Family secrets. Open secrets.
My grandmother died at 93 in February, and left behind a house and attic and shed full of stuff. I was helping my mother go through it all when we came across the trunk. Actually, it was my great-grandmother's trunk, which she'd brought along in 1950 when she moved in with my grandparents here in Greenville, SC. My great-grandmother came from Franklin, NC, a little town up in the mountains, and it must have been hard for her to leave the place she'd grown up in, but, alas, widowed and the mother of an only child, she came down to Greenville reluctantly, dutifully, bringing along her trunk. Opening it just those few weeks ago felt like peering into a time capsule-- my great-grandmother's hairpins and sewing kit, dried flowers, a bible, newspaper clipping and lots and lots of photographs. Unlabeled, most of them: photos of farmers and fiddlers, of a woman smoking a pipe holding a goat, a baptism at the river, of brides and grave stones. Postcards too. From Atlantic City in 1910. My dear, it is beautiful here. There are so many people! And telegraphs. Sorry to inform you. STOP. Your son died in battle. Stop.
And letters. THE letter. From J. Edgar Hoover to the Sheriff of Macon County. About a missing person? The FBI..."Oh, that's about Aunt Lily," my mother said. "You know...your great-grandmother's sister. She disappeared...and they never found her." Huh?
My mother was only 13 when her Great-aunt Lily disappeared. My grandmother never talked about it much. And my great-grandmother and her people didn't much discuss it, either. She just worked quietly, diligently, writing to the sheriff of her hometown for years, begging him to keep trying to find her sister. Her only sister. Who had married late in life, married a man who came through town--no one knew his people, no one knew anything much about him-- but she--Lily-- left with him, heading to California. "I reckon they eloped," a relative tells me. "She just ran off with him." A preacher's daughter, a spinster? No children. With a salesman? She lost her head--and other things maybe, too-- headed off to California, where her letters were regular for months, then stopped, and then...she disappeared. Never a trace. No funeral. The husband disappeared, too. He killed her, is what my great-grandmother suspected. No one said it outright, but they knew, they knew.
That kind of open secret-- something everyone knows about but doesn't acknowledge-- is common around these parts. I live an hour away from Gastonia-- home of the Communist-led strike in 1929, the bloody Loray Mill strike which left two people dead-- and finally, after 78 years! the town is allowing the state of NC to put up a historical marker at the site of the mill. I live near Honea Path, where the General Textile Strike of 1934 was not publicly acknowledged for over 60 years, where seven strikers were killed. When ETV did a documentary about it a few years ago, there was a big stink about showing it. And was anyone who grew up in the South shocked when the media "discovered" that Strom Thurmond in 1925, when he was 22, fathered a child with a black teenage housekeeper? I'd heard that all my life.
A few weeks ago, I was at a writers' conference telling the story about my finding the letter from Hoover in my great-grandmother's trunk. The table full of writers dropped silverware, jaws, conversation. I had given them the barest dry details, but it was enough to ignite a whole bonfire of possibilities. She left because of sex. No, she was in love. He was a serial killer.
(Cold Case fans.) No, SHE killed him. (A Rose for Emily, anyone?). Or maybe he left her and she was just too ashamed to come back home and fled to Mexico? Or ...swam out in the choppy Pacific and...
Family secrets, open secrets...I find them the perfect breeding ground for stories.
Mindy Friddle is the author of The Garden Angel (St. Martin's Press/Picador). Visit her website www.mindyfriddle.com and her blog, Novel Thoughts, at http://mindyfriddle.blogspot.com/