A Short Bibliography of Secrets
Mary K. O’Melveny
The things no one talks about
could fill up libraries.
I imagine wooden shelves bowing
under the weight of untold secrets.
Card catalogues overflowing
with tantalizing tales of the unsaid.
Archival footage emerging into light
like the faded purpled ink
of old mimeographed pamphlets.
Hidden wives and lovers,
vying with ancient enmities
for featured status on
gallery window sills,
beckoning the ignorant
toward their unknown biographies.
I. A brief chapter in the lives of Chuck and Frances
My father comes home from the War.
He misses the thrill of battle,
the grateful faces who know it was the Yanks
who saved everything in the end,
the ripple of pride that comes
with his Army Air Force uniform
as he stares into the mirror, rows and rows
of ribbons and medals reflecting back.
So many kind people, he tells my mother.
A lady in England and her little girl especially so,
he says. My mother finds coats on sale
and children’s clothing. She posts them,
smiling at the thought of her own kindnesses
sailing across the ocean like homing pigeons.
Only later does she find the letters
telling more truths than she could bear to know.
II. A short essay about my mother
We are watching Anita Hill
describe the unthinkable.
A chamber of stern-faced white men
display their discomfort like ill-fitting suits
while women everywhere nod in recognition.
I am suddenly back in waitress garb
at the Five Star restaurant, trying to
calculate how to pick up my orders
without being groped by Fred the cook
as his wife Elsie greets new customers.
He owns the joint. I need the job.
Suddenly, my mother starts to weep.
She has recalled a school janitor, a basement.
Memories pushed so far into her brain, they
might as well be skull bone. Even now, as a lifetime
of grief spills, she cannot say the words out loud.
III. A tale about my wife’s father Martin
We are surrounded by survivors,
their histories woven tightly with horrors
their families can never unbraid.
Who can imagine what visions
came to your father as he looked out
on a 1950’s summer day by Lake Michigan,
watching his three children
playing in the sand, laughter
filling the air like a gentle chorale.
Likely, he saw his first wife silhouetted
by their cottage doorway – Poland, 1939 –
as he embarked on his long journey
toward safer harbors. Or their wedding
party, hands clasped at the table,
eyes widened by the sudden flash
of the photographer’s light.
IV. A little childhood fable
Mrs. Millard stands smiling at our doorway.
A misty Seattle rain settles over her frame.
Our mother is taking a trip and she is filling in.
Our father is already out on the road,
pretending that signing up customers
to contracts for cleaners or kitchenware
or books of knowledge is as rewarding
as recording reveille roll calls.
I never saw my mother in a hat before
but there it is sitting close to her face,
framing her softly curled brown hair,
a tiny feather leaning skyward. As she leaves,
her smile is tight, as if taking cues from backstage.
It is years later when I learn she never planned
to return to any of us. But only when she told me
did I realize that I would not have been surprised.
V. An abbreviated homage to my grandmother Mary
I can picture my grandmother
answering her tinkling doorbell,
expecting flowers, milk bottles
or a neighbor’s calling card.
Instead, two somber railroad men,
eyes cast downward,
inform her of the unthinkable –
my grandfather shot dead
at his desk by a cuckolded
husband. Imagine how much
she failed to tell her five children
left to her care in an Idaho town
lacking sympathy for widows
in such compromised circumstances.
How dwarfed her stories must have been
by all the narrations she never knew.