It was March 16, 1990 the day after my father died. We went to the temple to meet with the rabbi who’d be officiating the funeral and my sister and I sat down in an office alongside our mom. “There’s something we need to tell you” one of them said. I forget who said it, it was so long ago, but I remember thinking nothing good ever starts out with that sentence. It was already a pretty big 24 hours of devastating news finding out your father was killed in a car crash just a mile from your house: that’s already enough to pretty much rock the foundation of any two teenagers. So what could they possibly want to tell us now that we needed to know. My mother wanted the rabbi’s strength to help blurt it out. “You need to know your father was married once before”. Screech to a stop. What? And she let it all out. He was married to someone, MARRIED to someone else, before he ever met my mom. It didn’t work out and they had eventually gotten divorced. My mom felt the need to tell us now in case his former wife or his former wife’s family came to the house or attended the funeral. Perhaps the deepest secret of the family came spilling out in a rabbi’s office the day after the most earthshaking news the family had already endured. We had questions. Did he have other kids… No. Why’d they keep it a secret… Dad wanted to. In the end, that other family never materialized at the funeral or the house. My mother would go on to raise my sister and I as a single mother. We didn’t talk much about it ever again.
But it’s always nagged at me. You think you know someone. Why the big secret. Our family already had its share of secrets- some domestic abuse and a difficult childhood which I’ve written about before. But why THIS secret. My mother knew. She never told. Select few others knew too. They never told. There must be people out there with memories and even photos of my dad from a totally different universe. Now that my mother is gone, only a couple of people know the answer for sure.
So I turned to my Dad’s brother, my uncle, who’s living up in the bay area of California. And 23 years after I learned the secret, I blurted out something to the effect of “what was the deal with all that!” And he proceeded to tell me the story. He started to tell me about a young couple who fell in love. My dad met the girl who was dating the boy down the street. He fell head over heels for her. Her name escapes me but I’m told she fell head over heels for him too. Beneath all the layers of anger we’d seen growing up, I always knew the was a charmer in there, with a smile that could win you over. I bet he gave her that mile. They got married at a temple in Newton, MA. It was apparently a beautiful wedding, videotaped by her family with early home movie cameras in the late 60’s. My father and his bride were sent off on the honeymoon in his shiny red Saab. People used shaving cream to write “just married” on the back of the Saab. I’ve seen the pictures from the one wedding I DO remember to my mom where he sported a pink ruffled shirt, so I can only imagine the type of tux and outfit he was sporting that day. We had a blue Chevy Nova growing up so I’d like to know whatever happened to that Saab. Maybe she got it in the divorce. They were married for about a year but the cracks in the marriage started to show. They would fight frequently. Whatever spark there was shortly fizzled. They finally called it quits. There were some ugly court battles. There was a divorce. There were hurt feelings. There were alimony checks. They never spoke again.
My dad went on to meet my mom and he fell head over heels again. I bet he gave her the same smile when they met at a dance once night. I remember hearing how my nana would make fresh cookies and leave them for him when he was dating my mom. Cookies would have won me over too. They got married and began a new life together. She was in it for the long haul despite what would be a long and complicated and sometimes abusive marriage to say the least. I wonder what she thought about the fact that it was a second marriage. I wonder what she thought about the woman he’d married before. I wonder why they decided to keep it a secret. At some point I remember her telling us he was ashamed that the first marriage was a failure. He was ashamed it didn’t work out. So they decided to just wall up the emotions in brick and cement and lock them away. And in some ways, I guess I’m grateful it didn’t work out because it gave me a chance. But I can’t help think that somewhere out there, probably stashed in some old attic, are the pictures and home movies of the wedding and the couple that could have been but never was. You think you know a person. I thought I knew my father. The day after he died, he had one more surprise saved up for us.