When I heard the words coming from my mother’s mouth, a sense of vertigo caused me to grab the back of the chair in front of me.
From the beginning of the conversation, I had a sense of foreboding.
“You’ve always wanted to know why your father went to jail back then, right? Well, since I had to tell the FBI agent who wants you to go to work for them, I think I should tell you, too.”
Not knowing what to say, I merely nodded my head.
Mom hesitated and took a big breath before she started. “Well, it turns out that while I was at the Bingo or out of the house when your father was alone with your sister, he was messing with her.”
I’d only turned sixteen six months before this conversation, so I jumped to the wrong conclusion.
“You mean Daddy and Lizzy were, um?”
“No, not that, Mary. Only you would jump to a conclusion like that. It was just like heavy petting. You do know what that is, right?”
I almost giggled at the term, but at least I knew it wasn’t about real sex. But it was still wrong on so many levels.
“How did you find out?”
“How much do you remember about that day?”
“I only know that when Grandma and Grandpa brought me home, Daddy was gone. When I asked where he was, you wouldn’t say anything. And then, that whole thing happened on the first day of school a few weeks later.”
“Yeah, and I now know that if I’d been truthful with you, well, at least told you that your father went to jail instead of nothing, maybe what happened to you that day wouldn’t have happened.”
“But I don’t know what happened that first day of fourth grade. I remember leaving the house and walking to school with some friends from the neighborhood, and then the next thing I remember is sitting out in the hallway of my classroom. My teacher’s coat was around me, and I felt like a truck had just run me over.”
“I’m really sorry that happened to you. And up until now, I’ve never told you the truth. Oh, you eventually knew your father went to jail, but I know no one would tell you why.”
“Yeah. I remember asking Aunt Mary to tell me why, because no one wanted to tell me because I was too young. Aunt Mary said she must be too young, too, because no one would tell her, either.”
“Your Aunt can be a pain in my ass sometimes.”
“So, it’s been almost eight years. Why tell me now?”
“Because I had to tell the FBI recruiter. There was a question on your application about whether someone in your family had ever been to jail, and you said, ‘yes, but I don’t know why.’ So, that agent who was there today asked me.”
Emotions were swirling around in my head, and I latched on to one of my favorites – guilt.
“Mom, I’m sorry you had to go through this. If I thought they would bother you about that question, I would’ve lied and said, ‘no.’”
“No. You were right not to lie. I’m sure the FBI knows everything about all of us anyway.”
“Mom, they don’t want me to be an agent, they just want me to come to work for them. I’m going to be a clerk-typist or something.”
“I know. And I know you think it will be great to live on your own in Washington, D.C., but I hope you’ll be alright all by yourself.”
If my mother was a hugger, I imagine we might have hugged then. I finally had a missing piece of my history, and it was strange. I knew that in some way, I already knew. It all sounded so familiar. Maybe that was what those girls said to me on the way to school that day.
Maybe that’s why I had a nervous breakdown at the age of eight.
That one event led me down a path I’ve been on ever since. It’s funny because I can remember the day it all happened clearly.
When my grandparent’s car pulled into our driveway, my sister was sitting on the steps to the front porch. A cigarette hung from her hand, and she didn’t even try to hide it.
I heard my Grandpa whisper to my grandmother, “What’s this happy horseshit?”
She replied in her usual fashion, “Oh, who the hell knows?”
That memory of Lizzy sitting on the front porch seared into my mind. For years, I saw her as the tempest in the teapot of our lives. I knew this thing was about her, but I didn’t know what that meant.
The summer was hot, humid, and full of stress in my household. We weren’t the usual type of family, or maybe we were. I don’t think I’ve spoken with enough women to know what their home life was like back in the sixties.
I know it felt as though we were different. My father worked most of the time, and my mother just started back to work a few years ago. Up until then, she’d been a stay-at-home with my siblings and me.
I was eight years younger than my sister. She and our older brother were only nineteen months apart, so while they had one another, I always felt alone.
On August 20, 1967, my status in the family went from the youngest and alone, to almost non-existent.
Everything else changed, too. My mother quit the office job she had to find something that would bring in more money. She took a waitressing job at The Pancake House. My brother didn’t continue with his commitment to join the Navy in September. Instead, he got a deferment from the draft. It hinged on our family’s crisis, and he was needed to stay home and support us.
When this all went down, my parents were working on upgrading our living conditions. The sale of our house went through, so they put in an offer on something newer, bigger, and in a better neighborhood. That one day changed that, too.
By that November, we were living in a brand-new apartment. My mom left all our parlor furniture on the curb at the old house, so for several months, the living room was empty.
The move meant a new school for both my sister and me. I guess we both got away from people who knew what happened that summer, but our lives were forever changed.
Eight years later, as I tried to make sense of the truth and the stories I’d created in my head, I felt anger. Why couldn’t they all tell me the truth? Or at least somebody, maybe my grandmother or my brother, even. And my Aunt Mary had to know.
That secret is still at the heart of my pain and angst. That one event forever changed who I was and who I will be for the rest of my life.