Grief is a sacred journey

The Memory Game: Sharing Our Secrets and Wounds

DSC01902“Tell me the first thing you remember,” I asked my boyfriend Vic. I wanted to know everything.

His jaw tightened. He hesitated. I saw I’d hit a raw place, but it was too late. We were sitting upright in bed, leaning against piles of pillows, naked, side by side. He turned to face me, his eyes filled with a sorrow I hadn’t seen before.

“I remember my mother and a man in a bathroom,” he said in a whisper. “I didn’t know who he was, but the father I didn’t know had returned for a visit. My mother screamed and scratched him. He cowered. I smelled sour booze, vomit, and cigarettes. ‘I’ll get my hammer and help you, Mommy,’ I cried. I must have been three. I don’t remember how it ended.”

Vic Mansfield 1946

Vic, 6 years old

What could I say? I held his hand and leaned into him. And then I wept.

We were in his apartment on West Seneca in Ithaca in 1967. A few months before, Vic had told me his father died when he was a baby. As the harder story leaked out, I understood his lie. The truth was complicated and ugly.

This was the beginning of our game. “What do you remember first? What came after that? And after that?” Instead of happiness, our midnight stories often focused on fear or pain, sickness or betrayal. Somehow we trusted each other with the truth.

Elaine, 3 years old

Elaine, 3 years old

I told him my first memory of sacred light in a Catholic chapel while my mother cried face down on the pew. He heard about her weeping in a heap on the floor but telling me she was fine with a phony smile. I knew something awful was happening, something secret, maybe my fault. He heard about Dad’s long illness. He heard about nightmares after surgery for crossed eyes and my first dog Amigo. I told him about my big brother, my grandparent’s farm in Missouri, and what it was like after Dad died.

Vic at 9, an unhappy camper

Vic at 9, an unhappy camper

 

I learned Vic was usually alone and scared while his mother worked nights as a waitress when he was in elementary school. He wept when he said he had to give away Tippy when they moved to a rental where dogs weren’t allowed. He choked as he remembered Tippy straining against a tight chain, trying to follow when Vic rode away on his bike. He said he trapped animals so he could sell the pelts and give money to his mother, but he hated the suffering. I learned that singing solos during mass made him feel close to God, but the nuns said he was a slow learner and trouble maker. Then he realized being smart was the best way to get attention.

Back and forth, night after night, we told our childhood stories. Not the worst stories or hardest stories imaginable, especially not mine, but the mysterious memories that stayed with us in the midst of so much forgetting. They were the wounds we carried and worked so hard to hide. The things that made us feel ashamed and hopeless.

Within the successful graduate student, I saw the heart-broken lonely boy. Within the girl finishing her senior year in college, he saw the cross-eyed sad child. With every story, we trusted each other more.

Elaine, 4 years old

Elaine, 4 years old

By chance or grace, the inner hurts we learned to hide as kids found a place to rest. Our healing vessel held for a lifetime.

When Vic had cancer, I saw his bravery every day. Every day, I saw the price he paid and tended his emotional wounds. Because of our habit of honesty, there was space for me to admit my exhaustion and fears about life without him. We didn’t wear masks of bravery for each other. We shared all our feelings and fears, acceptable and unacceptable.

It all began with an innocent game of “Do you remember?”

1967

1967

Did you share secrets about your life or your feelings with a lover or friend? Did that change the relationship and make it strong and close? I can imagine this kind of intimacy ending a relationship, too. You’ll enjoy an article about Vic and his father called My Lover’s Secrets.

It was easy for me to share love or sadness, but it took more lessons to learn to be honest about resentments or complaints. For an article about learning to be honest, see The Art of Argument.

22 Comments
  1. What a gift Elaine, you had with Vic to talk about the deepest, darkest moments of your lives. I think many writers are born from a need to expel their inner thoughts. I love my husband and don’t intend secrets, but I don’t think he can relate to what lives in my head; so I save my deep, dark thoughts for my best girlfriend, and sneak it in my writing. 🙂

    • I was lucky in this way. I don’t think Vic knew he wanted to tell his stories the way I wanted to tell mine. On the other hand, he was a Catholic as a boy and he may have craved the release of confession. His secrets were hard ones to hold by himself. I’m glad we could share the burden. When I knew about his past, it made me love him all the more. When he knew about mine, he knew how much I craved his tenderness.

  2. I met Cliff at Christmas time and during our first week together we shared family history in front of the tree in a neighbor’s living room. I kept thinking “It seems so easy to tell him my family history – no one else I dated ever seemed interested.” I did not learn of his dad’s gambling problem then nor did I tell him of my father’s physical abuse. These secrets were divulged over time.

    We were not naked, but we began exposing ourselves then onion-like, one layer at a time.

    • I love your story of getting to know Cliff. It’s a wonderful thing when we WANT to know everything about each other. Your sharing came immediately in your relationship. Ours was at least six months into the relationship, so maybe that’s why Vic dared to share his most shameful secrets. Unpeeling the onion sounds very close to naked to me, Marian. Allowing someone to see into us can be the most difficult kind of nakedness.

  3. As I get older I realize that secrets beg to come out while there is still time. I have let a few out, but I cling to the darkest ones as I wait for the right ears.

    • Sharing secrets in our late night game built a container (or harbor or vessel) of safety and support for each of us. Considering how long he’d kept silent about his past, it was a miracle he opened up. My secrets weren’t as loaded with shame, so not as hard to share. Opening to each other in this way made it possible to share every later ego victory (the ones I know aren’t important, but were affirming and happy-making) and every loss, no matter how small. I miss that marriage vessel.

  4. Elaine, how precious that you and Vic were able to share these pains and sorrows.

    I think I used journals and other writing to express mine. But I do remember Adrian telling me some of his deepest secrets and pains early in our relationship. It made me realize he was very serious about us. It took me longer to figure it out.

    • It was precious, Lynne. Vic was the slow one in our relationship. I was serious immediately.
      Sometimes I remember an image that reminds me of something I took for granted in relationship. I notice it now because it’s missing. Memory held that image of lying in bed and saying, “And then what happened?” I’m sure my sons didn’t know about that. I’m glad they do now.

  5. Priceless, beautiful, poignant. Especially moving to me as I don’t think I’ve ever shared any of my secrets with anyone close. You were lucky to have someone you could trust. Cheers, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Robin. Part of our desire to share secrets must be connected to our basic introverted or extroverted nature. I loved to talk about feelings and memories even as a child. Did you talk with your sister? I hope so.
      Thinking of you walking with Suki in autumn glory.

  6. So very well written and engrossing. You had a kindred spirit there. I have shared my past with my husband, but his upbringing is so very different that I often have to remind him of my perspective and where it comes from. Childhood certainly shapes your destiny. I love this and am so glad to have connected with you!

    • Thank you for your lovely comment. I often write about grief after the death of my husband, but also share stories about our early years together, our family, and the rich life I’ve created since his death. I’m also glad we’ve connected. I look forward to more reading at your blog.

  7. What a gift Elaine to show each other one’s vulnerabilities and wounds – there is such strength in the ability to do this and so necessary with a trusted and loved person. My sister and I share memories when we get together – she lives in another part of the country. I’m getting there with my husband of 33 years …

    Thank you so much for sharing this – it is inspiring to me and shows me inter alia the value of strength in vulnerability …

    • Susan, it’s hard to understand why Vic opened the way he did after a lifetime of keeping the lid on his secrets. I think when I wept at hearing about his father’s visit. the door opened, but how did the crack of light get in the first time? I don’t remember. Opening to our past pain allowed both of us to share present pains–the small ones and the big ones, the ego corrections and the life-changing archetypal slams. It helped us stay closely connected during his cancer treatment since neither of us had to say that everything was fine for the sake of the other. Instead we could talk about how things were fine and how they were lousy.

  8. Holy St. Michael! This time you stopped my spinning and led me into the quiet space and you did it with your simple words that map out the inner journey. Like it or not you’re a Great Mother and I’m blessed to have you as my friend.

  9. Stuart and I spent a lot of time both before marriage and after talking about our family histories.

    We were very young, 18 and 20 when we met and 21 and 23 when we married. So we were still in the process of searching for adult identities. We told our secrets to each other, and we talked a lot about our families of origin, hoping not only for better understanding but also for a way to heal from wounds. Our stories were less dramatic than yours and Vic’s, but the sense of trust and intimacy built by revealing even “little” remembered shames and jealousies and feelings of insecurity was the basis for a all the years to come.

    • Maybe youth helped us do this, Shirley. I met Vic just before I turned 21 when he was 25. When we married, I was 22 and he was 26. I had some painful childhood experiences because of my father’s illness, but not the devastating kind. Vic had another situation and had learned to keep his feelings private. Until he didn’t. Once the dam broke, he kept right on going. It was an essential part of our relationship and served us well as Vic was dying. We didn’t have to hide how hard it was, and in being honest, we both felt supported.

  10. Love THIS Elaine, the openness , the honesty, the love. My husband and I had a similar style, but we would take turns saying, ” tell me something about you that I don’t know “. You would think after almost 40 years together, there wouldn’t be things you didn’t know, but there always was. I loved those times of sharing. He passed away last year after a very short battle with cancer. Oh, to ask him one more time …

    • Thanks for your beautiful comment, Debra. I feel a heart pang when I hear your husband died just last year. I hope you’ve found ways to comfort yourself and that you feel his love as strong as ever. Even when the love stays strong, we still miss their loving bodies and daily closeness. Or I do. I understand the desire for one more time…

  11. Wow, that was deep. It takes lots of guts to reveal our deepest secrets and wounds. Hope to find such a soulmate, you’re blessed to have each other. It’s in telling our stories that we find healing.

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