My mother is the Schrödinger’s cat of secrets, simultaneously great and terrible at keeping them. If you’re throwing a surprise party for someone, the best way to make certain they find out is by telling her not to tell. On the other hand, if you murdered someone and told her about it in confidence, you can be sure she won’t blab—at least not for several decades, until some random point in the distant future when people are talking about some murder mystery they watched on TV and she blurts out that she happens to actually know a real live murderer. This random blurting well after the fact is the way I found out about various hitherto hidden aspects of her past, and the offhand way she mentioned them made me think she must have told me these things already and I just wasn’t listening. So I played along, nodded, yep, that’s right, you didn’t love Dad when you married him, you just wanted your Green Card, no surprises here.
There’s one thing she hasn’t told yet, though, and the only reason I know anything about it is because, like a murder mystery detective, I worked to figure it out. I like mysteries, with their puzzles and clues and gathering of evidence. K likes to watch reruns of Law & Order, which is conveniently playing pretty much nonstop on one channel or another, and while I like the first half—the cop part, where they figure out whodunnit and Lenny cracks wise any chance he gets—I have to leave the room when Sam Waterston takes over and they go to court. Nothing against Waterston, a fine actor, but I like puzzles; I am not fond of arguments. I get a charge from finding answers; trying to convince others those answers are right is exhausting. They can do that themselves, like I did, and if they refuse, nothing I say will change anything. In any case, there were things about my mother’s life, and the lives of the rest of my family, that had confused and frustrated my understanding for a very long time, and I saw them all as disjointed pieces without knowing what I was missing that would make them fit together. Again, like a detective, asking: what am I not seeing?
And then suddenly—really, it was almost cliché, sitting bolt upright one day as revelation struck—I could see it.
I often go running in a park that features a number of popular sculptures. There’s a big rabbit kids like to climb on, two humanoid figures facing each other belligerently with hammers for their heads and torsos, and probably the most famous of all, the naked lady. It’s a beautiful work of art; the young woman stands with her head held high, shoulders back, arms slightly bent and thrown behind her, like she’s listening to distant music or looking toward the sun or simply rising up to meet the day. There’s not even a hint of shame in her nakedness, no tension or strain in her form. I’ve run by the naked lady probably hundreds of times, but it was only fairly recently that I noticed something about it that made me literally stop in my tracks. The lady is standing on a square slab with one corner slightly thicker than the others, and embedded in the thick corner is the image of a human skull. Her right foot stands on it while her left foot is slightly forward, like she stepped away. And just like that, the whole thing changed. Had she buried the past? Was this a rebirth? There was no shame, but was there also no longer the innocence I might have perceived before? (Was she a murderer who buried the corpse and had to remove her blood-spattered clothes to destroy the evidence? I rejected that one; no amount of Law & Order viewing could make me behold this beauty so sordidly.) After that, I couldn’t not see it, though I didn’t necessarily know what it meant.
I imagine what my mother’s reaction would be to the naked lady sculpture: I picture her ignoring the skull entirely and setting to work sewing a dress to cover the nakedness. My mother is a skilled seamstress, though her sartorial taste rarely matched mine back when she made clothes for me and my sister. She favored loose fits, floral prints in pastel hues, puffy sleeves and bunchy elastic waists that flattered no one’s figure ever, at least as I sulkily saw it in my teens. She disdained anything too tight or too short, and why did I want black when I could have pale pink with a cute pattern of tiny strawberries? All of this is just typical parent-child friction. She was not really that overbearing, I was not much of a wild child, and that was a long time ago. But over the decades I’ve come to see my mother as someone who does in fact work very hard at covering things up.
And I, as I’ve said, am someone who likes figuring things out.
You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but I’m trying to understand some stuff. I put this to my favorite aunt, my mother’s youngest sister—a good 15 years younger, and my favorite in part because she’s the only one I see with anything like regularity. Some of my mother’s siblings I met for the first time in my 40s, at my wedding, when they suddenly all showed up from Canada bearing red envelopes of high-denomination currency as is the cultural custom and talking about me in Cantonese, which I can’t speak at all. I took the envelopes with a gracious smile and let them talk; it only seemed fair. My favorite aunt lives near my parents, so I have more contact with her, and after a recent visit with the family that fired up the detective in me again, I sent her an email. Did something happen to my mother a long time ago?
She answered, because she knew what I was asking. Yes, something had happened. My aunt didn’t know details. I will tell you about it one day, my mother said to her once, but that day has yet to come, and my aunt thinks it never will. She does not intend to ask.
This may all seem so vague as to be meaningless, but her assent was a jolt along the lines of suddenly seeing that buried skull. Confirmation. It was there all along; I’m only seeing it now, and I don’t know what it means, but it’s there. Something happened to her a long time ago and it affected the rest of her life, the man she married, the way she raised her children, the way we live our own lives. My aunt does not intend to ask about it, but will I? I know there are times when we should just let the past go, keep those secrets buried like an empty old skull and rise up to meet the day anew. How could it possibly help and not hurt to dig it up?
The name of that sculpture is Marker, by the way. I had to go back and look; I always think it’s called New Morning or Towards Dawn or something equally lame. I like the real name, and I like the sculpture even more now despite the subtly sinister aura. A marker suggests a moment in time—perhaps the time a secret began to change everything.