The first to arrive was my cousin Sheri, who I hadn’t seen in at least forty years. She looks like her mother now (as do I), but it wasn’t hard to see the teenager with hair down to her butt who’d entranced me as a kid. We gathered at my sister Sue’s house. My brother Bruce and his family were visiting from Europe, and we’d invited some relatives for lunch.
Bruce and Sue and I made sure to discuss ahead of time how we would handle certain topics when they came up. We knew they would come up. Whenever we see extended family, someone always starts in about what a great guy our father was. They mean Arthur Fish, father #1 in the diagram above, who looked from the outside like a pious, God-fearing family man. He was a master at hiding his twisted, predatory nature.
We decided our little lunch party wasn’t the place to blow his cover. We’d intended the visit as a time to remember and celebrate our mother and her sisters. If our father came up, we’d gently steer the conversation back to happier memories.
For laughs, my husband and I devised a list of ten responses we could give if our relatives started talking about what a good man Arthur Fish was. The top three:
#3 “You know, I’m struck by how many types of people there are in the world.”
#2 “Did I tell you we have two kinds of sandwiches?”
#1 “Bless your heart!”
Because we’d talked about it ahead of time, we weren’t thrown when our mother’s cousin, in telling the story of how she and her brother had been separated as infants, praised “Doctor Fish” for reuniting them as adults. Bruce and Sue and I know it was actually our mother who orchestrated the whole thing, but we didn’t feel the need to interject.
What none of us saw coming, however, was the story our cousin Gail piped up to tell. She must’ve been five or six when it happened. She and her older sister Peggy were sleeping over in the rambling house where my family lived before I was born. Gail said she woke up in the middle of the night to find a large figure standing over her. A man. He said everything was OK. He told her to close her eyes and go back to sleep. So that’s what she did.
I was so thrown by this revelation I couldn’t speak.
Later that same year, Gail continued, her sister Peggy drowned. Gail said she now believes the figure who stood over her that night was Jesus. He came to reassure her in advance, knowing how hard it would be for her to lose her sister.
I don’t know that it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to my cousin that night. But I’d lay odds the looming figure was actually my father, Arthur Fish. When Gail opened her eyes, he shushed her and sent her back to sleep because he hadn’t come for her. That was the pattern when he slipped into the room Sue and I shared as kids. He wanted my eyes closed so I couldn’t witness what he’d come to do in our bedroom in the middle of the night.
I don’t know why I was the lucky one who got to go back to sleep. It sounds like cousin Gail was lucky that way, too.
As a writer exploring and exposing our family’s truths on the path toward healing, I often think about whether my telling of our story will resonate or collide with the versions other people tell. As I’ve said in other posts, I’ve come to believe that speaking the truth about our traumas is necessary to move beyond them. But I don’t relish the thought of inflicting pain.
I guess the only way is to respect the stories we’ve been given to tell–and the lives they entwine. To keep talking through the hard parts. To show that we’re open to meaningful connection. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare me, thinking about how some people might respond to my rifling through our shared past, shining a spotlight. But we’ve lived in selective silence for so long, and that hasn’t served us well.
It’s time to tell. I’ve written to my cousins Sheri and Gail. Perhaps an update post will follow as this chapter of the story fills in with new voices.