Wherever you will go

On silent stories and untold advice

I uncovered a family secret over break — my grandmother was married once before she tied the knot with my grandfather.

It came out over a casual day-after-Thanksgiving brunch among the women on my mom’s side of the family. Among pecan pie slices and cups of turmeric tea, an older cousin began talking about a family heirloom, recounting how, when her young daughter asked where the piece came from, she had responded by saying, “From Auntie Joy’s first marriage.”

When the words first came out, I wasn’t so sure I had heard correctly. To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother, Joy, had only married once — to my grandfather. Quickly and unthinkingly, I ran through a mental flashback, revisiting the known details of Joy’s life as if they were scenes from a movie, concluding that there was no room in my timeline for an additional marriage. I convinced myself I had misheard her passing remark.

But the conversation pressed along in that same direction and, moments later, it was brought up again. I interjected, stopping the conversation and asking for clarity — had my grandmother been married to someone else besides my grandfather?

My own mother, my aunts and the other relatives easily explained. The short answer was yes, but everyone was hazy on the details. No one there — not even Joy’s daughters — had ever spoken to my grandmother about the first marriage. They had only discovered it had ever happened relatively recently, sifting through old papers and writings after Joy’s passing earlier in the summer.

Joy had had famously good judgment and she divorced her first husband for a reason. When my grandfather, who is still living, was asked about the first marriage and why it had never been discussed, his answer was simple: “It just never occurred to us to tell you. It was in the past and nothing came of it. What was to tell?”

The first marriage hadn’t been a secret because it was scurrilous or shameful. Rather, it was a secret only because it was, simply and cleanly and certainly, a part of the past. Nevertheless, the realization was striking to me. I had always viewed my grandmother as a person who had lived a life that was both simple and perfect and tied up ever-so-nicely by some beautiful, yet invisible, red bow.

She had had a big and beautiful family, a pretty brown house with an unmistakable pink door, a well-manicured rose garden and an enviable library. She was an artist, a cook, a craftswoman, a big-hearted neighbor and a spirited host. She had been a pillar of and active member in her community, serving as mayor for nearly a decade and an admired volunteer for much longer.

She had a husband — my grandfather — who wrote love letters to her and swore never to leave her side, and never did, even after more than half a century together. She had children who adored her and grandchildren who admired her. At her memorial service, my aunt quoted a New York Times piece by Maureen Dowd that she said perfectly applied to Joy, calling her “worldly but thoroughly incorruptible; hilarious, but ruthlessly earnest; unexpected, but magnificently consistent; wicked, but good.”

She was a person I had always hoped to emulate, but also often saw as unattainable. I wanted to be like her, but told myself that her persona was too far from my reach. Finding out she had been married before my grandfather didn’t detract from my image of Joy, nor fundamentally change the character of her relationships and her actions. But it did make her more human.

News that my grandmother had been married once before she began a life with my grandfather was news that she had a life before him, before my mother, before me. It wasn’t shocking — it was strengthening. There was suddenly a heightened largeness to my picture of her, of Joy. Another chapter added to the story I thought had already been written, finished, closed. A whole section of her life that I may never have otherwise known existed.

Instead of revealing a defect in her armor, this information made her more refreshing and understandable to me. She had struggled over her decision, written questions in her diary about going through with the engagement, asking herself repeatedly if she really thought her first husband-to-be was “The One.” When, four years into the marriage, she realized her doubts had not been unfounded, she was bold enough to correct her course, to move on and strive for something more.

I learned plenty of powerful lessons from Joy during her life, but, perhaps ironically, some of the most moving advice she’s given me is that which I gained this past weekend, in her notable absence. It’s never too late — that’s what this story, this secret, told me. Mistakes we make are rarely un-correctable. In fact, often, they help point us in the direction we would rather be going.

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