Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Family Secret, Part IV

The Secret Denied

After hearing my Aunt Mary's story of how she discovered the Family Secret, and what it revealed, I spent the remainder of the weekend reading through the papers she found in the manila folder my grandfather had forgotten to destroy.  There were letters and telegrams between my grandfather and his mother; there were letters from landlords, lawyers, and former family friends to my grandfather demanding money that his mother owed; there was correspondence with officials at institutions and organizations where my great-grandmother had been placed, and then expelled from, over the years; and there were police reports from her final known days.  Among the papers there was also a three-page, single-spaced, typewritten recollection written by my grandfather that described what happened, at least from his perspective.  It all vividly brought to life to me my great-grandmother, an incorrigible, emotionally damaged, ungrateful person who left a trail of broken promises, waste, and frustration wherever she went.  My great-grandmother Darling was, I learned, a thoroughly rotten egg.  And a crazy one, too.


As I read through the documents and letters I felt increasingly sorry for my grandfather, a man who had been thrust into a situation that he clearly was not able to resolve satisfactorily, nor equipped to understand despite his best efforts.  How lonely he must have felt, I thought, and how miserable.  And isolated.  As I read through the documents I wept for my grandfather and for the misery that he felt all those years.  And I was profoundly saddened, too, by the private embarrassment and intense shame he felt, and also for his need to cover it up, and to keep it all a dark secret for all those years.  Poor, dear fellow.

Several weeks later I visited my father, FD, in Washington, D.C.  One evening, while the two of us were sitting in his living room after dinner, I asked him what he thought of the materials he had received from his sister.

FD froze.  "What are you talking about?" he asked.

"The copies of the documents that Aunt Mary sent to you, FD, that explained what happened with Grandfather and why he left England after his father died, and what became of his mother."


"Reggie," my father carefully responded, "your aunt Mary is a delusional, troubled person.  She forged those documents."

"What?" I asked incredulously, "I read the originals, FD, and they weren't forged, they were real."

"No, they weren't!  They are nothing but lies, and outright fabrications by Mary to elevate herself and disgrace the memory of my grandmother!" he responded with his voice pitched and his face flushed with anger.

"But I read them, FD, and I held them in my own hands.  They were not faked!" I said.

My father was wildly upset.  He jumped from the sofa, grabbed me by the arms and shook me, and shouted,  "Stop it!  Shut up!  Don't you believe a word that Mary says, that lying bitch!  You're just as bad as she is for spreading such lies!  You can go to Hell, the both of you!"

He then slapped me across the face, hard enough to send my spectacles flying across the room.  He stood over me, shaking with rage, and raised his arm to strike me again.  Just as he was about to do so he hesitated and then abruptly turned, left the room, and slammed the door.  I then heard the sound of the front door slam behind him and his car screeching out of the driveway, as he drove off into the night, abandoning our confrontation, and me.

I was absolutely stunned.

I rose from the sofa, picked up my glasses, and put them back on.  As I did so, I wondered how was it possible that this had just happened?  Why was my father in such denial?  How could he doubt the veracity of the evidence, when it was so clearly documented?  Why did he think his sister had fabricated all of the papers?  Why did he react so violently when I asked him about them, and slap me?


My father was not a physically abusive person, and I cannot remember him striking me more than two times in my life, this being one of them.

I attribute FD's reaction to his emotional immaturity and his own alcoholism, which by then (he was in his late fifties when this happened) was beginning to interfere with his cognitive abilities, particularly when he drank (as he had been doing for much of that evening), and which at times made him irrational, even when he was sober.  I also believe that what I witnessed was the lingering after-effect of my Grandfather having kept his own story a deeply hidden secret from his children their entire lives.  How else could my father harbor such delusions?

The next morning FD apologized for hitting me, and said that he preferred to leave it at that.

I left shortly thereafter to return to New York.  As I rode the train north, watching the scenery pass by the window, I reflected on my visit with my father and the one I had with his sister and my mother only weeks before.  The contrast was startling, to say the least.  Given what had happened the night before, I decided that it was probably best for me not to pursue the topic of the Family Secret with FD any further.  That is, if I wanted to maintain any kind of relationship with him in the future, however unsatisfactory it might be.


I never spoke about it with him again.

So, what do I make of all of this?  That mental illness, substance abuse, and addictions frequently go hand in hand in hand.  I believe that a family's not acknowledging situations such as my great-grandmother's is unhealthy and leads to further unhappiness, and increases the likelihood that such behavior will be repeated in future generations.  I also believe that Family Secrets have a way of festering and metastasizing when they go unheeded, and can become cancers that invade a family's collective mental health and emotional stability.

I am not suggesting that I think it appropriate to air all of one's dirty laundry, far and wide at every opportunity.  But I do believe the frank acknowledgement of and honest discussion of such situations among those who need to know is the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that lessons are appropriately learned.

And with that, Dear Reader, I conclude the sad and shocking tale of the Darling Family Secret.

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

71 comments:

  1. My goodness the final twist! Unfortunately, most of us can find a story similar in our families. Sometimes it seems just the age and era spark,
    alcoholism and mental break down...I have a doozie of a family story due in part to WWII....I think we would all be surprised to find someone who didn't have something similar in their family. A great read it was and I totally agree frank discussion and acknowlegement is the only way to hopefully learn from life.

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    1. Thank you, CJ. I believe we are fortunate to live in a time when such Secrets needn't be a source of shame any longer, as it was to my grandfather and father. Understanding, acknowledgment, and treatment have come a long way since the events in this story took place.

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  2. Hello Reggie:
    We are somewhat shocked both by the attitude and behaviour of your father when questioned about this part of the family. We can only conclude, as you do here, that such a reaction could, in part, be put down to his own problems.

    In today's world it does seem so odd that anyone should try in such a way to hide the truth of something which, finally, is no more than one individual's weaknesses and possible failures.

    We love the images, of closed doors and windows, which you have chosen to illustrate this post.

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    1. My father had a number of his own demons to contend with, but one of them was certainly the rippling effect of the Family Secret. As I responded to CJ, above, we are fortunate that today's world (as you put it) has come to understand (and also treat) many the factors that underpinned this story. And thank you for your comment on the images, Boy chose them carefully, and photographed them beautifully.

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  3. What a story! As CJ mentioned, we likely all have family tales but the best thing to do is learn from them. Have you seen the "F***ing Fulfords" by chance? I think you would laugh out loud at their antics but there was some wisdom in one episode. A family can survive one generation of bad eggs, but only one. So long as the next generation has their head on straight, everything will work out - in short there is hope.

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    1. I have not seen the show you are referring to, but will look into it. Thank you.

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  4. Alcoholism, addiction (and as someone mentioned-perhaps Bi-polar,OCD,etc.) are terrible to families. Denial is on of the first elements- as are secrets.Potentially resulting in insanity, institutions and death. Unfortunately, as often as family members are warned about dormancy-they can trundle along and then fall victim.Keep informing and reminding younger generations of the insidious & potential deadly nature.

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    1. Izzy -- wise words from you, indeed. And I appreciate the perspective from which you write, as I know your illustrious family has had its own share of challenges. Thank you.

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  5. I'm sorry there has been so much pain in your family. Over a lifetime you might see a very similar story play out in multiple families. Your reflections are good advice for when such problems are present.
    Best -
    - Mike

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    1. Thanks Mike. As I wrote in my first installment of this series, I believe every family has its own Family Secret, and often not just one of them, I have learned over the years. I am fortunate that my DNA structure gave me a break from some of the demons that bedeviled the antecedants discussed in this tale. And that understanding of such events and illnesses has come a long, long way.

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  6. I think most families have dark and deep secrets. I applaud you for telling your story, and I hug you tight for all the pain it has caused you. Reggie... you are my favourite...my very favourite blogger :)

    Bonnie

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    1. Thank you Bonnie, I appreciate your kind words.

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  7. How sad! How terrible for you that slap must have been and the doors that your Father closed, it's a tragedy.
    I commend you for learning what you have from your family, and for sharing it with us. Reggie I think you are full of grace.
    xo

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  8. When people over-react as your father did, there is usually some other issue at stake. Ordinary degrees of family pride and argument with his sister could not account for such violence. Perhaps the case is not really closed, but as you intimate, ancient history was certainly not worth destroying current relationships over.

    In addition to this complex and sad story, you have also provided wonderful metaphorical illustrations, especially in this final section. Progressing from locks to doors shows your increasing frustration, and the final pictures of the green shutters and door are masterful in their ambiguous symbolism. The closed doors are a warning to keep away from what has been hidden, but the green color is a simultaneous invitation to open the door and investigate.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Parnassas -- a very perceptive comment, indeed. My father's reaction was so shocking to me because I considered it to be completely out of proportion to the subject, and such a peculiar reaction to it. I was relieved (as was my Aunt and also the rest of my family) at what the secret revealed, as it -- as she said "explained everything." And thank you for your comment on the images, I cannot take credit for them -- Boy conceived of them, shot them, and edited them all. And quite masterfaully, as you note.

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  9. Alcoholism and mental illness are two things whose cause has not been understood until recently. Alcoholics don't drink because they want to, it is an illness a deficiency of a chromosone (or something like that). It can lead to illnesses whose symptoms are similar to bipolar disorder. It is very complicated and probably the most devatasting thing that can happen to a family.

    I had to go through it with a family member a couple of years ago and it nearly destroyed all of us as a family. It is very frustrating as there is no "pill" for it, just treatment and experimental drugs. In the olden days they used to do a lobotomy in some cases, remember Rosemary, the Kennedy sister? They performed one on a distant cousin of mine who was border line retarded and ended up really messing her up.

    I feel very sorry for someone like your greatgrandmother and grandfather who had to go through it with no real help. Your father probably saw the handwriting on the wall and his reaction was denial, typical of alcoholism. I know that slap must have hurt deeply but people who are alcoholics can have violent reactions at times, particularly when it hits close to home.

    You, on the other hand, seem to have skipped the "gene". Feel lucky about it and move on!

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    1. Thank you, Lindaraxa. I agree that we are fortunate to live in times when the understanding of and treatment for mental illness and addictions has made great strides since the events in this story took place. Also, the understanding of the importance of acknowledgment without shame (thank you, Ms. Oprah, and others). I did not take the slap personally, as it was clear to me at the time that it was the product of my father's demons, magnified by his own addictions. And yes, I am one lucky guy when it comes to my own genes, except--that is--for the fat ones...

      As far as "moving on," I did so many years ago, at least when it come to the Darling Family Secret. I shared it with my readers now because not only are there lessons to be learned from it (and Reggie does like sharing his opinions, doesn't he?), but it is a rollicking good story, too.

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  10. A tale worthy of Somerset Maugham, Theodore Dreiser or George Gissing. I hung on every word. What a haunting personal legacy, and one that continues to reverberate outward, in ever-widening pools, to all of your followers in the blogosphere. Beautifully told and illustrated, as usual. You are a remarkable storyteller and an even more remarkable man (ditto for Boy.). xxx

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    1. Thank you Lisa, to be in such literary company as you suggest is an honor indeed. I am glad that you found the story absorbing, and I appreciate your encouragement and support.

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  11. I remember reading that a family's health has an inverse relationship to the number of secrets they hide (or some variation of that statement). I do agree secrets can be very corrosive but secrets are often rooted in shame. The deeper the shame, the harder we try to conceal. It takes courage to confront, share and ultimately heal. Kudos to your aunt and to you.

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    1. Thank you, I appreciate the statement within your comment about the relationship of secrets and a family's health. It is, I believe, an accurate one!

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  12. Whew! I think I need a Vodka Gibson and a bit of a lie down.

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    1. Don't think I didn't when I was writing this!

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  13. Reggie Dearest,
    Thank-you for sharing this wonderfully documented Family secret. I too became so absorbed in this incredibly fascinating story and how you have such remarkable ability to bring something so personal out in the open which was under lock and key.
    You really should write a novel. This would make a magnificent movie and I am already having such fun casting each character.
    pve

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    1. Thank you, PVE, I enjoyed the writing of this tale, and planning its arc so that it was both writerly, and visual, too.

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  14. I enjoyed your family tale, Reggie. It reminded me of some of my own family mysteries that have recently come to light. By the way, I have a doppelganger black metal box, used to store family documents. email me tesscaid @ hotmail I'll send you a pic.

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    1. Hello Tess. Aren't the old document boxes handsome? the ones photographed for this story did not belong to my grandfather, but were picked up at tag sales over the years.

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  15. Love the shot of the Green doors with the light shadows across them.

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  16. I'm speechless, no words. Your recollection brings to mind both Dickens and Faulkner...tragic

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    1. Thank you JCW. While there is tragedy in this tale, there is also redemption for those of us who learned what the secret was, and were able to acknowledge it and learn from it, too. I am grateful I finally learned what happened, and that I live in a day where people have come a long way in their understanding of such illnesses.

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    2. speechless....again. That you would take the time (and care) to respond to your readers. This subject and your courage no doubt resonates with many

      Bill Gates said "the internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow." So true, your series testament to that

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  17. What are the chances that after a few to many drinks from your cocktail "jigger", you made this all up? JK. Either way great story.

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    1. Hello PA2Florida, I am afraid my imagination isn't up to cooking up such a story as this, even with a few too many drinks under my belt! I didn't need to embellish it, either, even a smidgen. I am glad you liked it.

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  18. Reggie, this is one of the most poignant stories I believe I've every read. I had to go away to gain some composure after reading it because I found myself becoming teary and wanting to reach through the computer screen to give you a hug. Your father's reaction must have been so difficult for you to handle, but you rose above the hurt to try and see the "why" of it all. That is HUGE.

    I agree with you that it's important to confront things like this so that healing can take place and as you said, "frank acknowledgement of and honest discussion of such situations among those who need to know is the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that lessons are appropriately learned."

    You are a brave man, Reggie, and I salute you, and I hope you have finally found peace with this situation. From reading this story from start to finish, I strongly suspect you have.

    Elizabeth

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    1. Thank you very much Elizabeth. As you correctly surmise, I long ago found peace with this situation, and others. Half a dozen years spent in highly productive therapy certainly helped!

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  19. Eloquent words and haunting images, Reggie. I'm afraid similar tales are achingly familiar to many of us. Although, I'm often troubled by the "oversharing" that seems to define my children's generation, I'm grateful that mental illness and addiction are not the stigma they were of our parents' and grandparents' time.

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    1. Thank you, T&CM. In today's more enlightened world such afflictions thankfully needn't be stigmatized to the crushing extent they were in previous generations. I agree, though, there is much oversharing today (daytime sobfests, gossip rags, and Reality TV, just to start). One must have an edit button, after all!

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  20. As with other readers, I have a very similar family story that tragically ripples into the surviving generation. I think I'll have one of those Vodka Gibsons too (per Thomas) as a part of me has been sent down the memory lane that doesn't let us rest easy at night. Very well told Reggie.

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    1. Sleep well, GSL. Thank you for this and other comments you have sent along these past few days.

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  21. Thank you for sharing. Your story, beautifully written, is indeed sad, but sadly, not shocking. I wish it were possible to truly make it a "story" rather than reality. The ripples of pain and havoc from psychosis and addiction touch many shores.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I particularly like the last sentence, which is a very astute one, indeed.

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  22. So brave to share your family secret(s) - I hung on every word. Makes me ponder the legacy of family - we are born as innocents to a whole string of DNA and generations. It's the luck of the draw if it's all really wonderful, isn't it? The value of a true friend sometimes trumps the value of flesh and blood - they (friend) see you as you truly are and love you anyway! But here's something I learned while working as a Guardian Ad Litem for a spell. . .abused children longed for their parents; loved them still despite the abuse. I'm not sure I've ever quite come to terms with that single fact even after witnessing it time after time.

    Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Sandy -- please see my response, below.

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  23. Reggie...I'm humbled this morning after reading a few of my "old standard" blogs that I love--yours included. I don't read too much anymore-blogs that is. I seem to rarely have time to write a story over at my patch. I'm humbled because I have missed some good stuff but am glad I got caught up on yours.

    Shame and vulnerability are forces that WASPs, especially--astride their emotionally closed-off cadence--avoid accepting like the freakin' plague, right? But WASPs don't have the market cornered on this. Carolina-Anglo-Crackers ...CACs...are pretty good at it when they want to be. My brother and I constantly speculate about our nicotine and alcohol hoarding father who spent his fiftieth birthday in an ICU and died a few days later. He was self medicating in order to numb the shame of what my brother and I believe to have been chronic, low-grade depression and probably lifelong bi-polar disease. Tragic. Especially when, if one is willing to surrender to transparency (you don't have to go on freakin' Oprah and tell the world)and vulnerability; there is help and solutions and strategies for getting to a better place.

    Go to the TED talks website and listen to Brené Brown's two talks...one is on Shame and the other is on Vulnerability. Five gets me ten that you'll glean a pearl or two from each that will offer additional insights into the Darling Family Everythingness. I know for me, it illuminated and clarified some things about my Carolina Cracker Chronicles.

    Sh_t. I think I just did a blog post.

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    1. Thank you, ADG, for stopping by and leaving this comment. Our fathers' generation got hit pretty hard when it came to being delivered a heavy dose of psychological challenges and access to readily and legally available vehicles for self medication. I will certainly check out the two talks on TED that you have recommended. Onward.

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  24. Thank you for your comment, Sandy Donn. I don't consider myself as being brave for having written this series, but thank you. I wrote it to illustrate to my readers that one needn't keep such things covered up, nor be ashamed of them, as my recent antecedants were. It is only through acknowledgment of such Secrets that one is truly freed from their pernicious, unyielding grasp, and can, as the commenter Lindaraxa wrote above, "move on." I commend you for your work as a Guardian Ad Litem.

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  25. FABULOUS story!You had me tuning in from the "Get Go!"Family.......sometimes makes one wonder, isnt it GREAT we can pick our friends!

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    1. Thank you, Contessa, as I have great regard for your story-telling abilities, as you know. And yes, aren't the friends we choose and are fortunate to have really rather marvelous?

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  26. Dearest Reggie,
    I am afraid that you and Hermione bore the brunt of our father's decline. Reading this series brought back a faded memory of bringing the Family Secret up with him myself and his strange, although nonviolent, denial. He merely went into a rant about Aunt Mary.
    much love,
    Camilla

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    1. Thank you Camilla. I attribute the violence of FD's reaction to the freshness of the information, and his inebriation at the time. He had become the opposite of a happy drunk by that time in his life, as all of experienced I know. I still don't get how he convinced himself that Mary had cooked it all up. Ah well.

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  27. yowsa (or however it's spelled). what a story. this was a good one.

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  28. Its been very interesting to read all the comments about being open and sharing, I however have "secrets" from my past I wouldn't want my son to know about at this stage of his life, he is very judgemental.

    Also whilst reading your family saga I have been spending time with my father whom I hadn't seen in about five years, although there have not been any startling revelations, certain things have slipped out.

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    1. SMR, Thank you for this comment and observation. I wholeheartedly agree that not all "secrets" either merit sharing or should be shared when the audience is too young to understand their significance. One should not ask or expect a small child to carry a heavy suitcase, better suited for the arms of a young adult, better able to support its weight.

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    2. as always you're the voice of reason.

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  29. Gail, in northern CaliforniaMay 3, 2012 at 10:32 PM

    Jeez Louise. FD's hatred for your Aunt Mary is beyond the pale and allowed to fester for a long time. Seems a tad beyond the normal sibling rivalry. I'm left to wonder why. Any clues or have you worn yourself to a frazzle getting this far?

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    1. Hello Gail, You ask an interesting question. I have never understood the intensity of the animosity my father felt for his sister. It was very peculiar, and ultimately unexplained. And ultimately pointless, too, in my view...

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  30. I have found this all so troubling. Not the story, in the abstract, so much as the way the adults treated you, young Reggie. I am glad to know you as a sunny adult, having survived all this.

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    1. Thank you, LPC -- half a dozen years in therapy certainly helped!

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  31. What an interesting story! You are absolutely right, it is better to share these things. You sure turned out well! Leigh

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  32. Interesting. No one ever revealed the facts to me. All I had to go by was the family legends which made light of what happened. I am appalled by FD's reaction, but not, alas, surprised.

    You write so well, and Boy's illustrations complement to perfection.

    xox,
    yr. sister, Hermione

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    1. Hermione, I had no idea that you were not aware of what was behind the family legends, as I thought MD had shared Mary's findings with all of us. Hopefully this filled in the blanks! Thank you for your kind words, dear sister. Reggie

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  33. Reggie you have handled this situation so well and that is not easy.

    At one time I confronted one of my brothers about something that had occurred, he denied it; I asked him then to simply keep the information between us then. He proceeded to discuss the conversation with one of my sisters who then sided with him!

    Breaking family patterns take so much bravery and strength.

    xoxo
    Karena

    Art by Karena

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    1. Thank you Karena, for sharing your story, and insight. It is, indeed, difficult to return the cat to its bag once released. RD

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  34. Dear Reggie,
    I loved the way you wrote and shared this story. Sorry as I am for all the pain caused by this secret, I cannot help but wonder about your grandmother.. I bet she was a hoot (in the best sense of the word)and a beauty.
    So sorry she had so many problems and could not get the help she needed.

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    1. Thank you, Sandra. I have only seen photographs of my g-grandmother when she was in her 40s/50s when she was no longer a minx, to put it mildly. I am sure she was the life of the party when she was flush, which--unfortunately for her--did not last long enough! Drinks all around!

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