It’s my mom's fault I stole her letters

The box of letters was where I had left it, untouched. She preferred to close things up and never think about them

Published May 8, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Aerogrammes (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)
Aerogrammes (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)

Note: This story deals with serious themes, including suicide, and may not be suitable for all readers. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

I stepped off the train from Toronto with only a backpack for the clothes I would need for my two-day visit and an empty suitcase for the letters I was going to steal. The hard silver case looked like an action film prop for holding bomb parts, and its clattering, bumping wheels played the sounds of my ambivalence as I made my way to the seniors' residence.

My new routine was to call from the bus as it approached my mother's Montreal suburb.

"Hi Mom, it's your daughter, Michèle. I'm on my way to visit you; I'll be there soon."

"Oh, did I know you were coming?"

"No, I decided to surprise you."

It worked better this way—it used to make her so anxious when she had advance notice of a visit. I no longer gave her the opportunity to beg off; she would be happy to have my company. She didn't notice the extra luggage when I arrived. I placed my backpack and suitcase behind the couch, out of sight from her spot near the window.

We exchanged routine questions and answers until dinner time when I excused myself, as I always did, from joining her in the dining room.

"Don't worry, I bought a sandwich on the train. I'll be fine."

"OK, if you're sure," she said as she rose from the burnt-orange couch and reached for the walker we'd convinced her to use for her own safety. She had resisted at first, but now she gratefully grasped it whenever she left the apartment, wielding it like a shield to keep away invaders of her personal space and employing it like a battering ram against the other walkers if they didn't yield a place for her in the elevator.

As soon as I heard the elevator doors close, I pulled out the suitcase, unzipped it, and let it lie on its back, jaws open, ready to be fed.

I headed for the bedroom. During the move to the residence, my older sister had come from England to help with the front-end packing in Vancouver, my younger half-sister had overseen the unpacking of the moving truck in Montreal, and I did the final organization of the new apartment. The whole process provided each of us with an inventory-level knowledge of her possessions. The large square cardboard box of letters was right where I had placed it four years earlier. I knew she hadn't touched it. She preferred to just close things up and never think about them again.

As I stood there, looking at the box on the shelf, I felt guilt wash over me. The debates with my two sisters over whether it was ethical to steal her letters replayed in my mind. In the end, we decided that the information in those letters belonged not only to our mother, but also to me and my older sister.

But the question of privacy continued to gnaw at me. I knew that if I had asked my mother 20 or even 10 years ago for permission to read the letters she would have said, "Are you kidding? No way. What's in those letters is none of your business." And so I did what I always do when faced with a conundrum: I researched. In her book "The Secret Life of Families," Dr. Evan Imber-Black distinguished secrecy from privacy. A secret, she wrote, is information withheld that "impacts another's life choices, decision-making capacity and well-being." Conversely, if a piece of information is truly private, then knowing it has no impact on another's physical or emotional health. 

This distinction helped. In my fantasy argument with my mother, I would say that her secrecy about my biological father did impact my well-being, that depriving me of my genetic heritage handicapped my ability to shape a strong identity. But I'm certain such reasoning wouldn't have moved her any more than my older sister's impassioned appeals throughout the years had. If she had only spoken to us freely about our father when we were younger, my desire to read her old mail decades later might never have emerged.

I pulled down the box and fed the empty suitcase. Hundreds of feather-light, blue aerograms fluttered out, dispersing their musty smells. The main area of the suitcase filled up quickly, and I was grateful that the lid was deep enough to accept the rest. When I finished, I parked the suitcase in the corner, returned the empty box to the closet shelf, and sat down on the couch to pretend my world hadn't just changed forever.

* * *

I don't remember the moment my sister and I were told that the man who made us breakfast every morning in Seattle, the man we called Daddy, was not our real father. Strange how one can forget such a momentous event. At some point the questions did come, but not from me. I was a baby of three months when our father died, but my sister was five—old enough, she thought, that she should remember him. But she didn't.

Our mother refused to answer my sister's questions about who our father was and how he had died. Instead she would cry and say, "not now" or "when you're older," and my sister would be sent away, crushed. And so she took up snooping. Once, when our parents were out, she went searching in the basement and found our father's final letter to our mother. That is how, at age 14 and nine, we came to learn that our father had died by suicide.

Eventually, she placated us with a few basic biological details, hoping they would be enough to stop the questions. She had met Eliahu in Israel while attending the Hebrew University. She was barely 18 and he 13 years older. He was an opera singer, composer and photographer. She would also tell us, mostly as a warning, that he came from a generation and tradition where women were expected to take care of the house and have dinner waiting for their husbands. Living in Canada and riding the second wave of feminism in the '60s, she came to view such ideas as repugnant and grew away from him. Their relationship ended in separation just a few months after my conception. These details allowed my sister and me to form an outline of him in our minds, but his essence and what happened remained unfilled, empty space.

Although my sister continued to snoop, she never found more of his letters. Our parents' correspondence to each other and from family and friends remained hidden and unexamined. Our mother transported these letters from the Vancouver home she shared with Eliahu to Stanford, to three Seattle addresses, back to Vancouver and then to their final resting spot in her seniors' residence in Montreal. Did she ever look again inside that box after 1965? My guess is no.

Our mother couldn't face her painful past. Although she would describe herself as being depressed for most of her life, she avoided therapy as if it were a fire that would devour her, choosing instead psychiatrists who would hand over a variety of pills with promises of talk-free magic. Within two years of our biological father's death she had remarried, and within five years had given birth to two more children. They say the best way to forget the past is to make new memories, and our mother applied herself to this objective with vigor. She succeeded. Our new family of six melded with routine, love and humor. My sister's memories were overwritten, and the past was never spoken about.

I played the role of good child and comforting sister. I didn't snoop, but I did eagerly gobble up each morsel of information that my sister found during her investigations, which wasn't much. And when she needed the support that was not available from either of our parents, I gave it to her. I lived vicariously through my sister's longing for our father, having none of my own.

Then, suddenly, it was 2018. I was officially in mid-life. My kids had left home, and I no longer worried about my career trajectory. Our cousin in Israel had recently given us mementos of our father that were unearthed in a relative's Jerusalem apartment, and they triggered something in me that had lain dormant. For the first time, I wanted to know more about the man who had given me life, the man who I resembled. Why had our mother thought it necessary to hide him from us? What right did she have to keep us from our history? By the time I came into my own state of longing and indignation, I was decades too late. Neither my sister nor I had pursued friends or relatives for answers and, by 2018, nearly everyone in Canada and Israel who had known anything was dead. Our mother was four years into her ever-bewildering trudge through the desert of Alzheimer's. That's when I remembered her box of letters.

* * *

During the visit, my mother had a clear and lucid afternoon, and I thought I'd give her one last chance. I showed her a photo of my biological father smiling and crouching with his camera as if he'd just photographed something low to the ground.

"Do you know who this is?" I asked.

"My husband," she said, looking pained.

"Will you tell me about him? You're the last person alive who can tell me anything."

She shook her head as tears filled her eyes. "I can't. Another time."

Oh no, I thought. "Another time" was her go-to avoidance phrase, and I wasn't going to accept it on this last attempt to get through to her.

"You've always said that. Please don't put me off. Won't you tell me what you remember?"

She was crying a bit harder now. 

"I've forgotten all of it."

"No, you haven't—you're crying for a reason."

She broke down into sobs, her face contorting in anguish, no longer trying to hold in her emotions.

"No! I'm crying because I've forgotten EVERYTHING!" It was an anguished wail, one I hadn't heard in years.

"Oh . . ." I said with a groan of understanding.

"It's terrifying! I mean, it's all gone. I don't remember people's names. I don't remember who they are. Even someone I was married to for 20 years or . . . I don't even know how long it was. I don't remember."

"Six years," I said. I felt horrible. "That would be terrifying." What else could I say? There was nothing more I could do. Just as I was ready to know, she was incapable of answering.

As I maneuvered the loot-filled suitcase over the cracked sidewalks toward the train back to Toronto, I felt as sorry for my mother as I did for myself. My need to assign blame was already loosening its grip. Her Alzheimer's wasn't her fault, and her choice not to talk to us when we needed it most had nothing to do with malice. She had sought to protect herself from blame and pain, but she also believed she was protecting her children. Assuming we wouldn't be able to cope, she delayed revealing the truth indefinitely. Whose fault was it that our mother wasn't strong enough to break from a family tradition of secrecy and evasion practiced by her parents, grandparents, and who knows how many generations before? The secrets weren't the main issue. I imagined my mother saying the words lodged forever in her subconscious: "Violate my privacy if you must—just so as long as I don't have to talk about it."

* * *

I spent a year reading and digesting those letters from and to my father, each letter illuminating another small part of the dramatic history that had been hidden from me and my sister. I sorted, indexed, and hired translators, and for the first time, I felt the confidence of knowing who I came from and possessing a complete life narrative. Today, when I look at the man in the fuzzy photographs, I feel I know him. I know his stories. These stories tell of a talented artist, an attentive friend, a passionate husband, and—until his troubles overwhelmed him—a devoted and loving father.

 I haven't met anyone who keeps letters for 60 years. Our mother had plenty of opportunities to destroy them with all the moves she made. But she didn't. I believe she meant for my sister and me to have them.

So, thank you, Mom, for this belated gift, this reconfigured life of unexpected calm and clarity. I am so not sorry.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

By Michèle Dawson Haber

Michèle Dawson Haber lives in Toronto with her spouse, two sons and new Goldendoodle puppy. She works as a union advocate by day and as a memoirist by night, writing about step-adoption, the harm caused by family secrets, and the inscrutable effects of childhood trauma and suicide. You can follow her on Instagram @micheledhaber.

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