I had a secret. It was told to me in the strictest confidence, and I honored the promise to keep it confidential for many years.
It was shocking when I heard it, over fifty years ago, born in a different time when a person could fall from grace and shame her parents. It sprang from a period where the act of one could reflect the perception of decency for an entire family. Without even the easy access to social media, Facebook, Twitter, even a telephone, a single step outside the accepted norm of society could be identified and then telegraphed with gossip throughout an entire community.
I don’t remember why my mother shared this secret, although I remember exactly where we were- in a supermarket, picking up a last minute item for dinner.
My mother was an honorable person and I think, carried the burden of this secret heavily. I had just turned thirteen, and it might have been one of our first grown-up exchanges, even used as a cautionary example of teenage rebellion. Perhaps, I asked about something I saw that passed between my mother and her older sister, or I witnessed a dark look from my grandmother and she sought to justify what I questioned.
There was a family secret had ruined my mom’s life. When it happened, my mother suffered a breakdown at sixteen and did not finish high school. Her entire family suffered a catastrophic meltdown that caused a schism. My grandfather disowned my aunt. My mom went into a funk that lasted months where she stayed in her room and cried. She didn’t tell me that part- I was to piece things together as I grew older.
My mom shared with me that my aunt had a baby out of wedlock when she was a teen. It was during the war, and the boy was a soldier. My furious grandfather refused to talk to her, said she was dead to him, they sent her to another one of my aunts whose husbands served as a chaplain on an army base in the middle of the country. Kansas City, Missouri- the other side of the world. They arranged for her to stay there, have the baby in secret, and give it up for adoption.
It was never discussed in the family, ever. I was close with all my cousins, as close as siblings, but I never told them. I didn’t mention it to my aunt, who was just about my favorite person in the world. But I never forgot this baby, my cousin. You see, I worried about her.
Through the years, she stayed in my heart. I thought about her birthday, and if she liked her parents. I wondered where she lived. I imagined her as a cowboy or a farmer’s daughter. After all, she was born in cattle country, I thought.
Every time I traveled, I speculated if we’d ever meet and never know we were related. Would we instinctively recognize each other, share some shared trait? Recognize our parents in our noses, or eyes?
Maybe our kids would find each other in some great cosmic coincidence.
When my mom died after a long illness, I told my aunt I knew about the baby.I said, everyone was gone, but her….and me…and maybe the baby. My beloved aunt was in the final stages of renal failure. What did she want me to do with the secret?
She was quiet, the silence between us was thick. She said she never wanted her children to know. She was afraid they would lose respect for her. I wanted to argue. I wanted to explain that I loved her so much, but I was losing respect for her for not wanting to share the story.
“Do you think about her?” I asked.
“Every day,” she replied. I heard the pain in my aunt’s voice. I wanted to tell her a child, any child, is a gift, not a shameful thing, but I think both our throats were tight with tears.
When my aunt died, I felt weighted by the secret. My unknown cousin owned real estate in my heart that I could not explain. I felt as if I was responsible for her as if I were her guardian, even though she was older than me. She was important to me. Well, she was. I became the caretaker of her memory.
One of aunt’s daughters died suddenly. She was my closest cousin. We were devastated, her younger sister most of all. I felt her pain and knew she was feeling alone, missing her sister.
I also passed an important milestone. I had turned sixty. What if I passed away and nobody told the remaining siblings of the secret? Was the promise to my aunt more important than the responsibility to my cousins…all of them? What if she found them? Would they deny her because of their lack of knowledge of her existence? What if they lost her again? It preyed on my mind.
My emotional side obsessed about it, my logical side estimated her to be almost seventy. What were the chances, anyway? She might not even be alive anymore.
My son called me over to his desk one morning, his voice puzzled. We had taken DNA tests in the fall to identify our ethnicity. I wanted them to be able to chart our familial progress through Europe for my grandchildren.
“Do you know this woman?” he asked.
I looked at her name without reading the caption. I shook my head.
“She says she’s your cousin. First cousin.”
“No, I know all my…she can’t be related to me…” I paused. Chills ran up my spine. “Wait, how old is she and where was she born.”
“She’s seventy and she was born in Kansas City, Missouri…”
I didn’t let him finish. I pushed him out of the way and wrote my cousin the first of many exchanges that would follow. I looked at the scientific evidence of our shared DNA, the ethnicity that defined us, the blood that bound us for all our lives.
“I know you. I know all about you.” I typed furiously. I told her her name. What my aunt had called her.
She wrote back, “Nobody but me knows that name. Are you really my cousin?”
“Yes. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
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