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It's a survival technique I inherited from my mother
In today’s culture of oversharing on social media, I feel like my family comes from a completely opposite world.
One thing I always knew about my mother was that she was born in Russia, though when you add her Jewish identity, her ancestors could have been from anywhere. For the most part, the rest of her story remained as murky as her genealogy.
I knew somehow not to ask certain questions about our family’s past. I have bits of information, but am missing a lot. What I do know is that many of the memories are painful so have not been spoken about, and instead brushed under the carpet.
Keeping secrets is a survival technique, but one that can produce shame, anxiety and confusion. So much of my mother’s life, and, in turn, my own, have been kept secret and brushed under the carpet. When I asked her about her past, I was usually met with, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”
Our life in this country has been exceedingly Canadian. We stood during O Canada and sang along, our hands over our hearts, 25 years before it was even the official national anthem. I was urged to learn French. My suggestions of learning Russian, or worse yet, Yiddish, were met with scoffs and a certainty that going backward would never help me move forwards. And anyway, my mother couldn’t speak or understand Russian. Or so she said.
We revelled in our Canadian identity, poured maple syrup on homemade pancakes and watched hockey religiously. We were polite at all costs and welcomed strangers into our home, decorated with pine Canadiana furniture.
“Henderson scores for Canada!” we heard in September 1972. I was 20 years old and watching the hockey game with my mother. That goal won the game and the entire Summit Series for Canada against Russia. As we cheered and hugged, I noticed her paying closer attention to the TV than was warranted. We had already seen the replay. All that we heard now was the disappointment of the Russian commentators, which my mother proceeded to translate for me. Easily. She understood what they said.
She’d say that she didn’t know the name of the village she was from. Until one day in my childhood she announced that it was outside Novohrad-Volynskyi. The next day she once again claimed she did not know.
But one thing she shared knowledge about freely was trees. She knew a lot about them, though for a long time I didn’t understood why. She could differentiate the names of firs that all looked the same to me. She knew a beech from a birch and an ash from an alder, none of which grew in our yard. She could distinguish one kind of pine cone from its neighbour.
Eventually, she explained that she spent a lot of time wandering in a forest after her parents and siblings were killed during a pogrom in Ukraine. She and another sister had taken refuge in a barn on their farm and had watched the shooting, one family member falling on another. After the soldiers left, she and her sister ran to the woods.
She had been brought to Canada by a Jewish immigrant aid organization. She always said she didn’t remember anything about those days. She didn’t want to think too long about it, so the age at which she immigrated changed depending on the day – four years old one day, the next it might be ten.
She spoke about foster parents, mean ones at that, but said she didn’t remember their names. But then, every once in a while, she did. She eventually said she had been taken in by the man who organized the rescue of orphans without ever consulting his wife, who adamantly didn’t want children; if she had wanted them, she would have had her own. Not a skinny little blonde girl who couldn’t speak English.
When I was pregnant with my first child, my mother suggested naming the baby for her parents. She had always told me she didn’t remember their names. But one day she spoke their names as if those words were part of our everyday vernacular. In fact, their names began with the same letters as my two older brothers’ names.
It was complicated – how could the most honest and honourable person I knew have so many inconsistencies in her stories? The irony of the secrecy is that my mother’s biggest lesson to me was “to thine own self be true.” If I were ever “false to any man” as a child, I got in trouble. Even at my advanced age, I am teased for having an overdeveloped sense of morality.
I don’t think that the art of keeping secrets is written in our genetic codes; it’s not like having red hair or being left-handed. It must be learned behaviour. I was already quite old when I realized that the way I sometimes handled life’s uncomfortable stuff wasn’t that different from my mother’s. It hurts? Okay, then we won’t talk about it. It was an unhealthy and mostly unconscious decision. But I hope to change that for my children.
In my experience, these hidden stories eventually spill out into our everyday lives and change us. They run from our bodies and minds and chase us into bottles, corners and lies.
Author Elizabeth Swados wrote, “Our house was engulfed in flames, yet I was told repeatedly that there was no fire.”
I grew up smelling that smoke.