There Are Things We Can’t Say
And so, I won’t.
People in our family have harmed other people in the family. Maybe they think those people harmed them. We won’t know; we aren’t supposed to discuss it with them, let alone with anyone outside of our family. The generational layers of these secrets thicken. We are only as good as our archaeologists who set the pieces and claim meaning. Are the archaeologists’ stories accurate? Since we don’t have fact checkers, we only know that the stories are a possibility.
I suppose readers won’t be surprised by the fact that my family has family secrets. After all, we’re a family. The Italians sometimes call family members, “parenti serpenti” (serpent relatives). A rhyme offers the chance for new meaning.
We teach our almost five-year-old child that there are no secrets, only surprises. We are trying to build a new home without secrets, only surprises, as if life pairs easily with colorful helium balloons.
Choosing one word over a close-cousin-word must seem like semantics to a young child, even if he doesn’t know the word semantics. Sometimes he writes his name backwards, in a square like the “LOVE” sculpture, with some upside-down letters or even the way that we write it. The meaning is the same for him, no matter how he writes the letters. This is not how writers like to think of our building materials, but he finds and communicates meaning. There should never be anything he thinks he cannot share with us.
I teach memoir writing workshops and most of the writers only want to narrate the edges of their family secrets. That edge that catches the light when the sun hits it just right. “Write it down and see what happens,” I say, without revealing anything about myself. If the writers do tell the secrets, I’m not always surprised. Secrets to one person aren’t always interesting to another.
Our family’s hurt fits the statistics that I won’t list here for fear of giving away too much, like my bending over too far in that low-cut shirt to pick up my child’s toy.
I don’t want these specific stories to be secrets, but they are not my mine to tell. Some of the people are alive; some are not. The stories remain unreported and mostly untold. The silence is a sort of bubble that doesn’t always catch the light.
Reading nonfiction books about anatomy to our child, he learns that our brains tell our bodies to move. If we want to walk, our brain knows which muscles to activate throughout our body to propel us. That’s the same way I know not to mention the details of these stories.
I’m afraid of the past co-existing in the present. I’m most afraid of the relatives of the abusers who stayed silent, despite knowing. Their inability to protect the others just like them.
I want to amplify the voices of the victims. Let their tragic and tragically familiar stories not surprise anyone, not numb anyone, but help them to heal and keep each other safe. Give them a warm home with a long wooden table. But the details are not my stories to tell.
Would anyone believe me?
Would my words be accurate?
Does my silence further bury the secrets?
I am only writing the edges of these secrets. There were men, women and children involved. They were inside furnished rooms and outside under the sky. Some voices were hushed, some voices spoke on the phone. These things happened during nights of varying length. Time passed and more things happened. The events of those original secrets lost their vibrancy and their structure loosened, disintegrated. They became disconnected marks on a page instead of full letters that could mature into words.
That’s not exactly right. The stories faded for the lucky ones. The ones on the edges careful not to tell other people’s stories, they are the ones who were able to forget. They are the ones who will be surprised, if reminded of what happened. If.
It is the others who folded the secrets and hid them under mattresses. Those who sometimes lift the mattresses’ corners, untuck the sheets, and pull out the letters. Those who re-order the letters into words and read in the flickering candlelight.
Chloe Yelena Miller lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their child. Her poetry chapbook Unrest was published by Finishing Line Press. Chloe teaches writing at the University of Maryland University College and Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., as well as privately. Follow her: chloeyelenamiller.com / @ChloeYMiller
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