So we return to secrets hidden in plain sight, and particularly to Miriam’s* mentally unstable father, Max,* whom everyone seemed to know about, but no one actually mentioned.
Max didn’t come out during the day. Ever. When there were certain things he wanted–usually food requests, he never wanted clothes or books or gifts for the grandchildren–Molly had to take him after 11:30 at night. He came out with sunglasses and a baseball hat scrunched over his eyes, and then twisted his body down in the car so his head was below the window.
And somehow, in a circle where everyone knew everyone else’s business, Max’s conspicuous absences–and his even more conspicuous appearances, when he did venture out [stuffing not just the rolls but also the silverware, a dirty coffee cup, the pats of butter, and the Sweet-&-Lows into the bag he always carried around] went unnoted and un-asked about. I couldn’t say why. Max was simply never remarked upon by the community.
There come a time in each child’s life that the child asked mom or dad, “Hey. What’s wrong with Grandpa?” and the answer was always the same: “He suffered during the war and isn’t always well now.” And clearly Miriam had easier-going, less inquisitive–or simply just less nosy–children than mine, for that worked–seemingly forever. He was the Jane Eyrian equivalent of Bertha in that attic, except unlike Rochester’s wife, he really was hidden in plain sight.
I could leave the examples there, as I think they make their point, except that there’s one story about Max that Miriam loved to tell, and it really is worth sharing–not just for entertainment value, but for what it says about secrets, as well.
Max was allowed to keep up his hoarding, TV-watching, and occasional forays under cover of dark for several more years, until it was time for Miriam’s eldest son’s bar mitzvah. Miriam and her husband were very proud of their son, who had come a long way since getting ejected from first grade for 3-1/2 weeks. He had grown physically, had cut the time spent tormenting his younger sisters in half, and had spent invested signficant hours into learning for the occasion. Max should come to the event, Molly and Miriam decided. He would ‘schep nochas,’ be so proud–and they would work to clean him up–and then they’d get him out and home early.
So Operation Clean-Up Max got underway. Max wouldn’t dream of venturing out to a clothes store, so Molly and Miriam picked up 4 suits and allowed Max to select the one that he felt he would be most comfortable in. They picked up 5 black hats–all looking exactly the same–and again brought them in the house for Max’s delectation. They even broached the topic of the bag–but were met with a shifty look in Max’s eye, indicating they had pushed too far.
So as of day D-1, Max had a new clean suit, had showered–and shampooed his hair, under Molly’s strict supervision–had a spiffy new hat, and looked, as his wife told him, like the charmer he had been in Krakow, so many years ago. Miriam came over, and, crying, told her father she was so proud of him. She was living in anticipation of how proud she would be of the three major male players in her life in a public arena–her husband, her son–and, finally, her father.
It’s hard for me to imagine what Molly went through the day of the bar mitzvah, but to make what I’m sure was a long, painful story short, Max decided that wearing his new outfit would bring down the powers of the Evil Eye, and refused to leave the house in new suit or hat. Molly had hidden his grey ensemble with blue belt, but, despairingly, brought it out, and drove her husband–sunglasses on–to the affair.
I never probed too deeply into how Miriam and family felt when her family saw Max and Molly step into the hall for the affair, but Miriam, who never discussed her father with me, shared one story about the day, and it brings me to this point: Sometimes a secret is completely yours, hurts no one, and truly IS no one’s business. This is true even if everyone has some inkling that something is wrong, and is quite curious. If the secret is yours, and only public curiosity would require you to share, you’re under no obligation to reveal it for enquiring minds who want to know.
So when Jillian, the Fiddler-on-the-Roofian town yenta, tapped Miriam on the shoulder and said, “I heard your father is be here and I’m so excited to meet him!! Tell me–which one IS he?”, Miriam, working hard to keep her spirits up on this special day, pointed to the table where Max sat and said, “There he is, my special Dad.” Jillian looked perplexed and said, “Wait. Do you mean the man sitting next to the street person?”
And Miriam thought for a long while, and then she thought some more. And then she answered with one simple word: “Yes.
**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Max or Miriam, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy. They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.