Writing the Family Secret by Sharon Ackerman

Who doesn’t love mysteries and secrets? I can recall sitting under a shade tree as a child with stacks of Nancy Drew, Alice in Wonderland, Tom’s Midnight Garden and the Boxcar Children series. Before that, there was Aesop and Grimm, rife with gore and violence, all the jealousies, abandonments, and disguises that life can throw at you. And how instructive to observe the way choices made by heroic children can lead to downfall or triumph!

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment argues for the utility of the classic European fairy tale, supernatural and brutal, as an aid to child development. I tend to agree with Bruno and would add that our writing muse has its roots in childhood mysteries. Kids are relentless at unearthing their parent’s secrets and why not? My family’s story is my story and writing requires a continuous revelation of one’s truth. We begin our lives the same way we begin a poem; not quite knowing where we are going but listening as it leads us, following words like magical helpers to clarity.

Secrets lay all around me as I came of age, usually in plain sight, like a bottle of bourbon behind the cereal box. They inspired a desire to hear every whisper behind a closed door, to plumb closets and cellars for my identity stitched within my family’s identity. Recently I was browsing genealogical sites and found my mother in the census data living under her maiden name during a year when she should have been married. An archivist was able to locate her marriage certificate on microfiche and I discovered my mother was about four months pregnant at her nuptials, which occurred a year later than she’d told me. This secret seems laughably benign now, but it was so dangerous to my family that they kept it sealed for nearly seventy years.

Now my mother is gone and one by one her secrets pass to her eldest daughter. I can choose to hide them or write them, and I confess that like the child in a fairy tale, I feel oddly unshackled by their retrieval from the deep woods, able to return home through a forest of fantastical creatures to my real mother, finally allowed her human experience–The one made entirely of flesh, her back against a windowless wall of circumstance, my poems locked inside her.

old gray marriage license
Marriage Book by Sharon Ackerman.
Root Cellar

Under my grandma’s high porch,
cooler than leaves, I hear
rockers creek on the floor

above, voices soft like spiders
knitting at dusk. What I’ll recall
is the door’s webbed eave,

its easy push from light
to dark. And the way shade enters
a soul—through a dirt floor

chilling bare feet, snakeskins
strung over apple bins,
rafters where a moon ought to hang

and doesn’t. Sometimes it’s all
about blackness; tubers and roots
dungeoned, things that grow

more of themselves, lunar eyes
of potatoes, onions sprouting green.
Curing, adults say and I know

they listen for me down here
by the sweet pickles, jars of yellow
peaches glinting like suns.

Nothing to see down there but dust,
they say, but each year
I descend the stairs, prowl smells

of damp rot, fruit preserves shining
in a tomb of lumber that has not,
not yet, given way.

Sharon Ackerman
Sharon Ackerman’s poems have appeared in the Southern Humanities Review, Atlanta Review, Meridian, Still: The Journal, Cumberland River Review and others. She has one poetry collection Revised Light (Main Street Rag, 2021) and a second in the works. She is poetry editor for Streetlight Magazine.

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2 thoughts on “Writing the Family Secret by Sharon Ackerman”

  1. Thanks for this triggering piece! Only when I returned to the home town did I learn the family secrets, some by family legends handed down to cousins, some by research into legal records. Even my own mother didn’t know why her brother had to move. Some secrets I dug up from memories of listening to the conversations of adults who had no idea of the way children perk up and listen when adults go into that grown-up tone unaware that it triggered careful quietude within the child playing on the linoleum floor.

  2. Thank you, Joyce. Genealogy and history are startling sometimes. I’ve come to know several family members as people, something they can deny us while they are living. Alas, the computer age has undone a lot of secrecy……

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