I challenged my Writing the Past workshop on these two prompts: What secrets did your family keep and write about a failure.
I could say my family never talked about the Holocaust, although my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather lost their families by bullets, Belzec, or Treblinka, depending on where they were. But there were also secrets kept here in America that have shown up through DNA testing: adoptions and paternity questions. These are not my secrets to keep, so they are not my secrets to tell. Still, I’m reminded of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and the secrets the mothers kept from their daughters, secrets derived from choices made in the moment for survival. And, of course, there’s Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, detailing her DNA testing and learning the Orthodox Jewish man she called her father wasn’t her biological dad.
Failure is a whole other issue. So many to choose from. Majoring in the wrong subject. Going to the wrong college. Marrying the wrong man. Pursuing the wrong career (it was the Eighties). Failing my driver’s test senior year of high school that traumatized me to the point of not trying again until after I graduated college.
But the failures that haunt me revolve around my parents in their respective hospitals and their passing. I chose to leave my mother’s room at 2 am. All the couches and chairs in the waiting area were taken. I received a call at 5 am at home that my mother was nearing the end. By the time my twin and I got to the garage, the nurse called again. My mother was gone.
It was different with my father. No one expected him to pass when he did.
I wasn’t there when they breathed their last breaths. I don’t know if either said, “Mama,” and reached out to her, although I know my mother saw her mother, for sure.
I can fix failures to choose the right major, school, and husband. But I can’t fix not being there.
My parents at a Krasner family reunion in South Jersey, 1990