While digging through a treasure trove of papers and pictures, I discovered some information that raised my eyebrows. After doing the math, I realized that my paternal grandmother and maternal great-grandmother were both in a family way upon their wedding days.
While this is becoming a more socially acceptable situation, a “shotgun wedding” in the 1920s was often a reason for shame, guilt, and a rocky start to an everlasting union between man and wife, especially in the rural Midwest. This was not a topic of discussion in my family, and when I addressed it with my parents, my father laughed and said, “Well, you weren’t supposed to figure that out!” My mother was a bit more forthcoming, saying that her grandmother, a sweet, kind, loving young woman and a member of the Presbyterian faith, endured the scorn of her Catholic mother-in-law as well as a tarnished reputation.
Looking at these situations through the passage of time, I cannot imagine how my grandmothers felt as they were faced with these life changing situations. They were both 22 years old, unmarried, and although they were educated and gainfully employed, they would have lost their jobs if they had been single and pregnant. They would have had a great deal of difficulty owning any property without a man to sign the paperwork for them, and childcare options would have been very limited, most likely non-existent.
Although both marriages lasted until death rendered them asunder, and more children were born to the unions (five children in seven years, all during the Depression for my grandmother, and four children to my great-grandmother, with only ten months between the two oldest), I question the role that societal norms and mores played in my family history. If given different options, would my grandmothers have chosen to be married? Did they want to have large families? What hopes and dreams did they have for their lives?
My family never discussed these situations because it was upsetting for them. They were told not to talk about it, knowing that the denizens of the towns in which they lived knew the situations and gossiped about their family members being “fast” and “loose”. After all, how do you hold your head up when everyone knows a disgraceful secret about you?
I feel that every family has an event or member tied in to their fabric that has brought some sort of embarrassment or façade-cracking trait to an otherwise non-controversial family tree. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of discovering family secrets is how to feel about them in the scope of current times. In this respect, it can be very difficult to make sense of things that happened decades, if not hundreds of years ago.
And yet, it may not be about figuring out the ”Whys” of history, but rather allowing yourself the opportunity to learn more about the time period, social climate, economy, and other mitigating factors that have caused pieces of family history to become skeletons in the closet. Discovering some sort of violence or repugnant behavior within a family can be very disturbing. It can also affect how you see yourself, knowing that someone in your lineage had the capability to think certain thoughts or had the choice to act in a certain way. But this is not a reflection on you and the life you are living now.
I share my family’s secret as an act of liberation. The best way to take away the power of secrecy is to be honest. People will always judge; it’s a natural, evolutionary reaction that helps determine our own safety. But those who stand beside you and regard you unconditionally will listen, try to understand, and be supportive. And who better to do that than members of your family?
I hope that I would have my grandmothers’ permission to tell their stories. But if not, I would like to think they would still claim me. After all, isn’t forgiveness what family is all about?