The older I get the better I get at keeping secrets. I now understand how sacred secret keeping is. What a privilege it is to have someone trust you so dearly with a confidence. Even if they have shared their secret with someone else, it matters not. This is your secret to keep. Held safe for as long as required. It could be for a day, a week, a year. A lifetime. Some secrets I will take to the grave with me.
I’m from a family of secret keepers. So perhaps this gives me a bit of an edge over those who are not so well practiced. The biggest secret our family kept concerned The Old Man’s drinking. Not just his alcoholism. But his recurring rampages that terrorized our family. We were like visitors to Vegas. What happened in 204 stayed in 204. This family secret, that I held close for over twenty years, was one of two that shaped the landscape of my youth. I looked out at the world, not with wide-eyed wonder, but with fear. For the flip side of keeping secrets is disclosure. I didn’t want anyone to know about The Old Man. Not even my best friend.
Some secrets are held in fear. Others in shame. This was at the heart of the second family secret.
Little back story. When I was twenty-four I wanted to go to Europe. I hadn’t travelled much. Nor ventured far when I did. Little trips with my family mostly. Circle Route around Lake Superior. Trips to Duluth, Minnesota. Once as far as Minneapolis. One quick secret disastrous trip to Toronto with my first love. A cross country car ride to Victoria which included stops in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. That was it. My wayfaring adventures by age twenty-four.
Many of my friends had already been to Europe. Backpacking globe-trotters. Nomads and gypsies. Sophisticated and worldly. I had been to Duluth. I was green with envy and itching to gallivant. This became the hot topic of conversation between my new boyfriend and I. We made plans. Beginning with acquiring passports. We did all the appropriate paperwork and mailed off our applications to Ottawa. This was a long time ago so the details of the process are a bit sketchy. But to the best of my recollection, this is what we did. Then we waited. And waited. It took weeks to hear anything.
Everything went smoothly for my boyfriend, who was far less new after weeks of waiting for passports. His knapsack was packed and he was good to go. But this was not the case for me.
I never got my passport. Instead, I got a letter from the government of Canada informing me that I did not exist. ‘Don’t exist’ I cried. ‘How is that possible? I’m here aren’t I? Look at me. I’m right here.’ This occurred while I was living on the West Coast, the first time round. I thought perhaps this mix-up had something to do with geography. That I wasn’t actually nonexistent, just misplaced.
Determined to prove that I did indeed exist, I decided to go to the fountainhead. Take it to the two people who were there right from the beginning. The source of my genesis. No, not God and Jesus. That would come later. Ma and The Old Man. But before doing so, I mentioned this misbegotten madness to my sister, who was also living on the West Coast. I showed her the letter. ‘Look at this,’ I uttered incredulously. She read the letter. Looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’
Ma and The Old Man weren’t legally married. There was nothing shocking about this revelation. I had suspected as much for years. But it was a bit unsettling to hear those words said out loud for the first time. This subject was taboo in our family. Strictly off limits. In truth, I was the only one not in on the secret. The evidence was there of course. For starters, Ma and The Old Man never celebrated their anniversary. Yet she went by Mrs. M. And she wore a wedding ring. This was good enough for me. When I was really young I didn’t understand such things. When I was old enough to know, I didn’t want to. By the time I figured it out, I didn’t care. By then, I was actually in on the secret. But no one knew that I knew what they knew.
Once the proverbial cat was let out of the bag I called Ma. There was no going back. The silence was broken. The Boogeyman was released and he wasn’t all that scary. I felt free. I wanted to liberate Ma as well. The call went something like this.
‘Ma, a strange thing happened when I tried to get my passport.’
‘What’s that dear?’
‘I got this letter from the government saying I don’t exist.’
‘G told me everything Ma.’
Silence followed. By a pregnant pause. By more silence.
‘Ma why didn’t you just put The Old Man’s name on my birth certificate?’
‘I didn’t know I could.’
A common law marriage and an illegitimate child. More secrets that consumed my parents. Filled them with shame. Followed by years of silence. Humiliation. Heads hung low. I look back on their situation and my heart breaks for them.
By the time I was old enough to get married things were so different. Common law marriages. People living together. Shacking up. It was happening all around me and no one cared. Hippy chicks were having babies and wearing daisies in their hair. Feminism had arrived. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were inspiring young women everywhere. Myself included. There was nothing illegitimate about any of it. More options and choices. No judgment. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly and The Family Stone sang.
What a burden my parents carried in their hearts all those years. In the end, it was a relief to have the truth spoken. Confession is good for the soul they say. This held true for my parents, especially Ma.
I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than living in shame. The joy that it robs. The dignity that it steals. The humiliation it perpetrates. The things we teach our children without even knowing. Nor intending. Passed down from one generation to the next, along with Grandma’s handmade quilt. I understand the shame Ma felt. Intimately. I too carry this pain in my heart. Sometimes I don’t even know why. It’s like the elusive butterfly. Impossible to grasp.
After the birth of my son I experienced a fleeting moment of shame. I thought I was beyond reproach, yet this stung. He was only hours old and he filled my spirit with such wonder. A Nurses Aid, who was old enough to be my mother, entered our room to check on us. I was engaged in a gripping one-sided conversation with my son. As she was adjusting my blankets and plumping my pillow, she referred to me as Mrs. M. I immediately corrected her and explained that I wasn’t Mrs. M. That was my mother. Then as carelessly as she tossed a crumpled Kleenex into the wastebasket, she responded with, ‘That’s what we call girls like you dear.’ She wasn’t being malicious. Nor did she intend to hurt me. Just stating the facts. Telling the truth. Yet there I was. Drowning in a puddle of shame. Maybe we hadn’t come a long way Baby.
But the hand of God touched me that day. The hurt didn’t linger. Thankfully. Besides, I had a beautiful brown-eyed boy to love and protect. I had to toughen up.
I still don’t have a passport. I haven’t been consumed by wanderlust these past thirty years so it hasn’t really mattered. Acquiring one fell off the to do list years ago. My life has been full and adventurous despite traveling abroad. Yet a part of me often wonders if I’m stuck. Fearful that if I apply for my passport I’ll be told I still don’t exist. At least not as me. The girl with the unpronounceable Finnish last name. I have an official Birth Certificate containing Ma’s first husband’s surname. I look at it and think, ‘Who is this person?’ Not me. I look at the ancient tattered Registration of Birth that the Old Man altered and think, ‘Who is this person?’ Me. Not sure how he did it. But somehow he removed the official legal surname and typed in his. It always looked right to me. You see what you want to see I guess. I never wanted to be anything but the Breadman’s daughter.
And with God’s grace I am. Always will be. Passport or not.