After all these many years as a loyal member, I have to admit to a certain level of disappointment with my family. It’s not that they haven’t been supportive of me in my several failed attempts at marital coherence -they have always been patient with my stumbles. Nor did they denounce me each time I deserted them for greener pastures, or question my procreative abilities when I limited myself to two offspring. No, my family has always been there for me, and flexible in its expectations.
So, perhaps my disappointment is rooted in my expectations of the family to which I was genetically assigned: they have no significant secrets. No compelling black sheep, or locked Bluebeard Room. Nothing that, should I discover it, would set the Mob on me.
Of course, I suppose most secrets are like that, aren’t they: if you know about them, they aren’t secret anymore… like the room in the basement of our house in Winnipeg I was told never to enter. There was no lock on the door, but it was in a dark corner adjacent to an octopus-like furnace with glowing eyes that did not invite closer inspection at the best of times. But I was a six-year old, flush with all the confidence that Grade 1 bestows, and snuck downstairs early one winter morning before breakfast, determined to violate the prohibition.
The furnace was in an angry mood I could see as I crept down the stairs from the kitchen -its orange cheeks were puffed with steam and from time to time it groaned a warning as its fat, steel pipes vibrated like angry dogs on tight leashes daring me to come within their range.
The forbidden door lay just beneath the fattest arm, but I had stolen false courage from the cookie jar upstairs, and crawled on the cement just out of reach. The door itself was not locked to my surprise, and in fact, opened rather too easily at my touch.
Immediately I was enveloped in a dark, suffocating cloud of -what?- smelly, choking dust, and I ran, not crawled, beneath the threatening pipes to the safety of the stairs.
I could hear some activity in the kitchen, so I ascended calmly, step by step and walked into the kitchen as if I’d merely plumbed the basement depths as a bagatelle before breakfast.
But in the bright winter sunshine flooding through the window, I was stopped immediately by my mother’s eyes and her shaking head. She seemed uncertain whether to scowl or laugh, and decided instead to blink. “You’ll need a bath before you sit at the table, G…”
“I already had one yesterday,” I argued, albeit guiltily.
“Then you shouldn’t have gone in that room downstairs, eh?”
How on earth did she guess? “But… Can’t I just wash my hands instead?” I’m not sure why I was arguing -my clothes and skin were covered with soot. And anyway, her arms were folded across her chest -a sure sign that my wishes were of only secondary consideration.
“Do you see why we told you not to go into the coal-room, G?” she answered, a smile breaking out across her face despite her efforts to look cross.
That, was the extent of any Family Secrets that we boasted. You see why I am a little disappointed in the utter failure of our existence to rate as a complicated entity requiring secrets to meld us into a cohesive unit?
The only other weak attempt at misinformation concerned a cousin, or something, of my father who, in his late teens ran away to Alaska and was forever branded as a black sheep in my father’s mind. He never told me why, and I always forgot to ask, but as far as I know, no laws were broken, and nobody was murdered, so does that even count?
My disappointment that I had missed out on something really important was rekindled in an article in Aeon by Karen Vallgårda, an associate professor in modern history at the University of Copenhagen. https://aeon.co/essays/why-family-secrets-should-sometimes-stay-under-lock-and-key
‘Every family has one,’ she writes, ‘A trauma, a dubious deed, or a disgracing detail that is kept under wraps through more or less elaborate practices of concealment. Secrets tie families together through bonds of trust, they weigh on them as an often increasingly unbearable burden, or they tear them apart leaving behind hurt feelings and unanswered questions.’
About the only question my family didn’t answer was why there were no secrets -even though it’s usually healthy to have them.
I mean, you don’t have to solve them all, or even threaten to, a family just has to dangle some at the dinner table when Uncle Frank has had a bit too much sherry -or at least acknowledge that it has some. In an attempt to explain secrecy, the author tramples on any vocabulary that my uncle might have understood: ‘The first thing to note is that secrecy doesn’t exist in a simple or dichotomous relationship with disclosure. While all interaction between human beings is predicated on some level of mutual knowledge, it also invariably entails a degree of obscurity or nescience.’ Maybe she’s on to something… So, ‘not only is the specific information concealed, but the fact that something is concealed is itself concealed… Secrecy is also often enmeshed in a host of other knowledge practices: the collective invention of alternative narratives, palpable silences, innuendo and, frequently, discretion and ‘active not-knowing’.
It all sounds so… delicious, doesn’t it? And yet, as she suggests, ‘a secret can be enabling and suffocating, protective and oppressive all at once.’ All I’m asking for is the enabling kind -something I can confess at the pub when everybody else is bragging about how their brother cheated to get into law school, or that he was once headed for the ministry, or something. The Coal Room mystery just doesn’t make anybody gasp like that -a heck of a legacy for my children…
I think I’m just going to have to make something up for them. I kind of wondered about whether or not to embellish the Coal Room with a body my father had hidden there and had not yet had a chance to stuff it in the furnace. Of course, maybe kids nowadays have different needs. And as the poet Kahlil Gibran warns us, ‘If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.’
I suppose I shouldn’t rush into this Family Secret thing…