Sunday, August 23, 2009

Family Ties, Family Lies

Yesterday I spoke with my cousin Charles. It was an extraordinary experience. Why? Because until last week I did not know he existed.

Five years ago I began doing genealogical research in order to find out where in Europe my people came from. What I learned in the process affected me profoundly. For a start, I discovered that I never knew my mother's real name. She had always told me that her name was Parisi, and that her father was an immigrant barber from Italy. This, it seems, was not true. Her real name was Goldsmith, and both of her parents were born in England. All through my childhood my mother insisted, and my father did not demur, that she was an orphan who had no brothers or sisters, and, thus, that I had no aunts, uncles or cousins. In fact, she had three sisters - my aunts - of whose existence I was, until my research, unaware, and whose names I had never heard. It appears, although it is still not clear, that her mother left or divorced her husband, and moved in with or married the Italian barber, to whom my mother always referred as her father.

Why my mother should have denied her parents and her siblings I cannot imagine. But according to government records, it appears that, when she was about fourteen, her mother and her older sister left Parisi's home, and my mother never spoke of them again. Her younger sister had by that time died in an automobile accident, and the youngest sister had long been dead from influenza. Whatever the cause of the rupture, it was a defining moment in my mother's life. She stopped using her father's name and disowned her mother and older sister. The split was so deep and so enduring that even my father, who apparently had known them, likewise never mentioned their existence or their names.

I was thus in my fifties before I learned that I had, in fact, had aunts, uncles and cousins. But that it seems is the practice in my family: When it becomes inconvenient to do so, we simply stop acknowledging and speaking to one another. The family has thus filled up with lies, implicit or explicit, which form a crusted substitute for family history.

My niece was able to determine that my surviving aunt had died in 2004 at the age of ninety-nine, in Arizona. This was a painful discovery for me since it meant that, had I known of her existence, I could have spoken with her, and gotten the truth about my mother and the destructive dynamics of her family. But the secret which my mother imposed had persisted, and the person best placed to tell me had taken the truth to her grave. My niece was also able to determine, however, that she had a son, whose age, while advanced, suggested that he might still be alive. He is, and with my niece's dogged assistance, I found him.

We spoke on the phone for over an hour. He knew who I was - he had been aware of me, if I not of him - and he gave me much information about my mother, her family, and her early years. For they had been close as children - although Cousin Charles was my mother's nephew, they were only two years apart. He has, he tells me, many family documents, which he has offered to share with me when I go to visit him in Tucson. I am looking forward to it, as a sort of adventure into my own unexplored past. He also says he has several photos of my mother as a girl. When he told me this, I nearly cried: I have never seen a picture of my mother as a girl, indeed, I have no idea what she looked like before illness, obesity and my father's drinking had taken their toll. I think that seeing those old photos will be both a revealing and a draining experience.

For my mother chose to end her own life when she was thirty-nine, a decision which has affected the entire course of my life. The suicide of a parent is a traumatic experience for any child, and for a child as sensitive as I was, with as vivid an imagination and as brooding a nature as mine, it became a force which shaped my life forever after.

I do not remember her very well - we take our parents for granted so when we are children, assuming that they will always be there. I recall her as a rather rambunctious woman who liked to laugh, who enjoyed trying new things, and who suffered from chronic illness throughout my childhood. Indeed, some of my enduring memories of my mother consist of sitting in a hospital waiting room doing my homework and watching for her to be discharged. It was, I suppose, the combination of her illness and my father's utter failure in his profession and his deepening alcoholism, that pushed her over the edge. And because of her decision, I have spent most of my life at that edge. Only the knowledge of what her death meant to me has restrained me from following her example, and imposing that burden likewise on my children.