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My grandparents joyfully announced to me one day they were giving me two items before they made the move to an assisted living facility – a silver-plated coffee set and a Singer sewing machine table. I was strapped for cash at the time, so they happily advised I could sell them for a lot of money.

“Thank you for thinking me,” I smiled. “Unfortunately, there is a crack on the pot and, Grampie, you nailed a shelf onto the table. They aren’t worth anything.”

To their now crestfallen faces, I added, “However, on a sentimental level, they are priceless because they belonged to you. I will always cherish them.”

My grandmother, now a little doubtful, then gestured to the bookcase my grandfather had built for her several years ago.

“A couple of people said there are certain books they would like, so I’ve written their names on the inside covers to make sure no one else takes them. Maybe there are books you could sell. Some of them are old.”

“Again,” I replied, “for non-monetary reasons, there is a book I would like to receive.”

It was the Audubon Society Book of Birds from the 1930’s, which had been given to my mother on her sixth birthday from a favorite aunt.

When I was a child, a visit to my grandparents’ home involved a four-hour drive for my family, so it was usually reserved for holidays. After the initial hugs, as my parents were unloading the car, I headed to the bookcase, grabbed the Audubon book and immediately flipped through the pages until I found the puffins illustration. I don’t know what it was about that particular bird that appealed to me so strongly, but I would stare at it for about ten minutes, put it back on the shelf and then go outside to play.

My grandmother was surprised to hear this. It was news to her.

I then advised her that my younger brothers had favorites as well. I pointed out four books on a bottom shelf.

“The boys will definitely want these, so make sure no one else stakes a claim to them.” I pulled out one of the classic novels – Prince Valiant.

“Why do you say that?”

“While I made a beeline to the Audubon book, they headed directly to these. They loved the colorful illustrations and, because they didn’t know how to read yet, their imaginations would tell them the stories.”

Completely taken aback, she stared at me, nonplussed.

“Next time they’re here,” I suggested, “ask which ones they would each like.”

During a subsequent visit, my grandmother – still looking confused – said I was right. “They definitely wanted those books. I had no idea.”

We embarked on a lengthy discussion on the importance of items associated with treasured memories. She brought out a hat box which contained a crocheted bed coverlet which had belonged to her mother and, later, a wooden kitchen tool her mother used to mash potatoes. She felt her mother was with her when she glanced or held it.

Next time your children or grandchildren visit, ask if there is anything you have that is special to them and ask them to share their memories with you. You’ll learn something about them and yourself and, in the process, create new special memories.

My grandparents have since passed. One of my brothers has a three-foot wall divider in his home. Our grandmother’s books lie on top, lovingly displayed. Sometimes, I find myself patting them as I walk by, just to say “hi.”

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My 88-year-old great-aunt doesn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant when she got married.  She even had her son lie about his birth year growing up. She doesn’t want to be considered one of “those kind of girls.”  I look at this incredible shrinking woman, hunched over as she crosses the room in her walker.  The birth of her first child occurred over 65 years ago.  She and my great-uncle welcomed two additional children.  Yet, she still feels ashamed.  It’s her little secret and she wants it kept that way.

Some families have secrets on a larger scale.  I met a woman who, in researching her family tree, discovered an aunt she didn’t know existed.

She asked her mother, “Did you have a sister?”

“Oh, yes,” she shrugged.

“Well, you’ve never mentioned her,” she accused. 

She stared her mother down until she supplied an explanation.  “Sis” was a “Madam” who had Mob connections, angered the wrong person, and was gunned down in bed with a client.  The resulting scandal was such that the family erased her from existence. 

After an exhausting emotional discussion, it was agreed that her aunt be included in the family history book.  Her mother had struggled with years of inner conflict between family honor and loyalty to her sister, and the opportunity to discuss it with her daughter was cathartic and healing.  Their relationship has become much closer.

How do you decide what secrets should be revealed and what should not?  Discuss with the individual the potential results of revealing a secret:

  • Will it adversely affect someone still living?
  • Could it open communications within the family; offer a greater understanding of an individual’s subsequent life choices? 

“The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.”

Have you learned about a family secret?  Do you think it should remain a secret or is appropriate to be included in a family history book?

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