Nothing changed my feelings about my parents, and my life, more profoundly than the secrets I overheard one evening when I eavesdropped on a conversation between my mother and one of my father's sisters.
Our lives had recently been thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of my 38-year-old father in a car accident on the morning of January 1, 1965. The reason for the phone call was to hammer out who would pay for Daddy's funeral.
My mother's position was that she was not honor bound to pay for the event as they had separated, and eventually divorced, three years before his death. She also believed the legal rule was that whoever claimed the body was responsible to handle what happened to that body—and his siblings had his body.
Of course, my father's siblings disagreed. Their brother, Bill, was the father of my mother's children and had been her husband for over 11 years before they split up. They saw our three-bedroom suburban house as proof that my mother had money and felt she should pay for the funeral. Perhaps they felt as I did at the time: if he and Mom had been together that New Year's Eve, he might still be alive.
When I heard my mother's voice rising in anger while she spoke on the kitchen phone, I slipped into her bedroom, sat down between the two double beds and stealthily lifted the receiver while barely breathing to avoid detection. Sadly, I was not mentally or emotionally prepared to learn the secrets that I overheard that night.
As an egocentric teen nearing her 15th birthday, I still struggled with my parents' divorce. Not only was I ashamed of them for divorcing, I believed that my mother was the villain who had banished my "Prince Charming" father from our home and forced him into living in a tiny studio apartment in center city Philadelphia, while she continued her life in our house with her new husband, my brother and me.
Dad couldn't even see the sky from the two windows that opened to a concrete walkway and brick wall, not without lying down on the floor and looking straight up, and his bathroom didn't even have a tub. He had one chair, a studio couch that remained unfolded as his bed and a cot with springs that creaked every time I turned over on visitation weekends. He didn't even have a television and, of course, he did not have a car.
Prior to his death, I had spent three years totally romanticizing his anguish over the loss of his family while fighting with the woman who I saw as responsible for his loneliness. Part of this was due to my abject ignorance about who my parents were and what they were each capable of doing. I honestly can only recall seeing and hearing one fight between them, so when they told me that they were divorcing, I was shocked. Nothing in my imagination could ever have prepared me for the truths that I eventually pieced together after listening to my mother's phone conversation.
"Well, at least I never slept with someone else and had a baby," I heard my mother fling at my aunt.
This comment made me squirm because the only pregnant woman I could remember who was friendly with my parents was Marie Coyle. She and her husband had lived with us, sharing rent one summer in a large two-story apartment in Sea Isle City. Marie was an Audrey Hepburn look-alike. She also had large breasts, which was the only physical attribute that she had in common with my mother. I knew my father thought she was very appealing by the way he looked at her and talked about her, and by the way my mother withdrew on the weekends when Marie and Bill arrived.
The friendship between the Coyles and my parents ended for my mother that summer, and they never lived with us again at the shore, nor did my mother ever see them as far as I knew. My father, though, kept in touch with them, and I even saw Marie's son once, just months before my father died.
Dad had taken my brother and me to Avalon for two weeks on his vacation that summer. When I saw the little boy, I remember being overwhelmed by how beautiful he was, but not until I heard my mother make the comment about Dad having a baby with someone else had I allowed myself to fully accept that the boy I saw that day could be my half-brother. As his face popped into my mind that night, I realized how much he looked like my dad. My father and my brother and I were all towheaded blonds as youngsters, even though my dad's hair later turned very dark. Marie and her husband both had dark hair, but "their" son was blond like us. And he had my dad's eyes.
After my aunt responded to my mother's announcement about an illegitimate child, I then heard, "Well, at least I didn't sleep with people of the same sex" surge out of my mother's mouth.
As if my father's being an adulterer wasn't bad enough, now I was forced to work out the possibility of his bisexuality, which completely altered my image of him and of my parents' marriage.
I immediately envisioned the two closets in his apartment where rows of beautiful sports coats, trousers, suits and dress shirts were always impeccably arranged. Polished dress shoes were lined up on the floors. I remembered how he would stop eating desserts if he thought he was gaining weight, and I realized how vain he was about his looks. Were these clues to who he was?
My mind then zoned in on pictures I had seen at my father's apartment, of a friend of his whom he had visited on a vacation. Paul was an ordinary-looking man, but in almost every picture, he only wore boxer shorts. I remember at the time feeling uncomfortable about these photos, but I did not have the vocabulary, or the experience, to contemplate a person being attracted to both men and women.
Then, my mind hopscotched back and forth trying to assimilate my dad's penchant for attractive, well-built women, like the woman named Libby who he had been dating before he died, and the possibility that he and Marie's husband were involved sexually, since they had spent New Year's Eve together without Marie or another woman in NYC. It was Marie's husband who was driving the car in which my father had died. My God, did he kill him on purpose, I wondered. Dad's body wasn't even in the ground yet.
After my mother hung up the phone that January night, I slipped quietly back into my bedroom, but when we encountered each other later that evening, she said, "I'm sorry that you had to hear that."
She knew I was on the phone and still said those things. How could she?
Not only did my mother's words cloud my vision of my handsome father, but I was now forced to rethink my anger towards her for demanding the divorce. How must it feel for a woman to know that her husband not only desired other women but also other men? Would I have stayed with a man who could not be faithful? Could I, should I, believe her? Was she just saying these things to hurt me because I refused to go to her second wedding and had also refused to be adopted by my stepfather, which she interpreted as some sort of revenge against her?
After my mother's death almost 30 years later, her sister could hardly wait to tell me another family secret: My mother had been pregnant with me when my parents eloped. For my maternal grandparents, this was scandalous because everyone would know the truth, since they didn't have a big church wedding. I had always thought it was strange that they didn't have a formal wedding, but I liked to delude myself into thinking my parents were just nonconformists.
My parents never told me about the timing of my conception, but if I had used my head, it was perfectly obvious. They had both been students at Penn State, yet my father was the only one to graduate because my mother was pregnant with me and had me five months before he graduated. Who would choose to give up graduation from college?
The closest my mother ever came to revealing this secret was in a sentimental moment when she told me that my oh-so-good-looking but quiet father had avidly pursued her when they were students and that he eventually wore her down, until she agreed to date him. She had the perfect opportunity to tell me I was a "love child" but she kept her secret quiet.
Mom also told me on another day, while we shared our one and only drink together ever, that she had had an affair with the piano player from Travascio's, the bar closest to our rental apartment the same summer Marie got pregnant. I was in my thirties by then, so I wasn't shocked by this revelation because I had spent years piecing together the fact that the spare bedroom on the second floor had been a revolving door for all sorts of extra-marital activity. At that age, I had no delusions left about their "honor" or the virtue of their friends.
As much as I would have liked to have felt more empathy for my mother over the years after that phone conversation with my aunt, she often said stupid things, like, "Bill didn't have a chance to be 'normal' because his sisters always dressed him like a girl." These types of comments revealed her ignorance about the difficulties people faced in the '50s and '60s when they were not heterosexual. How stupid could she be?
I spent years blaming my father's selfishness for his death. As a father, why would he put himself in a car with a drunk/tired driver when he had two—possibly three—children who needed him? Believing that he must not have loved us very much was how I coped with his loss.
I also spent years blaming my mother for my parents' divorce because I didn't know how badly my dad had hurt her. If I had never eavesdropped on the phone in my mother's bedroom that night, I might still believe in the myth of my dad as Prince Charming and my mother as the bitch who cast him aside out of jealousy.
Instead, I am left trying to understand two flawed human beings whose destructive love and lack of empathy for each other was more hurtful than rewarding. Sadly, their secrets led to my father's early death, my mother's struggles with alcoholism, my brother's troubled life in which he never felt he truly had a family, and my own tortured years of feeling both unloved and unwanted. I wish we could have talked to each other, but most of our truths remain buried on silent tongues since everyone is gone except me.
Isabel Allende wrote in "The Japanese Lover" that "we never really know our parents." Maybe it is safer not to know them.