Family Secrets

Secrets and Lies

My family story has always been complicated, and the latest revelation didn't make things any easier

My mother asked me if I was sitting down. I had just parked at Stop 'n' Shop and turned off the car.

I knew from my mother's voice that it wasn't bad news, though she had an annoying unemotional giddiness whatever the news, like she was telling you a big secret. This time, she was.

"I never told you this …" she started, and the paused dramatically.

"Yes?" I asked.

"I have a son," she said.

I was flabbergasted.

"He found us through a detective, who found you first because both of you are on the East Coast," she said. "I want you to meet him."

I rolled down the window against the hot day. This was going to be a long story.

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Many times, I asked my mother and my grandmother about my origins, but never got a straight answer. Now my mother told me a story I never knew: When I was just a baby, my teenage mother and I were taken from my father by my grandparents. "Bud," as my father was known, was a teenage dropout, who had an "alcohol problem." My mother became pregnant again almost immediately by a Latino drummer while she was on holiday at the Jersey Shore.

She was just starting to show when my grandparents sent her to a home for unwed mothers on Staten Island where she spent the remainder of her pregnancy. She had a boy she named Michael who was adopted by a Jewish couple from a Jewish agency, as my grandparents stipulated. Meanwhile, my stern and heartless grandmother made sure I was toilet-trained by the time I was 1. It was like being toilet-trained by Stalin.

Now called Russ, my half-brother was sitting across from me at a Northampton restaurant. I was more curious about his appearance than his upper-middle-class life in a suburb of New York City, working as a pharmaceutical researcher, with a wife and three kids. He was a dead-ringer for my mother. While Susie—my half-sister—and I looked like our fathers and nothing like our mother, Russ had her eyes, smile and a slim, toned build that he didn't have to work at.

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I left that get-together and the next one (my kids and I went to Russ's house to meet his family) feeling that I finally could have a family. It seemed logical to me. Here was a person who was related to me, Susie and my mother—but not my stepfather.

I don't know why I was so certain, so excited and optimistic, that we would form a family—my mother and her three children—when, all my life, my mother chose the well-being and happiness of my stepfather over mine.

It was not long after that day in the car—when I learned about my half-brother and my origins—that I told my mother about my family idea. Russ's sons had bar mitzvahs coming up that my kids and I would love to attend—that is, if she didn't include my stepfather. My mother said she'd think about it.

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A couple months later, my mother took me, my kids and Susie to Hawaii, in memory of my grandmother and her "all-girl" trips, which were usually cruises. It was there, in a Kauai timeshare, that my mother informed me that she chose her husband.

All my rage at her blew up. I questioned how she could shrug off my sexual abuse by her father, like she did her own abuse by him, and then "unknowingly" marry a pedophile. "Get on with your life" was her credo, which obviously didn't work for her.

My mother sat in a chair, casually defending herself, with an imperious smile, which only made me more irate. My kids and Susie sat like petrified mummies on the couch, afraid to breathe; they knew that I was angrier than they had ever seen.

I stormed out, catching my foot in the door, and walked around with a gashed instep. The sultry breeze and the ocean calmed me. I reminded myself that I did not have a family. My kids and I were outsiders to Russ, Susie, my mother and stepfather. I was always an unwanted appendage, a thorn in her side. I cried and then made peace with that. For years, I hardly spoke to my mother, and no longer spoke to Russ or Susie. I turned my focus toward my friends when I had big news or events regarding my children.

About a year ago, my stepfather died. When he died, I hoped for something new, something different from my mother. After time passed, my mother wrote to me. I thought maybe she'd reflect, apologize or at least recognize the impact of what happened to me and her. I thought that finally, now, we could be a family, siblings and a mother. But she didn't want any of that—she just wanted me to meet her friends and tend to her as she got older. That was not what I expected. I told her so.

And then the inexplicable happened. Last month, Russ, an otherwise healthy man of 57, died of a massive heart attack. His wife found him.

I did not go to the funeral. I was not invited. I have not spoken to my mother since. Why would she want to speak to me? My mother has eliminated everyone for the sake of her husband—my stepfather—and now she has only Susie left. A lot has happened since I left the Stop 'n' Shop parking lot, forgetting to buy food.

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