My Father's Secret
While downsizing our home, my husband and I had to sort through some of the debris left by my parents, my grandmother, and Steve’s father. Much of it we had already disposed of, but we had left remnants we felt needed a little more consideration than “toss,” “save” or “donate.” My father’s Navy hat, my mother’s wedding dress, and other sentimental items had fallen under a fourth category: “defer.” So had boxes of photos and papers. The time to face the “defer” pile came as the date when we were moving from the ten room home we had inhabited for 33 years loomed on the calendar just weeks away. I took a box at a time and sat at my dining room table sorting through like an archeologist sifting through the sands of time. My emotions ranged from amusement to melancholy to wonderment. I found myself uttering the words, “What were they thinking?” more than once. Why did they save some of this stuff? What had it meant to them? I lifted a heavy opened envelope that was addressed in typewriting to my mother. I took the pages out and began to read a short story several pages long. It was the romantic tale about a young man and the woman he loved who returned home to her after World War II. It was well written, somewhat saccharine, and totally irrelevant to current times. It became clear to me that I was reading a story that had been written and proposed by my mother and rejected by a women’s magazine. Wow. I never knew my mother had even an iota of interest in writing. Double wow. I wasn’t the only member in our family who had faced rejection. Damn, wouldn’t I have loved to chat with her over coffee or something stronger about our shared affliction, but she had been gone for decades. I tried to understand why she had never told me that she had written a story, or maybe stories. My mother was a very private person, but she knew I was writing and I had shared some of my work with her and my father during visits with them. They lived next door, so sharing what I had cooked, read, or written was a common occurrence. Something kept gnawing at me. I would pick up the hefty envelope that weighed heavy in my hand. Had I known so little about my own mother? Did she keep her creative dreams buried from a daughter who shared the same passion? I felt a tinge of anger and regret that we had lost the opportunity to connect on a level I wondered might have been an important opening. Then the mystery reader and writer in me kicked in. My father had shared various stories he had written over the years. When “Agnes of God,” a movie about a novice who gave birth in a convent was released in 1985, he produce multiple chapters of a novel he had started years before, lamenting that “Someone got it done before I was finished.” Sure enough, he had written the beginning of the story about a troubled young novice who was forced to leave the convent. He’d written all of his life professionally. His first job was as an English teacher. After the war, he worked in the television industry in marketing and promotion. I knew he had dabbled with writing fiction, but now I realized he had done more than that. He had written a romantic story for a women’s magazine and submitted it under my mother’s name. My guess is he thought it had a better chance for publication if it came from a woman. I scratched my head at the notion that in the 1950’s some version of gender bias would work in the reverse in the publishing industry. I thought about the few other things he had written and shared and realized the story was in his style. What dreams had my father buried in the name of being a responsible post-war provider for his family? Had writing been an illusive, impractical pursuit he dared not seriously indulge in? When I had finished my first full-length novel in which I had murdered the board of selectmen in our hometown one by one after a torturous term on a local board, I shared it with my father. He trilled with delight after reading it, proud father kindly not noticing it may not have been very good. “I knew you had it in you,” he declared. “It’s in the genes.” I agreed with him, suggesting there was no irony his name was “Gene.” Until I found that envelope, I never knew how seriously Gene wanted to be a writer. It was my father’s secret.