Sunday, March 18, 2018
A Secret Story
(First published as a Logansport Pharos-Tribune column)
Several years ago, I was invited to direct a work shop at the International Women’s Writing Guild annual conference on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I had never done anything like this before. I’d never even attended a workshop much less developed and directed one. I’d never stayed on a college campus, slept in a dorm or been to upstate New York. I’d never been thrown together with 1,200 women.
I barely remember anything about the conference itself. I don’t recall what other workshops I attended or what I taught in my own. If I learned valuable writing lessons, they have been processed subconsciously.
But I do remember all those women and how intimidated I was at first. They congregated into groups with common interests. There were several New York poets, all elegantly dressed and accessorized. They considered themselves the Artists, existing on a slightly higher plane than the rest of us.
There were the Earth Mothers in sandals and long skirts. Generally, they came from little self-sufficiency farms where they raised goats and organic food. You could usually find them in the yoga classes or making mandalas. (Mandala is a Sanskrit word roughly translated as “circle” – a mandala is a cosmic diagram, if you will).
There were the hard-core Feminists, many of whom had become lesbians voluntarily as a way of making a political statement. They tolerated no dissent from the party line.
Then there were the rest of us. I considered us the Regular people. We had no agenda beyond learning how to write or how to sell what we wrote.
Some wanted to do just one particular thing. One wanted to write her church’s history, another wanted to produce a cookbook featuring her southern granny’s recipes. One, with an autistic son, wanted to write about coping with that condition.
St. Patrick’s Day always makes me remember one woman in particular. This St. Patrick’s Day was no different.
Her maiden name (I’ve changed the names because it’s not my story) was Hummel or Schneider, anyway, a very Germanic-sounding name. Her family, she told us, had been of proudly German origin for generations, on both sides.
But her mother had a peculiarity in that her favorite holiday was St. Patrick’s Day. Every year, she made green-iced cupcakes decorated with four-leaf clovers on top. She made a big bowl of green punch. She filled the house with green balloons and hung green crepe paper garlands above the door sills. The centerpiece on the table was a cut-out of a leprechaun. She put Irish music on the record player. And she always took the kids to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
If the rest of the oh-so-German family thought this over-the-top celebration was odd, they never said so but just enjoyed the green cupcakes and punch.
Many years later, the mother was very old and ill in the hospital. The doctors said she wouldn’t live much longer. She called my friend, her daughter, to her side and said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
Her daughter leaned in close because her mother’s voice was weak and trembling by then.
“I was adopted. I’ve known about it from the time I was very young. I was rummaging around in a trunk in the attic and found my birth certificate. I never said a word about it because I was afraid if I asked questions, it would hurt Mama and Papa’s feelings. They never wanted me to know they weren’t my real parents. I never wanted them to know I knew because I considered them my real parents in every wonderful way it is possible to be a parent.”
Her daughter was astonished, hearing her mother’s confession.
“My birth mother’s name was Kathleen McCarty. She was 17 years old when I was born. That’s all I know. It’s all I ever tried to know although I wondered about her often. I’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt for doing what she must have thought was best for me. Since I couldn’t recognize my little Irish mother in any outward way, I always gave her a special celebration on Patrick’s Day.”
My friend wanted to ask questions but it was too late. Her mother was too weak. She’d said all she had to say. She died a short time later.
So, that’s why she was at the conference, to learn to tell her mother’s story. I don’t know whether she accomplished her goal or not but if she didn’t, I’m sure hearing it is something none of us who were in the cafeteria the day she told it has ever forgotten. I bet I wasn’t the only one to think of her on St. Patrick’s Day.
I’ve discovered since then that there really are no “just Regular” people – every one of us has a special story inside us – if we are willing to tell it and if someone is there to listen.