Family Secrets

Today’s post comes to us from Bill.

Lately, I’ve been going through the boxes of genealogical and inherited material, some of it originally collected by my grandparents and even more accumulated by my parents. It’s the sort of thing I never found the time or will to do prior to Covid. My general aim is to separate the detritus from the meaningful and to secure the meaningful—I use the term generously—archivally in mylar sleeves in 3-ring binders so that they can all fit in a compact space.

The detritus includes photos even I can’t identify, duplicate and triplicate copies of images, a lot of printed dot-matrix family trees from the days before the internet, albums of really bad Instamatic photos my parents took on vacations long after I had left home and just generally stuff that is no longer meaningful. So far so good.

Among the items in the boxes my Mother left behind was a packet of letters from a life-long friend of hers. I knew this friend and her family when I was young, no more than twelve or thirteen, but I have a distinct impression of her. She was smart and witty, outspoken and, I think, unhappy—probably stifled by her circumstances. The letters were written at a time when she was in the process of getting a divorce and still had two dependent children. She wrote to my mother as a trusted confidant.

I considered discarding the letters, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Her letters are funny and frank and expressive. At the time she wrote them, she was still in her early forties, which seems quite young to me now. They offer a perspective into her thoughts that she would have been unlikely to share with her children at the time—comparable to a diary. I can’t say I’ve ever had a similar glimpse into my parents’ unguarded thoughts.

Using my Ancestry account, I was able to ascertain that this person’s daughter also has an account and has posted a family tree. I wrote her a message, telling her about the letters and asking if she would like them. I told her I wasn’t sure if it would seem intrusive or inappropriate (and I apologized if it seemed that way), but I just couldn’t throw away the letters without asking her first. The letters were written over fifty years ago and the letter writer has been dead for thirty, so it seems safe to let those private thoughts out. I haven’t heard from the daughter yet.

Would you have discarded the letters and let their sentiments stay private? Have you ever been in possession of family secrets? What did you do with them?

42 thoughts on “Family Secrets”

  1. Oh yes, you have to save them. That kind of stuff is fascinating to me. Even better you have someone in the family that I’m guessing will be interested. Where will it go and what will it matter? Hard to say, but it just seems to me it’s important.
    We have a lot of history of one of Kelly’s uncles side of the family. He and his wife had no kids. His sister had no kids and the sister isn’t interested in the stuff. Other than us, no one cares. What do you do with history that no one cares about??

    Just last week Kelly found a box of photos and things we had forgotten about. A can of marbles that was always at my grandmothers house that all my siblings remembered, and we actually talked about it one day, I didn’t know I had it. I forgot I had it. Some pictures of Kelly side of the family, pictures of both my mom side of the family that we’ve seen before and an old photo album that I think is stateside. There are no names, just cash is like “Ma’s only brother“. But that be a lesson to you. Label things better. And one postcard in that old fancy German script addressed to my great grandfather Gustave Heyne. I had not seen that spelling of Hain before. Fascinating stuff to me. I do have a cousin that’s done a lot of stuff with us and my brothers been working on part of the family tree. With no names it’ll be hard to do much with it but still still like it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. One of my motivations for going through and organizing all this material is that I am the last person in my direct family line who can identify many of the people in the photos. Whether or not that will matter to subsequent generations is out of my hands, but I feel duty bound to rescue those ancestors from oblivion.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I believe family secrets need to made public, at least to family members. I say this from the position of someone who has done family therapy. Secrets can be destructive.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I was the first grandchild to notice and then comment that my father was born 6 months after my grandparents got married, and he was not premature. My cousins were shocked. My mother, who knew all about it, said “Oh, that happened back then, too”. It explained, in part, I think, why my father could do nothing right in his parents view, and why his younger brother was considered the golden child of the family.

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    1. It was my sister who, in her efforts to uncover family secrets, discovered that my mother was born too soon after her parents’ wedding. As secrets go, that doesn’t seem terribly scandalous, partly because it happened so often before The Pill came along. We often assume earlier generations were more judgmental about sexual indiscretions than people now are, but that’s not true. Many folks were ready to forgive young people for being impetuous, just so long as they got married to make the pairing legitimate.

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  4. Bill, I’m glad you contacted the daughter, and I hope she elects to see them. I wish someone had similar letters about, say, either of my grandmothers.

    I am in possession of family secrets, and will tell them any time I think the information will help someone. I generally thing secrets can devastate lives, but occasionally telling them can also harm someone, so you have to weigh where the greatest harm lies.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. It was courteous and respectful of Bill to ask the family member if she wanted the letters. I’m slightly surprised to feel protective about the letters. Destroying them might be ultimately better, but recent events have taught me the value of telling the truth. I hope she wants to see the letters. I find myself more concerned about destroying something than about fearing it would cause discomfort. Didn’t Emily Dickinson want her poems all destroyed? Destruction is so permanent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emily Dickinson’s poems survive in the many letters she sent to friends and also in the hand bound fascicles she kept in a trunk. I don’t think she wished them destroyed. Nevertheless, literary history has been hampered by the destruction of letters and diaries, sometimes at the insistence of the sender and as often by some family member.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. When I was transcribing letters to and from abolitionists, one of the letters was from a Congressman to an influential abolitionist. This was after abolition had gained wide acceptance in the North. The Congressman was explaining that, though he hadn’t expressed it publicly, he had privately been on the side of abolition all along and he hoped this abolitionist would publicly recognize him as a long-time supporter.
    He ended the letter asking the abolitionist to burn it.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. My father’s line is supposedly unknown, who his father was. My father was ILLEGITMATE as his birth certificate, once they found it, proclaimed. A secret there re who his father was. But 1910 census names him, last name still prominent in Wausau area. My mother’s line is researched a long way back and very broadly as of about 1940. A book was written by a great aunt and printed in 1945. I am famously the last entry on the tree. My older sister is not listed. I have never read it, nor do I wish to see names from 16th century Germany. What could names possibly mean? For certain there are stories known but not told of the later years. I like Finding Our Roots but a huge piece of paper with lots of names seems pointless to me.
    My mother tells about young women or even teens who would go away to stay with an aunt for awhile. Some came back childless, some came back married with a child, no one hiding about what timeline says. Very very few came back alone with a child. My mother used to say every generation thinks they invented sex.
    A hardware store in town had two owners and went out of business in about 1980. In my father’s toolbox I found a gimme piece, a sharpening stone with the name of the store on the back. One owner had three daughters. I knew two of them well. I found one on fb and offered it to her. Her reply was curt. The other owner had 9 children, all wonderful, 6 of which I taught, all athletes. I found the son I knew the best on facebook and offered it to him. He did not reply. A found one of the twin girls as a friend of one of my favorite students. I offered it to her, wondering if I would get a response, a positive one. She got all excited. Her and her twin were trying to find 9 of them for all the siblings at Christmas, a month away. They had only 8. They were so excited. It was to be a surprise. What luck that was.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. I stumbled upon a family secret when I was a young teenager. I wouldn’t say it was traumatic but it was a little troubling and I did eventually talk to one of the parties involved a few years later; it was a great relief. I can’t tell the secret because one of the parties involved is still alive. No illegalities involved.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. About 20 years ago, my mom received a cassette tape recorded by one of her female cousins. The cousin was very intoxicated, and recorded herself playing the piano and singing hymns, interspersed with verbal diatribes about her parents. One of her statements was “And what about the Herman B story?”

    This cousin was the oldest of 4 girls who were double first cousins with my mother, as my grandfather and his younger brother married my grandmother and her younger sister. The cousins were, as a result, very similar genetically. The families were vastly different, though, my mother’s parents being stable and functional, while my grandfather’s brother was abusive to his wife and children.

    The Herman B story, as I found out, was the rumor that my Great aunt had an affair with Herman, the hired man, and that my mom’s youngest female cousin was his child. She was born with a withered limb. She is also the only female on that side of the family to have breast cancer. Now, given the genetic similarities of all these females why is this cousin so different? Was she just unlucky, or is she not a double first cousin?

    Liked by 3 people

  10. The scandal in my erstwife’s family was known by everybody, but it was convenient to pretend otherwise. One of her aunts lived with an adopted son. The “secret” everyone knew was that he was actually her own kid born out of wedlock.

    I once dabbled in genealogy for my own family. I didn’t pursue it actively because I decided all the great stories had been too successfully hidden. The bare facts of births, deaths and marriages weren’t very interesting. The juicy stuff was carefully buried.

    I liked one story. One of my relatives was hot to get rich in California gold fields, but he didn’t want to go alone. He talked his brother into going with him. That fellow was blinded in a mining explosion. Neither brother found gold. Riddled with guilt, the brother with good eyes walked from California to Iowa, holding the hand of his blind brother.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Back in my dating days, mom came down in the barn one day and lectured me about one of my female theater friends who was 20 years older than me. I assured mom we were just friends (and this lady and I really were). Mom said “That’s what your sister said!” and stormed off. Well, that was news to me; I had to sit down and do the math. Which, at 19, I didn’t know birthdays of nephews or sisters or wedding anniversaries so it took a while. Oh yes, that one child wasn’t quite far enough into wedlock. Not to mention, the Lutheran girl married a Catholic boy. Mid ’70’s all that was.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. I’ve told some of my family’s secrets on here before. There’s the secret of who my dad’s father was. We’ll never know, even though we know who his birth mother was. On his birth certificate, the father is listed as unknown.

    The one secret I’d like to know the answer to is whether or not my sister and I share the same biological father. She knows that there’s some question about that, but having her DNA tested would sever her line to the only ancestor she really cares to make claim to if he’s not. She officially changed her surname to Blicher (from Pedersen) over forty years ago. Not only did she change her name, but that of her then husband and two kids, as well. Steen Steensen Blicher is considered one of Denmark’s great writers. He was dad’s great, great grandfather. I have to admit that Blicher is a bit fancier than Pedersen, and if she and her offspring get some pleasure from feeling connected to the great writer, who am I to object? But I’d like to know the truth.

    Mom’s family was such a mess, and so many stories told that it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. I’d love to hear the version of those stories that might have been told by her father, who abandoned his wife and large brood when mom was in her teens. There’s no doubt material for some pretty entertaining and/or heart breaking books hidden there.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. I’ve long believed that many people whose lives look boring actually lived through great dramas and crises, so they seemed ordinary mostly because nobody studied them carefully or asked the right questions. I now assume anybody I meet is more interesting than they seem at first to be.

    Three of the women I got to know when dating after my divorce had truly dramatic lives. It surprised and saddened me to discover that their own children didn’t know those stories. Kids are pretty self-involved, I guess, plus their mothers usually had reasons for not sharing their stories. It felt strange to know so much about their mothers that their kids didn’t know.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Several years before she died, mom told one of my sisters that we have an older half-sister. Mom and dad had dated in high school, then broke up. During that interval (while serving in the Navy), he got a girl pregnant and did the “right thing” by marrying her. When my grandparents found out, they were furious and my grandpa went to court to have the marriage annulled. Mom only knew because his daughter called our house (she must have been early teens) to ask dad if she could meet him. Dad completely shut her down. He had to tell mom who this girl was because she had answered the call. But not another word was said about it. Dad grew up in a very small town – we figure his brother knew about the scandal but no one else in town ever found out. My sisters and I decided not to try to locate our half-sibling, mostly because of the way dad and his folks treated her and her mom. We did tell our 2 cousins on dad’s side. They were surprised by the half-sister’s existence but not about how our grandparents handled the situation.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Two things people are likely to lie about: their ethnic background and their sex history. That makes the rise of DNA science fascinating. DNA analysis has revolutionized the justice system, and it now creates a new way of establishing truth about peoples’ sex history and ethnicity. In my own family there have been two dramatic examples of this. In one case DNA research showed that a person who presented herself as someone’s “true” daughter was actually not related to him. In the other case, a stranger contacted someone in my family and said (in effect) “Hi there, I’m the half sister you never knew existed.” Learning the truth was complicated in both cases, but the eventual outcome was positive.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These kinds of incidences are a lot more common that most of us realize. Other than my own father, who was put up for adoption two days after birth, but whose birth mother he tracked down and looked up as an adult, I know several cases.

      The sister and brother-in-law of a very dear friend of mine had a child before they were married. They were not permitted to marry because he was Jewish, so the child was put up for adoption. A few years later they married anyway, and have been together ever since. They are both professors with long careers of teaching at well respected universities. They have three adult children who have never been told, and presumably have no idea, about their sibling. I can’t imagine living with that kind of secret.

      Another case is, Ulla, one of my best friends in high school. Her mother passed away when we were juniors, and a few years later her father married the woman he had hired to take care of his two children. After I moved to the US, I learned that that marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. I visited with Ulla the last time I was in Denmark and learned that her father had passed away, and that’s when she discovered that her father had been married before he was married to her mom, and that she had a half-sister from that marriage. That half-sister is a quite well known TV journalist in Denmark, and she had for some reason not welcomed the information of two half-siblings she didn’t know about.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A dear friend of mine, now deceased, wrote a letter to a woman he had never met when he was in his 40’s, beginning the letter with “I have reason to believe you are my mother”. She had given birth to him in Fargo in 1941, and as she was unmarried, her family gave him to a family in Moorhead who were known to take in children. They raised him, with the last name of his birth family, until he was an adult, and he always considered them his parents, although he knew he wasn’t their child. They had never told him anything about his birth family. He went on to get his PhD in philosophy from Yale, and was a college professor. His birth mother acknowledged him after getting the letter, and told him the story, and they developed an amicable but not particularly close relationship. .

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      2. In Ulla’s father’s case, I wonder why he had kept it secret from Ulla’s mom, or if he had? Did she know about it and had they just decided that it was better for their kids not to know?

        In my dad’s case, the man who became the husband of his mother knew about dad, but their only child, my dad’s half-sister who is still alive, didn’t know until my sister looked her up, several years after her mother died. (Dad’s mother actually outlived him by several years.) She was devastated by the news; she had considered herself very close to her mother, and couldn’t believe that her mother would have kept such a secret from her.

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  16. There is a board game called Life Stories, with cards that you draw to move your marker. The cards are in four categories: Valuables, Etchings, Alternatives, and Memories. Although lots of the questions were fun or at least innocuous, one sister kept getting cards like “Describe something that made your mother sad” or “Tell about a time in your life when you were afraid”, and she got kind of angry and quit the game. I decided it wasn’t a game to bring out where childhood had included an alcoholic father and passive mother. It made me really sad.

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    1. I think that depends entirely on what your motivation is, Clyde. If you’re trying to somehow hurt him in the estimation of your sister, I’d be careful. Your reference to him as your “former” brother tells me there’s no love lost between you and him. You may choose to cut off communication with brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t make them former siblings. As I recall, it was you brother who chose to disenfranchise himself from the family, but that’s beyond his authority; he’s still your brother whether either of you wants to acknowledge it or not.

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  17. Families are interesting aren’t they. My immediate family, there’s not too many secrets because we all talk and someone will say something. May as well not try to hide it, it will just come up in conversation.
    In others families, secrets are everything.

    Reading Grandma’s diaries. She wrote once that so and so said she was pregnant; they all knew it, just couldn’t say anything until she did. Hmmm. Unwed I presume. And then when a wedding did come up, she said it was real nice and even the little girl participated.
    However she also “sure felt low” when one granddaughter got pregnant out of wedlock.

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  18. Forty-five years ago, a very close friend of mine confided in me that her teen-aged son, B, had gotten his high school girlfriend pregnant. (This was at a time when my friend was separated from her husband due to infidelity. They reconciled, and lived peacefully and I think, happily, together until her husband died.) The two families had gotten together, and somehow decided that it was best that B’s girlfriend have an abortion. They were too young to make a go of parenthood. So that’s what happened. She had the abortion, and shortly afterward that relationship ended.

    Years and year went by, and B never married (still hasn’t) but has been in a long-term relationship with another woman. They have never had children, I have no idea why. I do know that when B’s mother was dying, she expressed great sadness to me that she had never had grandchildren. I asked her, knowing full well that this weighed heavily on her mind, if she regretted that decision so many years ago. She couldn’t answer, just cried. It was what seemed the best decision at the time, but in retrospect, she and her husband had come to rue that decision.

    Life is full of difficult decisions. Sometimes they are of little consequence, others haunt us for life.

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  19. My father’s first marriage produced a daughter about seven and a half months after the wedding, and the marriage failed soon after. His wife Catherine was Catholic, so maybe it was an annulment, I’m not certain. In census records some years later it appears the girl, my half sister, was raised as the daughter of her grandmother and the grandmother’s second husband. I imagine the family thought Catherine would have a better chance to remarry if she didn’t have a child to raise. She did remarry.

    On my mother’s side two of my aunts had children out of wedlock. One gave her daughter up for adoption by a relative, The other raised her son as a single mother. She had an affair with a married man. The man and his wife offered to adopt her son, but she refused to give him up. This was in the fifties, when single mothers were pretty stigmatized. She didn’t have an easy life.

    By the seventies and eighties, a lot of the young people in the extended family were have children without getting married, or getting married in haste, but that doesn’t really raise eyebrows anymore.

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