A Secret Life
I discovered my motherís secret life some years ago. But only recently have I come to understand the sense of duty that unified her parallel lives. As my own have fallen apart, I have a renewed sense of respect for her during the years my father served overseas.
I made the initial discovery while helping them move into their new home. Amidst the carefully packed boxes from various closets I recognized my uncleís old manuscript. It had sat on the hallway entry shelf for years, a narrow cardboard box wrapped in twine next to the Christmas candelabra.
Heíd attended college in New York City, and had fancied himself a writer before returning to Hawaii to teach school. This was his first and last novel. How we ended up with it, I never knew and never asked. Once in high school I had glanced at the opening pages; the autobiographical story of a Hawaii boy adrift in New York was of interest only because it seemed impossible that my taciturn uncle had ever had the ambition, or sense of adventure, to write anything.
Below the forgotten novel was a pile of empty file folders, all neatly lettered in my motherís hand for tasks long done: ďtax receipts 1985Ē and the like. Beneath the loose folders was a thick, unmarked manila envelope. Inside, I found another manuscript of neatly typed sheets bound by rubber bands. I was shocked to see my motherís name on the title page; it read ďLate Summer, a novel by Jane Itagaki.Ē Judging by the electric-typewriter font, it had been completed in the early eighties, before she bought her first computer.
Stunned that such a huge project was completely unknown to me, I realized that my mother had kept it secret for some reason; clearly, not from my father but from her children. It had probably sat for years beneath the used file folders that neither could bear to throw out. I tried to recall my mother sitting at the family typewriter for the hours necessary to type these two hundred pages, and came up blank.
With the guilty fingers of an interloper, I removed the bands and randomly opened the manuscript. I was immediately shocked by the explicit sexual nature of the scene I had entered.
The fact that my mother was a sexual being was not shocking, of course; that had been revealed in the usual childhood fashion of hearing oneís parents make love. This is not to reduce the power of that experience, however; I remember the peculiar combination of queasiness and curiosity quite well even today.
It was on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe, and the A-frame cabin had a sleeping loft above the tiny bedrooms where my brother and I and my sister slept. My brotherís vicious summer cold caused him to snore so loudly that I crept out to sleep on the lumpy plaid sofa. From there, I could hear every whisper and moan in the open loft all too clearly.
Quite frankly, the soft cries of my motherís sexual transport and closing passion both awed and frightened me. At ten I knew about the mechanics of the act, and was curious about what made it the focus of so much entertainment. I was disgusted by sloppy, dew-eyed kisses in movies, and reckoned that whatever made it so great had to rest in the mechanics. My motherís other-worldly moans seemed to confirm this; since my fundamentally reserved parents didnít parade their affection for one another before us, there was obviously no other cause for her transformation except the mechanics. But the transformation was so total that I realized, with more than a little fear, that another person lived deep inside my mother.
The next morning, I was immensely relieved to see by her usual greeting that my presence on the sofa had gone undetected. But I think she may have noticed how I studied her with more of an adult eye than ever before. She was neither voluptuous enough to embarrass me, nor doughty enough to shame me; compact and trim, she moved with an efficiency and lightness I'd always taken for granted.
I thought at the time that her sexual passion must be like a movie monster than rose up in the dark and melted through the solid steel doors of her normal mother-character; it had certainly frightened me in the same way. But now I think that her struggle was not in keeping her sexual passion out but in keeping the protective mother-character safely inflated for her children.
In that sense, I suppose, we all eventually discover a secret side to our parents--sexuality, weakness, and all too often, dreams lost or abandoned. But with her novel, I discovered that my mother had lived her dream, and gotten clean away with it--even down to writing a record of it that lay carelessly in my parentsí closet for years.
As I lay on the sofa that summer night, not daring to move lest they hear me, listening to my motherís compelling cries of pleasure, I felt that the act was even more mysterious than I had previously thought--it was, after all, the first time I had ever heard anyone make love--and that I did not want to ever hear my mother like that again.
Later, after I had graduated from college and had returned home for a visit, I came upon another sign of my motherís true sexual nature. It was an enlarged black-and-white photo which my father had taken when she was in her early twenties, back when he had a keen interest in photography. It appeared to be early evening, and my mother was sitting on a dinette chair in their small D.C. apartment. It must have been taken during a stateside leave of my fatherís; they were obviously about to go out for dinner or to a club, for my mother was wearing a classic little black dress.
She looked quite dark and sultry, with her spaghetti-straps and bare arms, and her silky hair pinned up with a bamboo clip. She did not look girlish or waifish like many young Asian women do, but solid and sexy. I realized with some distaste that there wasnít a heterosexual man alive who wouldnít take one look at her and not want to slip the straps off her brown shoulders.
Her expression was aloof, with a hint of cool dare; or perhaps, I realize now, it was a post-coital snapshot and her flat expression was one of glazed satisfaction. Or perhaps she was annoyed that my father had snapped the photo at all.
On the spur of the moment, I performed a simple experiment. I turned over another photograph and covered my motherís body, and examined just her face. To my dismay, she still looked uncomfortably sexy. It was then I had the first suspicion that my mother was different than the other mothers in our circle of family friends. I imagined all the ancient 45-year old parents I knew could still enjoy a late-night tumble now and then; I could see sex as a release or weekly pleasure for them. But I began to wonder if sex was more than just occasional recreation, or earlier, procreation, for my mother; perhaps it was what had powered her.
Lest this sound like yet another tale of repressed womanhood flowering in sexual discovery, or another sappy tale of wild passion driving yet another good soul to ruin, let me say that my mother has never struck me as repressed or even suppressed. What I mean to say is that it seems she liked sex tremendously and liked having a lot of it--with my father if he was present, and with someone else when he wasnít. What I find admirable in her secret life of sexual fulfillment was her sense of duty to herself, her children and her husband.
When I first read her memoir-as-novel, I was of course devastated by her infidelity, and saw not a sense of duty fulfilled but simple betrayal. But as I have left my idealistic years behind, and indulged in my own secret life, I have discovered that she fulfilled her duty to herself with uncommonly good sense and a parallel care for her family. Her infidelity did not intrude on her family, and apparently when it threatened to do so, she ended it. She neither sacrificed her own selfhood, nor the sexual life of her marriage, nor the security of her children. She did what she needed to stay whole enough to parent.
Her secret life took care and planning, and yet I do not think she led a bifurcated life of the sort we now describe as ďcompartmentalized;Ē she was not promiscuous but exceedingly careful, and I think my birth, and that of my brother, have more to do with leaky diaphragms than lack of attention on my motherís part.
I should say immediately that I made a slip of tense a moment ago; I said that mother liked sex tremendously, when in fact I have little reason to doubt that she likes sex tremendously, and may well enjoy it with someone in addition to my father to this day.
My queasiness remains, I suppose, as perhaps it should; I have no desire to know who she makes love with or how many times she does so. And she, of course, would never breathe a word of it to any of us, perhaps especially not to my sister.
I have also been thinking lately that my father may not be the quiet, ignorant cuckold I once took him for. Now I think that he loved my mother well, and made love with her well, and therefore he knew that weeks or months without touching were not in her nature. Yet his sense of duty, and to some degree his ambition and love of the intelligence trade, required him to be stationed overseas on remote assignments for months at a time. And his sense of love and duty required that he not ask my mother to hole up somewhere nearby, just for his occasional comfort; nor did it let him ask for a fidelity that would be broken, along with his trust.
Instead, I think, he said nothing, and trusted that my mother would find a decent man to make love with, and spare him both the details and pain of any emotional bond that would threaten their marriage or plans to have children. There was, after all, nothing to do but trust her. For her part, I think she did likewise, trusting my father to wear a condom when loneliness and ardor became wearisome, and likewise trusting him to keep his sensual pleasures safely separate from his feelings of love and devotion for her.
Thus, when my motherís boss, another Japanese-American man from Hawaii, asked her to come with him when he took a new job with another agency, I think my father was probably relieved when she agreed. And when, as her book suggests, her boss asked her to make love with him, she also agreed to this, my father was, if not relieved, then unsurprised. I think now that whatever discomfort the image of his sexy wife splayed under another man no doubt caused my father, he preferred it being another Japanese-American man to any other.
What outraged me when I first read her book, and now causes me to smile with wonder at her naughtiness, was her apparently guileless pleasure in maintaining two lovers when my father would come home on leave. In her novel, the heroine squirms in worried but sensually exciting discomfort as she awaits her husbandís deplaning, wondering if he will sense not just arousal but the touch of the lover she just left. In her book, the husband doesnít; but whether my father did or not, her double-your-pleasure, double-your-fun lack of guilt appalled me when I first read her memoirs.
Now, having experienced it myself, I believe her lack of guilt evidences an inner confidence which I greatly respect, especially when compared to my own conduct. My mother, I sincerely believe, assessed who she was, the love match she made with my father and the career paths she and my father had chosen, and made a clear-eyed decision of what would sustain her through the times apart. Cleaving off her part-time lover during his leave probably struck her as needless and perhaps even phony; to her, I think, duty to the secrecy that bound and protected them both was neither hypocritical nor immoral. Indeed, it was perhaps the boldest form of morality and duty a married couple can share; the point was not to hurt or humiliate your partner with the mechanics of what kept you whole in their absence.
From references in her book and odd bits of recounted family history, I gather that my parents decided to start having children when they turned twenty-five. Their college courtship had resulted in marriage at twenty-two, and with my fatherís posting abroad a year later, the start of my motherís affair with her boss. I think my father foresaw duty overseas for another decade, and did not want to put off having children to the age thirty-five; Iím not sure my mother cared about the timing as much as he did, but there was no doubt that they both wanted children. They may not have understood all that it entailed, but they wanted them just the same.
I gather my father stopped using condoms during his visits. I imagine her lover complained about using them, as did the lover in her book; and so, shouldering the birth control burden herself, she began using a diaphragm with him.
In the very scene I first turned to in discovering her memoir-novel, the heroine is languorously enjoying a second lovemaking session on a hilltop picnic towel. Her sense of spiritual completeness causes her to hold her lover to her, to capture the full joy of unity with Nature. The heroine feels such profound happiness in the sounds, smells and warmth of her loverís embrace that she is vaguely aware of the thought, through the haze of sweet luxury, that pregnancy should result from such deep joy. Later, as they lay snuggled together, still warmly bonded, she wonders if her sense is premonition; and despite her usual precaution, it does seem the soft circle of rubber was dislodged in the perfect afternoon of lovemaking.
Thus, did I enter the world.
This realization took some years to sink in. Everyone had always commented that my brother and I looked like my mother, while my sister took after my father. This apparent contradiction was the source of a long-standing family joke. By carefully piecing together snapshots and the accompanying timeline, I believe that within days of missing her period, my mother flew to Turkey and spent a long weekend with my father--sufficient explanation for my birth eight months later. Even now science is unclear what triggers the first contractions of birth, and that my father lost a sense of his wifeís menstrual cycle is almost a certainty. In any event, my slightly premature birth was unremarkable.
What is more remarkable is how the heroine in my motherís book shows no hesitation in carrying the illegitimate baby to term. While not easy, it was certainly within my motherís power to have slipped back to Hawaii and terminated the pregnancy. I would certainly recommend that action to anyone I know in the same circumstance now, but perhaps it was my motherís sense of self that caused her to proceed with such confidence.
Her lover certainly bore a resemblance to her husband, but not strikingly so. The risks were self-evident; bearing another manís child would permanently break the bonds of sexual secrecy my parents had maintained. Without becoming too dewy-eyed, I think my mother responded to the duty she undoubtedly felt to her unborn child.
Also worthy of note is her heroineís utter lack of guilt over the pregnancy; sex, it seems, became procreative through no oneís error, and so one carried on with all the same secrecy, duty and sexual pleasure as one had before.
Some years after reading her book, I asked my mother if sheíd had a difficult pregnancy with me. She paused, trying to remember any difficulty, and seemed to fail. Not, I think, that she wasnít burdened with the same miserable feelings of bloat, nausea and bladder pressure as other women, but that she expected nothing less and so found nothing to comment on.
Her aunt, who had endured the wartime internment camp with my grandmother, claimed it was her nieceís nature, along with many born during the war, to be fundamentally cheerful and uncomplaining. While this simplistic view did no justice to my motherís complex nature, on the surface I must grant it to be true.
This basically positive nature may also provide some understanding of how she came to carry her loverís second child to term two years later. I often wonder if it resulted from another birth control failure, or perhaps the sort of abandonment of precaution that all of us are prone to; but it also occurs to me that perhaps she decided to have all her children with her lover, just to avoid any questions about the childrenís looks, and that the birth of my sister after my father returned stateside was in fact the real surprise or mistake.
It has even occurred to me that my mother, despairing of getting pregnant from my father after my birth, freely chose to use her loverís seed a second time to spare my father the humiliation of being infertile. A second child would have put those thoughts to rest. Or perhaps she feared my father was infertile, and that he would begin to question her initial pregnancy if nothing came of their unions. With my mother, both of these are entirely possible, since both would conserve the marriage and family unit equally well.
But given my own current confusion, I tend to distrust any conclusions about my mother, or my own situation, that seem too facile. My mother was fortunate to find a trustworthy lover who was blessed with a distant marriage of convenience; his requests for transfer to Hawaii never seemed to get granted, and so he stayed on in D.C., dutifully sending his paychecks home to Honolulu and visiting his barren wife quarterly.
And apparently my motherís idyll did not last as long as she might have wished. I am not sure what instigated his eventual transfer, be it bureaucratic machinery or his own decision to leave D.C., or perhaps it was my motherís decision to end the relationship. In any case, my biological father left when I was six, and my mother quit her job shortly thereafter; she then housewived her three children until my father returned for good several years later.
Although I have no memories of my motherís turmoil, I gather from her novel-memoirs that those two years were unhappy ones. Apparently the following affairs she tried were not so fulfilling or lasting; and eventually, I think her unhappiness forced my father to forego the overseas assignments which might have boosted his rank to Colonel. He returned to a D.C. desk for the remainder of his career.
If he felt bitterness over the cost of her happiness to his career, he never expressed it to me. Now I wonder, in a sort of distaff irony, if he would not have been happier if my mother had found another willing and kind lover to satisfy her for another four years, until his overseas duties could have borne their final fruit.
It also occurs to me that I may have accepted too much of my motherís novel as straight memoir, and that perhaps it was largely the sharply drawn fantasizing of a bright, sexually imaginative and dissatisfied woman. Yet I think not, for even as I try to distance my own affair from her book, the powerful emotions and sexual joys she describes are too natural and imperfect not to be drawn from experience. I cannot doubt that she did make love one perfect afternoon on a remote Virginia hilltop, or stood nervously awaiting her husband with the dampness of a morning tryst still on her skin. All one has to do is examine my motherís expression in the sultry photo to know she was perfectly capable of all that.
And yet I am wary of that conclusion, too, for it serves too neatly as a sort of generational justification for my own affair. Just as my mother was the lonely woman far from her husband, so the woman I furtively meet is in the Bay Area, far from her husband in Honolulu. And it would please me, too, if I could believe that I was like my mother, sustaining myself to be dutiful by means of this affair. But I cannot believe it, for it strikes me as false on so many counts; first of which is that my wife and I have made no unspoken pact, as my parents did. My affair feeds me, but it also distracts me; it does not enable my duties as husband and father, it cripples them.
I believe the dryrot at the center of my marriage has spread from me, and as it spreads to my business and my children, I envy my motherís ability to be dutiful to herself as well as her family.
Yet in saying that, I also wonder if the rot did not start with her, and that in glorifying her balancing of infidelity and duty, I may be trying to let her off the hook for the subtle damage she rained on her children. But that very path ends in letting me off the hook, swinging the responsibility from myself to her.
This seems patently unfair, for while everyone who knows me well can sense something is wrong in my life, my motherís secret life never impinged on me until I discovered her manuscript. Perhaps that is illusion, too, but I cannot honestly say I felt the uncertainty that children feel when their parent is weak, distracted or vulnerable. My mother seemed to know what she needed, and found it without burdening her children.
There was a symmetry to my parentsí secrets, I try to remind myself; who knows what chapters my father would pen about the brothels of Bangkok or Macau if he too set down his unabridged memoirs. Perhaps few, perhaps none; perhaps he too favored the conveniently married. But there is no symmetry in my situation; my wife looks at me with concern, worried by my slow shattering; and I cannot give her a comfort I do not feel, nor an explanation I do not have myself.
I think there is another difference between my mother and myself; from her book, it seems that she and her lover were dear friends whose circle of mutual interest included all things sexual. Yet I do not sense that she was riven with the sort of crazed thoughts that run through my mind, of leaving my wife and family for my lover, of imagining an open love life together rather than a sordid affair. How is it that my mother could find a sexual friendship and no more or less? Or is this yet another of my inventions, and that when her lover left, she was as bereft as a secret heart can allow?
I have been thinking for some time of asking my mother to speak truthfully with me about her experiences. After much thought, I have decided to couch my request, which is unprecedented in our family, in terms of her duty to her children. Even though I, her eldest, have just turned forty, there is much that a duty to truth can offer me now which the hugs, meals and sympathy she freely gave in my childhood cannot. And in return, I will honor my duty to keep her secret life unrevealed until such time as one of my children asks me to fulfill the same duty I ask of her: to speak the truth.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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