By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published November 14, 2019
Money was a big source of contention between my parents when I was a child. My mom had grown up with a deep-seated fear of “the poorhouse,” while my father believed he could “make a killing” at the racetrack.
When his plan failed numerous times and bills kept piling up, tension grew between my parents and eventually erupted into shouting.
My father was a mysterious man who suffered from dark moods, which my mother said were caused by his trouble keeping jobs. He was attentive to my mom, bringing her flowers after their disagreements, but he remained standoffish with his daughters.
He was there in the background of our lives, but we didn’t feel especially loved by him.
At Mass I heard the Gospel where Jesus said we should build our houses on rock, rather than sand. I didn’t get it then, but years later, I realized that a life based on the shifting, dangerous sands of lies would always be prone to collapsing.
One day I asked my mom why she hadn’t worn a gown on her wedding day, and she said they’d kept things simple because her mother had been seriously ill. I also asked my father whether he’d had an apartment before getting married, and he looked startled and said he’d lived with his mother.
Many years later, I learned that both answers were lies fabricated to conceal a big secret.
In the Bible, lies underpin many terrible sins and dark happenings, starting in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve hide from God after eating fruit from the forbidden tree.
After Jesus’ birth, Herod plots in secret to kill him and then concocts a story to entice the wise men to find the baby. Later, Judas devises a secret plan to hand Jesus over to his enemies.
When I was 29, my mom died of cancer, and then my father succumbed to a heart attack six months later. My sister and I were faced with the heart-breaking tasks of sorting through household goods and selling my father’s Oldsmobile.
In the glove compartment, we unearthed a black-and-white photo of a little blonde-haired girl, perched on my father’s lap and smiling joyfully into the sun. We were mystified about her identity, so we showed the photo to my father’s sister. “Oh, didn’t you know?” our aunt said. “That’s Barbara, his first daughter. He was married before he met your mother.”
In that dizzying moment, the hidden door of my childhood crashed open. Why hadn’t they told us? What had happened to Barbara? What other secrets were there?
Slowly, the pieces started falling into place. There hadn’t been a big wedding because my father had been divorced, so my parents couldn’t marry in the church. My father hadn’t lived with his mother before marrying my mom, but with his first wife and daughter. And the dark moods had little to do with keeping a job.
As for my father’s standoffishness, I concluded it might have resulted from the guilt of leaving that little girl behind. Who would want to take the chance of loving again?
It took me a while before I searched for Barbara, because, frankly, I feared she would resent me. After all, my sister and I were the daughters he had lived with, and she was the one he’d left.
Still, the words from Christ kept echoing in my heart: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
When I called, Barbara seemed happy to hear from me, and quite moved to know about the photo our father had kept for so long. She sighed deeply when I told her that he had died.
As we talked, I hoped she’d assure me our father had visited her throughout her childhood or at least called her and sent letters. But the truth was that he’d said goodbye to Barbara when she was 6—and that was it.
This was an agonizing revelation and extremely difficult to accept, but I believe she remained in his heart in a way I’ll never quite understand.
I think he kept the photo for so long, so he could return in his memory, again and again, to that day when his little girl sat on his lap and smiled so happily into the sun. And even if she was the little girl he left, I believe that in some mysterious way, she was the one he truly loved.
Sketch titled “Secret Door” is by Lorraine’s late husband, Jef. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.