A suitcase full of secrets

Yesterday a letter arrived from Holland from my cousin, Lilo, who lives in Switzerland. She sent me a copy of my aunt’s obituary along with a few handwritten words of greeting and acknowledgement.

The letter is in German, as is the obituary, and although I can make out the meaning of some words, without the help of our German house guest, I would not be able to know that my cousin writes to ask where I fit into the scheme of things.

She also acknowledges that her mother died with a suitcase of secrets still strapped to her chest.

Not until her nineties, did my aunt tell her daughter Lilo that she had experienced terrible things as a child. She would not elaborate, beyond the description of Lilo’s grandfather as a tyrant who believed that women should not be educated and were fit only for housework.

This aunt is the youngest of my father’s siblings and so the story goes to the grave with her. We will never know the truth of what happened in my father’s family, only the bare bones.

Historians might root around in the archives and try to piece together the jig saw of our lives but unless there is someone out there still alive who can bear witness to the events of my father’s life and that of his sister as small children then we are left to guess, as I have been guessing all my life.

I do not fully understand the way people hold such secrets from the light. I understand the pain might be unbearable, but to carry such knowledge and not to share it with another who is concerned and interested seems unfathomable to me and yet this is so.

There are many who want the past to stay hidden as a black hole in experience that others in the present and future can only guess at.

I imagine things went terribly wrong in my father’s family from the extent that things went terribly wrong in my own, from the few things he said to me when I was a child, not all of it war related.

When I was small, maybe as young as five or six, I sat once on his lap. We were on holidays in Edithvale in the house that an uncle let us borrow for a week or so each summer. An old shack among a series of holiday places, it was a short walk to the beach and I could hear the waves in the distance and by day the caw of sea gulls.

This particular evening we had finished dinner and I chose to sit on my father’s lap, a thing I have no memory of doing as an older child and not something I would ever do willingly when I was older.

At this stage of my life I was young enough for my father not to terrify me, not yet.

‘Where is your family? I asked my father. ‘Your mother and father, your sisters and brothers?’

My mother had talked endlessly about her own family back in Holland but my father travelled alone in the world. I asked the question with the innocence of the curious young. I wanted to know about my other Oma and Opa, about my other uncles and aunties.

‘Look into my eyes,’ my father said. ‘They are black and evil. I have no family.’

Something in his words, something in their tone, propelled me from his lap.

I could not bear the idea that my own father was evil. That he had no one. That he had come from nowhere and I ran from the room in tears.

‘Don’t be so stupid’ I heard my mother say behind me, not to me but to my father. She said it in Dutch Do nit so fou (sic), or words to that effect. Don’t be foolish perhaps or cruel or hardhearted.

In my mind it all began then, this life long search for the meaning of my father’s experience.

When my aunt Nell’s obituary arrived, I felt another door close but at the same time a crack opened up elsewhere, a crack that must be further prised apart because of the language barrier.

My cousin wants to know about her mother’s story from me. As far as I can, I will tell her.

She’s been kept in the dark for too long.

10 thoughts on “A suitcase full of secrets”

  1. What a terrible moment to remember, of being propelled from your father’s lap. I’m sorry that has to be part of your story! I wish we weren’t all so afraid of our truths being known.

  2. It’s so interesting to read the partial explanation for your intense desire to know what’s fueling your ‘family’s orientation to life’ ( I hesitate to say ‘dysfunction’). We all have mysteries contained in our past and making sense of them or bringing them to the light isn’t always satisfying. Are secrets always lies?

  3. It’s a puzzle to me the degree to which some people hide the secrets of their parent’s past, Jim. Their own, I can understand, but their parents! It’s as if they feel so identified with their parents, they might as well have done these things, endured or suffered these things themselves.
    And that’s maybe the point of it, Jim, we are complex creatures, and sometimes the pain of the past is too vicious to know about so we try to block it out only to find itself repeat itself within our own lives or into the future within subsequent generations.

  4. I’m not sure that I think of secrets as lies, Kass. To me, they’re very different. We keep secrets for all sorts of complex reasons. Sometimes it might be the most helpful thing to do. Whereas lies can have a ‘cruel’ element attached, though not the so-called ‘white lies’, which like secrets might need to be maintained. I suppose it all depends on who’s keeping the secret and from whom and the nature of the secret as well.

  5. What right do we have to the truth? The public is guilty of prying into the lives of celebrities. Their curiosity is understandable but they have no claims on anyone. I wrote a poem a day or two after my father’s death (or maybe on the day):


    So he’s dead.

    So I’ll never get the answers
    to the questions I never asked
    so he didn’t have to lie
    and make matters worse.

    So I’ll never get to know now
    but what would I do if I did?
    It would be all the more for me
    to have to forgive.

    And I’ve got enough to forget as it is.

    So he’s dead.
    So what?

    So what?

    16 January 1996

    It’s not a very good poem. I just dumped raw emotion on the page and called it a poem. There wasn’t a lot my dad didn’t tell me about if I’m being honest. He wasn’t graphic or explicit in his accounts and I know (I think) everything or the gist of it at least. But there’s so much missing. I think of my own life—and you’d think there I’d have all the answers—but after all these years I couldn’t tell you what was going through my head when I did x, y or z. I could guess but that would be it. It would be like giving you a present, a toy of some description, that needs a key to make it come to life but I don’t have the key. All you could do is look at it and imagine what it might do. And that’s a little cruel I think. If you’re going to do something then do it properly. Half-truths are no good to anyone.

    Privacy IS a right. Maslow went one step further in calling it a need. I can see how privacy and secrecy can get confused and maybe secrecy is the dark side of privacy or maybe it’s just semantics. I wish you to see me a certain way and so I edit what I tell you. I lie. I make no secret of this because I believe this is normal and natural behaviour. I think truth seeking is unhealthy because it always leads to disappointment. You can never get to the truth; you settle on it and that’s a very different thing. There will also be factors you’re unaware of. Learn to live with not knowing. It’s an acquired taste but you can get used to it and even develop a taste for it.

    1. That’s an interesting point, Jim, the difference between secrecy and privacy, and I reckon you’re right to think of secrecy as being on the dark side. As soon as something’s a secret it implies there’s something problematic about it, whereas privacy is just that, a given. I agree, we all need privacy to some extent, but one person’s privacy might be another’s secret. Sorry to delay this response. I’ve been away, one of those rare events in my life when I enjoyed a terrific writing week without technology.

  6. Seeking the truth, insisting on it, telling it is very important. Vital in fact. For most of us. The cloak of silence is too stifling, it has to be lifted to allow fresh and clean air in.

    1. The line between repression, censorship and the need for privacy can be blurred, Petru. But I’m with you, on the side of more openness in life. Thanks.

  7. These mysteries we live with. My family has so many secrets I doubt I’ll ever uncover more than a handful. When I did some genealogical research, I was startled to realise how many family members had been erased from the family tree for prostitution, insanity, suicide, for being Jewish, for being black, for alcoholism, for fighting on the wrong side in wars. A friend says colonial families, especially in Africa, have genealogies all about ‘escape and hide’ strategies.

    1. Fashions come and go, don’t they Mary? On my husband’s side of the family, many many years ago there was much secrecy about their convict origins. It was all very hush hush. Now his family, those still living, are proud as punch to have descended from convicts. But some things remain unacceptable, I suppose and it’s sad to think of all those erased from the record for reasons we might not consider so dreadful today, though today we might attach to other forms of dishonour. thanks, Mary.

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