Today, Your Secrets are Safe with Me

Creative Nonfiction by Cheryl Skory Suma

It made me feel worse, talking about you as if we’d known one another. Everyone assumed we did; what mother and daughter don’t know each other’s stories? All I knew was how important today was for you; how much you needed the approval of the people in that room, people who had come to celebrate you and your life. So, I told the stories I could. Little anecdotes and humorous mishaps, inconsequential events focused on your quirks, hobbies, and passions; tales that our guests could recognize and appreciate. Second-hand stories relayed to me over the last few weeks by your large circle of friends, each reaching out in turn to offer me support, anxious to tell me sweet things about their dear friend, this woman I never knew. Fond memories that existed outside of our relationship. Today, I told stories that were not mine because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be your friend too, instead of the daughter you didn’t want to get to know.

If it helps, I can hear your voice clearly in my head today—I’m not tuning it out as I used to. Too often, I’ve dismissed your ideas outright because you were a difficult person to love, an impossible person to please. Today is different, because regardless of how little we knew about each other, all anyone in this room knows is that I was yours, and you were mine, so there’s that thread between us. It’s floating around this room like a spiderweb, drawing them all in as I speak, yet I imagine that it is me its strands are trying to catch. Or, perhaps, was it you that needed to be caught? I can’t decide. I want to erase our history, to slow down until I force you to see me. Instead, all I can do is honor your memory in the only way I can—by keeping your secrets. By telling the same story you’ve told everyone all your life.

I overheard two women talking at the pharmacy the other day, whispering about a neighbor who had “led a double life.” For me, that expression always conjures up thoughts of secret liaisons, a storied history, a hidden family. These last few months, as you were dying and your friends rallied around, I’ve learned that it can also mean that the someone a person is with their family can be miles apart from who they are with everyone else. I really hope I don’t do that. I know I don’t do that. I think I don’t do that? They say all women turn into their mothers. From the moment I had children, I tried to watch myself—I was determined not to repeat the past. I tried to be present, to nurture and encourage, to be firm when the situation required it but always still offer a hug. To listen and share, to support them so they could develop their inner resilience, to ensure they knew they were loved and heard. I’ve always apologised to my children whenever I catch myself going on a rare tear. I pay attention to signals and signs so I can do better, find compassion, and avoid unwarranted criticism. Still, I can admit not all the things we pick up from our parents are wrong. I’m hyper-organized, hardworking, and diligent. I’m someone you can count on to do what they say they will do. I know I got those traits from you.

Countless times these last few months, I almost worked up the nerve to ask you all the questions I’ve carried for us, things we should have talked about a long time ago. Yet, here I am, today has come, and all those questions are still jammed in my throat, strangling me with their unwillingness to surface. I was too afraid to rock your perfectly balanced boat, your façade of surface pleasantries and social graces. I think you sensed my questions bubbling to the surface, for in those moments, you’d avert your gaze or send me on yet another errand. You’d tell me it was time for you to rest and I should leave. So now I’ll always wonder: where did all that resentment and fear you carried just below each breath come from? Did you ever really want kids, or was I just not what you expected? Did something horrible happen to you when you were a little girl or a young woman? Something dark and horrid that damaged you beyond repair? Who were you hiding from? Was it just me and dad, or was it everyone?

Dad hung a board of old photos for the celebration of life, images from the early years of your marriage, as well as some more recent pictures from your vacations together, dinners with friends, and such. It was the early black and white photos that drew me in. I stared at the girl I saw posing so proudly; Sophia Loren meets Audrey Hepburn, your fiery spirit screaming from the corners of your tight smile, your rocking body housing the unstoppable force of the strong-willed, life of the party, twenty-three-year-old you. There’s one photo from when I was around eighteen months old in which I’m sitting splayed-legged in a kiddie pool, the water just cresting my chubby toddler thighs. I look a little lost, a little sad. You’re sitting to the side of the pool on the grass—just far enough away to pose seductively in your bikini, leaning back to allow the summer sunshine to highlight the perfect angles of your face so dad can get a flawless photo of his gorgeous wife. Also, just far enough away that if the toddler in the pool were to lose her new-found balance and fall over, she’d start to sputter and struggle face down in that water before you could reach her—before you could prevent the terror that moment would entail.

I’ve seen that picture many times before, but the feeling is always the same. We look like one of us doesn’t belong there. I’m not sure if it’s you or me; I just know that it haunts me, that disconnect captured on film. Maybe, it’s because you never let me feel pretty—you worked hard to discourage it. Maybe, it’s because you never taught me the power and the curse that youthful beauty can bring. Maybe, it’s because when it came to my efforts to connect with you, I always felt as though I was battling upstream, just trying to catch my breath before tumbling down. I’ve lost count of the number of times I shared my latest joy with you, only to have that accomplishment questioned or compared to endeavors you thought more fitting. My hair was always too long, I was always putting on too much weight, always chasing the wrong career, in the wrong place, working toward the wrong goal, dating/married to the wrong guy. Even after I grew and left to develop a new identity outside of our home, gaining confidence and discovering affirmation for the gifts I had to offer, eventually building a successful business and becoming everyone’s favorite boss, still, somehow, each time we saw one another, I always managed to regress in your presence. Returning to that child within, the girl who was unable to please you or meet expectations.

There was that one moment when you let your guard down. Do you remember that day? Your extended family was gathered for a holiday—I don’t recall which, but the holiday doesn’t matter. You were circulating as the hostess in charge, guiding the passing of hors d’oeuvres and the direction of conversations. I went to the kitchen to put away some dirty wine glasses, to get more ice for the punch. Then you came through the swinging door, phone in hand. At first, I thought I’d somehow failed again, until you began to shake, until you showed me the email from a college boyfriend, until you said, “how did he find me,” until you told me you were afraid and didn’t know what to do because he’d raped you forty years ago on your first date and now he’d found you, now he wanted to be friends on Facebook, to meet up, all of which was impossible, and now you had to think about that and about other things, things that happened before him, things you had worked very hard to never think about for a long, long time. Then you said, “you don’t know what I’ve been through in my life.” I wanted to say, “tell me,” and I wanted to tell you, “I’ve been through things too,” and I wanted us to finally connect and love and support one another, but then you fled. Fled from me and my chance to tell you about something horrible that had happened to me too, fled from yourself and what you almost revealed to your daughter. Fled from your other truths that I half know from my cousin who half knows them from her mother who might half know them not from you, but because she was there. Was it about the creepy bachelors who rented the guesthouse on your parents’ farm growing up, or was it about someone else, someone in our family, a neighbor, a teacher, a stranger? You couldn’t handle that, so you fled back to the safety of the crowded room, only speaking to me once more much later, when we were doing the dishes and everyone had left, when you told me without looking at me that you’d dealt with it, when you told me you shouldn’t have said anything, that I should forget it, when you agreed for both of us that we should never speak of it again—and that’s what we did, we never spoke of it again, we never spoke of anything that mattered to either of us, ever again.

So today, at your celebration of life, I pretended I knew you better than I did. I pretended I was just like your friends, part of your inner circle. Your never-ending party gang, the group of dining, dancing, bridge-playing, golfing, gossiping, shopping girlfriends who were never sad. Maybe, today, it was a tiny bit true that I knew you. For that segment of a secret that I knew and the larger secrets you hinted at and the multitude of tiny secrets you collected throughout life. Today, what I know for sure is that all your secrets are safe now; gone with you to wherever we go from here. Just like the secret that this mother and daughter didn’t really know each other—our secret is safe now too.

Cheryl Skory Suma

After suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury, Cheryl left the Canadian healthcare company she’d founded and returned to her first love, writing, as part of her recovery process. Cheryl’s fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in US, UK, and Canadian publications, including Exposition Review, Barren Magazine, National Flash Fiction Day-Flash Flood, Second Chance Lit, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, Blank Spaces Magazine, Longridge Review, Glassworks Magazine, Sonora ReviewSugarSugarSalt (forthcoming), and others. A Pushcart nominee, her work placed in twenty-nine competitions across 2019-22, more recently: shortlist, Five South’s 2021 Short Fiction Prize, semi-finalist, Ruminate Magazine’s 2021 The Waking Flash Prose Prize, shortlist, Blank Spaces Magazine’s 2021 Fiction Anthology Contest, Runner-Up, 2022 Pulp Literature’s Flash Fiction Contest, Honourable Mention, Exposition Review’s 2022 (Apr) Flash 405 Contest, shortlist, Solstice Magazine’s 2022 Literary Contest (fiction), and shortlist, 2022 International Amy MacRae Award for Memoir. Cheryl has a MHSc Speech-Language Pathology and a HBSc Psychology. You can find her on twitter @cherylskorysuma.