I believe the dead have their secrets. And for the living, it’s the secrets that rise above the ashes and smoke and the prayers, ceremonies and mourning. It’s the secrets that apostrophize the slick stones that hold the names and dates of entry and exit. And it’s the secrets that cement our flesh to their stories, stories that seem to fuse our souls to their bones.
Ours is about twin boys, born prematurely to a sickly, orphaned girl who would later become my mother and the slightly built, under-employed German young man in 1937. The babies were dead three days later – it was said. The doctors told the young white immigrant husband the babies had “turned black.” The mother was told, while in the hospital, Catholic Charities arranged to have the babies buried in a cemetery. No service held for them, they were, just gone, no traces, no boundaries or borders to define their presence or their passing. Just not there, and yet not fully explained, like the reason our parents never visited their graves.
But in a deeper sense, they never left us. The family would be formed already changed because of those twins, and our parents would never be without their doubts, and their yearnings; and for all of us some part of the twins’ haunting warnings were always creeping into our darkest nights and happiest days. Nothing would ever be certain or safe again.
We later children would hear about our twin brothers often, both parents’ stories repeated without change. I would think about the twins and wish for my big brothers as if they were shadows in corners of the many rooms of the many apartments and houses that became our temporary home during my childhood. As an adult, the twins became windows I could see through when I stacked my living brothers’ images against the glass of the mystery of the twins we never knew.
Sixty-eight years later in the process of her dying, being alternately coherent and delirious, my aged mother cried out that her babies were taken from her arms. “They were fine when I held them.”
And eight other children she later gave birth to could not make up for the loss, the memory of her engorged breasts, her empty arms, unanswered questions, the feeling of being totally powerless.
I believe in connections to people we could never meet and their influence on generations of a family. I have discovered that we, all of us, are just chapters in histories of people who are ancestors and descendants, like layers, without who we would not exist, and with who we seem to inherit multiple issues about love, values and blame. However we try, we can’t split ourselves away from who we came from. Our physical selves can be continents, but the vastness of their souls and spirits reach us, call us, even from the grave and their matrix forever clings to our bones.
And to believe this is to never feel alone.