My mother was pear shaped, as I came to know at age fifteen. I read this in a contraband copy of Seventeen magazine. I recall a school night, after Ed Sullivan’s show ended, when her weight was a liability. Her wide hips rocked a little to get her body moving. She let out an “oomph” to get off the couch and crossed the room in order to shut off the television news. I wonder if NBC was airing a clip about the bloody Tet Offensive, a scene showing race riots in Alabama, or a story about a local kidnapped child? She decided that the content was for adults only.
Returning to the couch, she saw my tightened eyebrows and pursed lips. Shrugging her shoulders, she looked down at me and said, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” She had a greater impulse to protect me than to please me. She was skeptical about television, and a strong believer in “book learnin’,” as she said in her Southern Ohio slang. She highly valued formal education.
My mother knew a lot, too. Monday through Friday she worked behind the reference desk at the public library. It was her job to know everything—she successfully found quotations, journal articles, and archives to satisfy professors as well as ordinary patrons. She cataloged books, records, and newspapers with incredible speed. If there’d been an alphabetizing contest, she’d have won it. No topic stumped my mother, except one.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, maybe an hour or so before she turned off the set. Her answer lay dormant until Ed Sullivan’s really, really big show was over. So long that I didn’t even catch that my question matched her earlier statement, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” She said, “Oh, he’ll be home soon, don’t worry about it.”
By the time I hit my senior year, my father’s relationship with Walther (pronounced with a silent “h”) was in full swing. He went out more often with gay men on campus, and to lectures at the art museum. He went to a place called, “The Last Man’s Club,” which despite my best research could not be traced. It may have been a name they invented to cover for his evenings with Walther. Either way, I was kept in a perpetual state of “not knowing.” Mother didn’t want me to learn where he was going or with whom.
This was her protective mechanism. Her “let’s not know that,” strategy held our family together. It kept my father from losing his job, helped them look good side-by-side at church, and kept her from being blamed by her friends for not sexually satisfying her husband. Repression ensured their survival in the community. And in the emotional field within our home it kept us loving, kept laughter flowing, kept “the roof over our heads,” as Dad often said.
After reading a post about my memoir, my older sister’s friend Barbara wrote on Facebook, “It would be nice if we could all learn the truth about our families.”
My sister Marsha and I learned math, science, history, art, and literature in high school. She went on to a nursing school to learn anatomy, phlebotomy, and all about dangerous pathogens. I went to college to study theater and religion then on to seminary to learn as much as I could know about God (the really big unknown!). What my sister and I never knew, and were not privileged to know, was that once my father learned his identity truth, while he still slept beside mother every night, he emotionally packed up his bags and moved in with Walther.
The family creed, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” just isn’t true, but I will leave the painful part of this subject for a future blog. Today I celebrate the amazing pluck that my parents needed to stay together in allegiance to a marriage promise they made in their early twenties.
Mother’s truth suppression strategy honored Dad until his very last breath. But after the funeral, Mother knew—as we sorted through and closed out his life—there was as story waiting to be told. That story, My Father’s Closet, will be published next spring.