Did you ever feel proud of yourself for a no-brainer, something that is obvious and low-hanging fruit on the tree of life? I do, and it revolves around a family secret.
All families have secrets, and some of them are even appropriate. More often they are weapons wielded between factions or alliances, and scabs pasted over festering wounds or sinister behaviors. The family secret I am thinking of was probably of the appropriate variety but I will never know for sure.
We were a “Church Family” in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s. Sunday mornings unfolded in familiar chaos with children in various stages of resistance to dressing up – black Patent leather shoes and little white anklets on my sisters and white shirt with clip-on tie for me – and parents in likely modes of stress. The four or five siblings (depending upon what year) were squeezed into the back of the Chrysler with mom and dad up front getting in a last cigarette on the drive to church. Children were isolated in Sunday School while the adults enjoyed kid-free worship, followed by what seemed like an eternity at “Coffee Hour” where adults chatted endlessly and smoked more cigarettes.
But those long painful mornings had a reward. When it was all over we drove to a mom and pop restaurant for the holy family of cheeseburger, fries, and shake. Then one day we were no longer a “Church Family.”
Sometime, and my siblings and I are in disagreement and confusion about exactly when, my mom stopped going to church. We still had to go, and so did my dad. I don’t know if he went because he wanted to but it became the one weekly parenting activity that was clearly his responsibility and his alone. He even taught Sunday School and served on the church board, becoming more and more involved as my mom became totally inactive – and for the rest of her life. We still do not know why.
I was in elementary school when the breach occurred and have vivid memories of pestering my mom for the reason she stopped going to Church. My inquiry became an attack when I reached adolescence and advocated for the right to stop going myself. But my mom could stonewall a badger and her defense was far stronger than any offense I could muster.
Zoom ahead thirty years or more. My mom had just died after a long, exhausting illness with a stair step decline. My dad nearly killed himself in the process of caring for her, landing in the hospital more than once over those years. We all came together for the funeral and it was just as anyone might hope, a cathartic reunion of siblings feeling their life-long bond in grief.
The moment of pride I mentioned came immediately after the funeral when dad and my four siblings were back at the house and there was a flurry of activity preparing the abundance of food delivered by friends and church people. I found myself sitting with dad in the living room, everyone else busy in the kitchen and dinning room. Why I thought to ask at that moment, and where in me it bubbled up from, I cannot say. But I asked him if now, with mom gone, he could tell me why she stopped going to church.
He hesitated. But then started to tell me until interrupting himself he said, “I wonder if I should?”
My instinct was to push him a little. Encourage him to ignore his caution and tell me. He was vulnerable, I was pretty sure he was going to reveal the secret. Then the voice of a better angel whispered in my ear.
Recognizing his vulnerability as he stood in the wet puddle of grief for his partner of fifty-plus years, I paused. If my dad was known for anything it was his integrity. His ability to keep a confidence had been his lifeblood as an independent attorney working on his own in a small city in which reputation was everything. I sensed that later he would feel a terrible sense of betrayal if he told me. My mom would have expected him to protect her as fiercely as she protected herself.
“Never mind, dad,” I said, “if you think you shouldn’t then you probably shouldn’t.” Was I crazy? I could have had the answer to a life-long family mystery and secret.
The adult within edged out the child; the priest informed the son. I am oddly proud of that moment because on another day I might have made a different decision. In grief myself, it would have been so easy to excuse an indiscretion. It is exactly what I should have done, no doubt, but so many times, and in a similar situation, I have or might have done something different. Yay for my team!
What should be done in any given situation is never a gimme. Perfection is not an option and even lesser evils are often elusive. So when we make the good or better choice we do well to celebrate it and give thanks.