Reading this essay sent me down the twisted paths of memory….
When I was twenty and in college, I came home for a weekend and almost as soon as crossed the threshold my fifteen-year-old sister came up to me and said, “Did you know that Mama and Daddy have been married before?”
I stood still for a moment. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me that she and my mother had been sitting in the living room one evening when she, my sister, asked, out of the blue and for no reason she was aware of, “Were you married before you married Daddy?”
Mama said, “Yes.”
Which led to further questions and a few, sometimes reluctant, answers. These my sister shared with me. Had our father been married before? Yes. Had either of them had been married more than once before their current marriage? No. Had those previous marriages had produced any children? My mother said that we were her only children, but my father had a daughter by his first marriage. Which meant that we had a half-sister we’d never met, and whose existence was a complete blank to us.
When I learned all this, my mother saw how stunned I was; my father wasn’t home. I fairly staggered upstairs to my room and sat there thinking. What else didn’t I know? Much of my early childhood was shrouded in a kind of mist: I knew my father had been in prison for much of it, and I had been raised by my mother and grandmother, but I didn’t know what he had done and had only a vague sense of how long he was in prison — I knew he had been in twice, and we had visited him at a federal prison in Indiana and then, later, at the minimum-security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. (We lived 90 miles away in Birmingham.) What other dark stories were there to tell and to hear?
A few hours later my father came home, and after my mother told him what had happened, he came up to my room. I believe this was the first time he ever did that; I cannot remember any prior occasion, and insofar as I had thought about that at all, I suppose I was pleased at the respect for my privacy. In any case, that evening he opened the door and stood in the doorway.
“I hear you’re upset,” he said.
Well … Yeah, I said. I mean, I’m twenty years old and just found out that both of my parents have been married before, and I have a half-sister.
To this he said nothing.
I guess I’m just wondering why you never told us.
“Because it’s none of your goddamned business,” he said, and then turned, closed the door, and went back downstairs. He never came to my room again.