried this letter in her purse for years, rereading it or having my sister or me read it to her when she had lost her sight.
Finally, I am still left with the question of the effect of leaving things in the past – which leaves them still operating emotionally. We felt there was some unshared mystery that made us uneasy as we tried to understand unexplained events. When we younger cousins got together we always talked of these events and issues. Now I have only one first cousin left and we are sharing our view of the family relationships. As one might expect our information and interpretations vary widely. Revealing things is uncomfortable, but so is not knowing.
I am following Grandmother’s example. I do not forget the past. It is with me but ordinarily I haven’t shared it until much time has gone by. These days I find I am telling my daughter stories from the past that I hadn’t shared before. Sometimes she is interested and surprised. Sometimes I feel she is thinking what an old lady I’ve become, rambling on about the past.
When Grammy shared things with me, she knew it was just between us. There are some memories I can’t share with my daughter as they involve people still in our lives, and privacy matters. There were parts of my Grammy’s life that she loved to share. She was on a few radio programs, talking in her soft southern accent about her life and her successful children. I do not want to broadcast my memories. I am cautious about sharing parts of my own life that have tears attached to them. But if I wait long enough as my grandmother did with some memories, the tears are more distant, more suppressible, so I can experience the joy that also may be attached to them.
The U.S. is my nation, Brooklyn was my station, P.S.197, James Madison High School, Barnard College and Columbia U. gave me my education. But most of my life has been lived in California where my husband, he a physician, me a psychotherapist lived, loved, worked and raised two children. Now, 70 years later, I am retired, widowed, and aging rapidly… but still loving to put pen to paper (preferably yellow foolscap).
Pat Gallagher - March 22, 2021 @ 3:51 pm
Marge, this chronicle of secrets shared by your grandmother is remarkable. There is much in your account that resonates – especially the sensing as a young person that there is more to what’s going on than we know. “We appeared an exceptional family.” is the line that jumped out at me. Oh, yes! You have a way of bringing us into your family circle as witnesses to the unburdening of painful events. It shows how much can lie beneath the surface of any family. To tell or not to tell. Much to think about.
Mary Burns - March 16, 2021 @ 4:13 pm
Marjorie, Your family stories moved me. How what you know about family, how matter-of- fact these reminiscences, some of them painful, are told to you somewhat casually, but told to you because not knowing will leave you outside the fold. But knowing something is hard, too.I was especially moved by the story of your mother and the assurance from your father in his letter to her that she was the love of his life that she kept reading and re-reading until she couldn’t see and asking that it be read to her. Just the knowledge she had that there was someone before her kept her in a way outside the fold and maybe it was better that no one ever told her.
So thank you for this moving piece and the thoughts about knowing and not knowing in a family.