A HARMLESS LIE, A HARMFUL LIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Growing up, my parents lied to me about a lot of things. To ‘protect’ me. The biggest lie was about my parents’ ages. They knocked almost twenty years off my father’s age and a few from my mom’s for good measure. They didn’t want me to realize that my dad was ‘old’. He was 59 when I was born and was twenty-six years older than my mom. That was just one of the many lies ‘for my own good’.

By the time I was 49 and my mother was 82, I thought I’d learned the truth about all the untruths that had populated my childhood. I was wrong. There was one more whopper waiting all those years for exposure to the light.

Me and my parents when I was about eight-years-old

My mom was diagnosed with cancer at 81. A little while later she insisted on going away for a weekend together. I never traveled with my mom so this, in itself, was unusual.

Then, at dinner one night, came the big reveal. “There’s something I have to tell you…”

I stopped her right there and said that I knew my father was really my father because I was so much like him. I laughed. My mother was serious. My father was really my father. But… I was conceived out-of-wedlock.

“On what planet would you think I could possibly care about this revelation?” I asked my mom, stunned. My next thought was “Oh, my God! You waited till I’m close to 50 years old to tell me this!!”

I knew my parents were together for three years before they married. I also knew that they had both been told that they were sterile and could not have children. My mother had given birth to a five month old stillborn son when she was twenty. She couldn’t get pregnant after that and was told she never would.

Mom and me at around ages 49 and 82

When my mother skipped her period, her Ob-Gyn gave her shots to bring on her period. She’s lucky I wasn’t accidentally aborted. It never occurred to anyone that she could possible be pregnant. Except for one of mom’s friends who was a doctor and was suspicious of mom’s complaints of nausea and fatigue. She insisted that mom get a pregnancy test. The rest is history.

Except the history that I had been told for almost half a century, was that my parents married on December 3, 1948 and that I was born on October 26, 1949. They celebrated December 3 as their anniversary for all the 33 years of their marriage. In fact, they weren’t married until April of 1949, only six months before I was born. My mother didn’t even remember what her real anniversary date was. I found her marriage license among her memorabilia after she died. My parents were actually married on April 14, 1949.

I didn’t understand why this was such a big deal to my liberated, professional, potty-mouthed, modern mother. She explained that, at the time, conception out-of-wedlock was a big deal for everyone. People counted the months between the wedding and the birth of the first child. A premature first-born could ruin your reputation for life.

But what about the intervening 49 years? Apparently once the lie was established, there was no good time to reveal the truth. The whole thing seemed odd to me. The oddest part was that my mom was so genuinely upset about having to tell me this ‘truth’.

I consider this the least harmful of all my parents’ lies. The motivation was pure self-interest. The effects on me and other family members turned out to be nil. By the time I was old enough to understand the situation, no one cared, least of all me. The era when being born a bastard was an issue, had long passed.

On the other side of the spectrum in my life was a very harmful lie that was told to me when I was a child. On it’s face it may have seemed harmless. But the damage it did was deep and long-lasting.

My grandfather adored me. He carried treats in his coat pockets at all times. Candies for me in one pocket and dog biscuits for my dog in the other pocket. I adored my grandfather too.

He used to tell me stories about a little girl named Sylvia, who he saw at the office all the time. She was the granddaughter of one of Grandpa’s real estate partners. Sylvia loved Grandpa. More, it seems, than I did. She always asked him to recite the American presidents in order for her. She loved his stories about Abe Lincoln, Grandpa’s favorite president. Sylvia always told him how much she loved him and was very vocal about how wonderful he was. Maybe even more so than I was.

I admit that I felt a little competitive with Sylvia. I tried a little harder to be as effusive and loving to Grandpa as she was. I felt the need to earn my rightful place as his favorite.

I’m sure you see what’s coming. I didn’t. When I was nine years old, my grandfather admitted that Sylvia didn’t exist. He had made her up to make me jealous. I can tell you exactly where I was standing when the world as I knew it crumbled. I can’t tell you how betrayed, used and manipulated I felt. And all to stroke my grandfather’s fragile ego. He thought it was funny. A joke.

Me with Mom and her parents when I was around eight years old

I never felt the same about my grandfather again. It took me years to get over the stinging anger and hurt.

That is an example of a devastatingly damaging lie. It had never occurred to me that grownups could treat children this way. I suddenly realized that even people you loved and who supposedly loved you, could use you and inflict emotional pain.

I got to laugh at my mother’s 50 year old confession. I never laughed at Grandpa’s ‘joke’ on me.

12 thoughts on “A HARMLESS LIE, A HARMFUL LIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • The sad part is that my grandfather never meant to hurt me or alienate me. He just wanted my love. But didn’t know how to elicit it. I always felt guilty that I carried my anger towards him for the rest of his life. I should have been more giving and more forgiving. He was a wonderful person in so many ways. He was loved by so many ‘strangers’ in the organizations he worked for. It was a pity he couldn’t get what he needed from his family.

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    • My grandfather was a wonderful man to many people. But not always to his family. My grandmother was often told what a wonderful husband she had. She would always reply “No one knows what kind of a husband he is except me.”
      I feel some guilt now for not being more understanding of my grandfather, who was a very damaged person. He meant well and just wanted love and appreciation. I think when we are hurt by someone, the wounds go so deep it can take forever to heal.

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        • People who never got love and support as a child, never learn how to relate positively with others. They don’t know how to give or receive love. So they just go for the outer trappings of gifts and/or praise. And their need for positive reinforcement is insatiable. Nothing I did as a child was enough for Grandpa. I did adore him, before the lie was revealed. But it wasn’t enough for him. He had to go for more. And that is what destroyed our relationship.

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