Losing what you never had


I remember the first time I read the stories of the Greek gods, particularly Zeus and the birth of Athena. To most people, the idea of a full-grown daughter emerging from someone’s forehead sounds incredible, the stuff of dreams and mythology; however, it didn’t seem strange to me. Zeus reminded me of my mother who could open her mouth and speak fully grown siblings into existence.


In the galaxy of our neighborhood, my family was one of the smaller solar systems.  Daddy blazed like the sun in the center, circled by mother, his reflecting moon, and his two small planets, my sister and me. Friends and relatives, like distant stars, were out there somewhere, but we lived primarily in a world of four.


Mother had been someone’s moon before; this was her third attempt at marriage. She had escaped the drunken rages, violent beatings, and evictions of her earlier life, and found a man who loved and provided for her. As this new man drew her forward and away from those events, her memory looked back and wrote them into a story she told, but no longer lived. Daddy treated her with kindness and love, but he wanted nothing to do with her past. That included her other children, the five she had before she met him.


When my daddy was alive, I moved between two parallel worlds. In one, I was the second daughter of a loving father and his faithful wife, living a typical middle-class life. We lived in a three-bedroom, one-bath brick house with elm trees in the front and a swing set in the back. In the parallel world, I was the fifth daughter of a father who was my oldest sister’s abusive stepfather. He married a woman, twice divorced, whose last known address in Alabama had been on White Trash Avenue. The point of intersection of these two worlds was my oldest sister, Connie.


Clyde and Connie: mother's first two children

Connie was mother’s firstborn, dragged into mother’s three marriages and written into mother’s story of abusive men, poverty, and abandonment. She learned early to take care of herself. Funny, independent, and defiant, she left home at 17 to get married. I was two years old, too young to remember. My father, the love of mother’s life and the man ever kind to mother and his two children, once beat Connie with an electrical cord, a story I learned years and years after he died.


By age 23, Connie had three children. From as early as I can remember, we visited her and her children. I was their youngest aunt, just two years older than Connie’s first child. Mother forbade us to tell our daddy of our clandestine visits. Since Connie had been in my life from the beginning, she was a secret, but not a surprise.


Daddy wanted mother to himself. To please him, she locked her secrets up and never spoke of the past in front of him. But when he was not around, she shared those secrets with my sister and me. Her words carried us back into the past with her, and I began to understand that the story of my life didn’t begin with me. I had arrived in the middle of her story, the story she must tell. So, secret after secret, she told us her life. I doubt she had any idea how heavy those secrets were to the two little girls listening and wondering. But how can I blame her? Stories demand to be told and give us no rest until we give them voice.

Clyde as a young boy


I don’t remember how old I was when a brother, Clyde, sprung full-grown from mother’s mouth into my consciousness. Born two years after Connie, he was mother’s firstborn son from her first marriage. She never spoke much about him, but when she did, she prefaced the story by mentioning the car accident. When Clyde was around ten years old, a car hit him and threw him several yards, causing a head injury. “He was never the same after that,” she said, as if that explained everything that followed.


What followed was a life of petty theft and then more serious crimes, which led to at least one felony and internment in La Tuna prison in New Mexico.


Even before my daddy died, mother kept in touch with Clyde, sending him small gifts of money, trying to right some of the wrong he suffered by being left behind so many times. Daddy must have known that mother contacted Clyde. If he could have stopped her, I’m sure he would have. On the other hand, my grandmother could have been her go-between, passing the occasional letter back and forth, because she had been the one to raise Clyde most of his life.


Out of focus: how I remember Clyde

Clyde visited us a few times after my daddy’s death and during the time mother’s fourth husband was stationed in Korea on a remote tour. Out of nowhere, my oldest brother would knock on the door, looking as handsome and charming as his father, with the same dark, curly hair and green eyes. When Clyde left, things left with him: money, jewelry, silver dollars, and even a small revolver mother kept because there was no man in the house at the time.


In my senior year in high school, two men from the FBI came to our house looking for Clyde. Mother denied knowing his whereabouts, and I think she was telling the truth. Clyde drifted in and out of her life, much like she had done to him when he was small. He usually contacted mother when he was in need of money. To support himself, he took various jobs, often driving a truck.


Although I visited Clyde with my mom when he was in La Tuna prison, I don’t know or remember what his crime was, but I’m pretty sure it involved theft. After he left prison, mother lost touch with him. A few years before she died, she asked my younger brother to try to find Clyde. He searched online and discovered Clyde’s death certificate, and in the space marked “next of kin,” the word, unknown.


I can’t believe how little I knew or asked my mother about Clyde. When I was a child, part of my reluctance may have been fear. Mother had children from both of her previous husbands, and the children from those marriages were left behind as she moved on to new husbands. If it happened twice before, maybe it would happen again. She could leave me, find a new husband, and I would become just a secret she whispered in another little girl’s ear. “That’s her,” she would say, pointing at me standing in front of the brick house, “she had green eyes too.” The new girl would smile, snuggle closer, and soon forget about me, just as I forgot about Clyde and the others mother told me about. I would be left behind with the scenery, entrusted to my grandmother or some other relative willing to take me.


Or maybe I didn’t ask more questions because I chose to hide her secrets, my complicity an act of seeking her favor. Perhaps it was my way of saying: Keep me! Keep me! Abandonment was my greatest fear and after my daddy abruptly left through death’s door, mother was all I had.


Fear may explain my childhood disinterest, but I can’t explain why I didn’t try to find out more about Clyde when I was older. I felt mother’s reluctance to talk much about him. She only told the stories she could; the others stayed inside, breaking her heart. My demands to hear more may have awakened words that would have shattered her world or her sanity. Sometimes silence is the only way we can survive. I don’t really know why I never asked more questions.


We make choices in life. We walk down a road, afraid to turn back, driven forward until it’s impossible to find our way back even if we want to. Now, no one is left to answer my questions. Clyde became the book I never read, buried years ago.


Some stories never find a voice in this lifetime.


I wonder if those buried stories come back as ghosts to haunt us. Do they roam the earth seeking to be embodied in someone’s words, willing to take on new names, live in strange locations, just as long as their story can be told? Maybe Clyde’s story waits for me in a book: he has changed his name, moved to Montana, and now wears his blond hair short. Maybe he is sitting at a table in a small café, looking for me in the crowds and waiting to tell me what I seek to know.


I cried when my younger brother told me about Clyde’s death certificate. Next of kin: unknown. It breaks my heart that he died alone, like a motherless child. I want to tell his story but I don’t know how.





65 thoughts on “Losing what you never had

  1. You are telling his story, just as you are searching for it. Maybe his story lives inside of you and your quaking girl heart…perhaps this is the reason our souls seek out their poetic license. With poetry there’s always enough for everyone and somehow no one gets left behind.

    Thank you for sharing about your family.

  2. I’m very moved by your experiences, your emotional generosity and fairness, and your eloquence. How kind you are to see things from your mother’s point of view, when it would have been so easy for you to blame her for the load she placed on you.

  3. Okay, now you’ve got me crying at my desk at work. When my next student arrives for his conference, what will he think?
    Patricemj is right: you ARE telling his story.
    These posts are the ones I love the most. You’re building the book I will rush out to buy–and read somewhere other than my office….

  4. What pain your family has lived with. And YOU have come through with such strength. You have told Clyde’s story. It seems a tragic one, but I’m sure he must have had happy moments and people who loved him. Maybe that is what your imagination can fill in.

  5. Talk to me...I'm your Mother

    Telling this story is telling his story. I am impressed with your insight into your own thoughts and actions. I’m sure you have spent many an hour with these thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

  6. The landscape of childhood is so often littered with secrets, some big some small. I think the secrets are akin to a background noise that as children we strain to hear and struggle to comprehend. I love the way you have told Clyde’s story.

  7. This essay, this story was so compelling I don’t think I fully exhaled until I reached the end of the last sentence. Your ability to construct details around your childhood, a childhood full of half-truths and unspoken codes, is amazing. Truly amazing.

  8. “Sometimes silence is the only way we can survive. I don’t really know why I never asked more questions.” For me, the only way to maintain the “equilibrium” was to never ask. Now, as one after another possible “answer-giver” dies, I still don’t want to ask, and yet I do. Thanks very much for this post. I’m certain it wasn’t easy to write.

  9. I see many parallels between your family secrets and my own family’s. I’m fascnated with the stories my mother ocassionally shares, but also sad that they have taken so many years, and deaths, to see the light of day. Your stories remind me how much harder life was for women not so long ago. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    • It was harder back then. Mother desperately needed a man to take care of her; she couldn’t survive on what she made as a waitress.

      I think we need to hear our mothers’ stories in order to understand our own.

  10. You have shared with us Clyde’s story and your mother’s secrets. But you are right, it is only part of the story. If you think that the unknowns will continue to haunt you, it might be time to put on your detective cap and start some research. Many records can be ordered on-line. Check with birth records to see if Clyde fathered any children. If so, talk with the mothers and the children. It sounds like Clyde has a history with the police–you can access his records in the states you know he was in. Track down officers who arrested him. See if they remember anything about him. Arrest records have addresses where the person was staying, usually. Track those addresses down. See if the landlords or tenants remember him. Maybe they will have some of his belongings or know where they were dispensed. Track down any court records regarding him. If he had a history of mental problems, perhaps a doctor has looked at him. Maybe a court has ordered it. Track down the doctors. Talk to the coroner who wrote the death certificate, if he is still around. Check newspaper archives for the police beat for more clues in towns he lived in. Look for wedding announcements and birth announcements, too.

    There is a lot you can do. All of this will be time-consuming, of course. But it might be worth it if it gives you the answers you are looking for. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if the last person to house him boxed up his stuff and put it in storage? Or maybe a wife or child still has his belongings and letters from your mother all in a nice little box? What if he kept a diary?

    But, you may decide that Clyde’s mystery is something you can live with. And that is okay, too. Either way, the story is compelling.

  11. millodello

    Where there is a mystery there is often also romance. I sense that the romance in Clyde’s story is stronger than the tragedy. You have asked me to like him and forgive him in your writing. How could I not when you do are doing both yourself? Nice work.

  12. This *is* Clyde’s story, as the others have said. No one could show him more compassion and mercy and thoughtfulness than you have here, or at least no one evidently did, so you have given him a new lease on the life he couldn’t achieve in this parallel universe of yours. It is a kindness to remember our history with gentleness, knowing so little whether we could have done anything differently had we been any of the other players. It’s fascinating to see, as we grow older, what unseen and unsuspected forces have shaped who we are and how we live in the world thanks to family and history. Very moving, my dearest.

    • I agree that we need to try to understand the past. It’s easy to say we would never do something, but we really don’t know until we are put in those circumstances. Thanks for reading, Kathryn.

  13. You have told Clyde’s story with compassion for everyone–except maybe yourself. Your transparency is compelling. But please remember, that little girl was just that a little girl with her own story. She deserves your compassion, too.

  14. Wow! What a story your brother has. In so many ways, his life was very sad, but you have brought us the background that explains how he got to that place in his life. Even from a little girl’s perspective, you saw so much more than you realized. It would seem that a book could be in this for you. This reads like a book proposal. Go for it. I’ll bet you will forgive that little girl for not knowing more, and will learn so much more about your mother and the others in your family. You tell the story with love and understanding, and pass that on to us. I want to see the book when it is published, and will see the movie as well.
    Clyde was very handsome and looks like a charmer.

    • It’s amazing that we don’t see so much of what goes on right in front of our eyes. Sometimes it’s because we don’t understand it; other times it’s because we don’t understand how important it is. I think both are true in my case.

  15. This is another wonderful post; beautiful and moving, as it is read. Your story tells some very specific things about your own life, and that of your brother, but you have also touched certain universal truths in the telling, and surely, many people will read this story and find themselves thinking of passages from their own lives. As I read, I remembered wishing, as a child, that my mother had married some other man. And later, while still a child, realizing the paradox… that if another man had been my father, I would not be me… and then a new fantasy replaced the old wish; that two strangers would knock at the door and inform us all that a terrible mistake had been made; that two babies had been accidentally exchanged in the hospital, and I didn’t belong to this family at all. All I can tell you, my dear year-struck, from my own experience… is that the past is filled with infinite chance occurrences, and they have brought us here. And that life is precious. And it is what is happening now.

    • It takes a lifetime sometimes to find the words the child couldn’t. We feel and experience so much before we can express it. I agree that life is precious and it only grows more so as I age. Thank you for your comments and insights.

  16. “i want to tell his story, but I don’t know how”

    You’ve not only told what you can of his story, but you’ve also acknowledged that sometimes we have to let the secrets remain unspoken, and in doing so, those secrets, and the people behind them, never have a voice. Although I may not know what Clyde would say if he was asked about his mother, or his twice-removed sister, at least I am aware that he lived, and survived in the best way he could, and that his existence connected to yours.

    It is hard for me to imagine what it must have been like to live in this parallel universe, where you had an awareness of your mother’s previous children, and yet they were part of the dark secret that was supposed to remain unspoken. How even as a young child, you managed to make the connection that if children can be abandoned with each new husband, then surely you were vulnerable to the same fate. And then to lose your father, and learn after his death that he was maybe not who you had always believed him to be. So many different layers that try to come together to form the bedrock on which you exist.

    When you write one of these pieces, I am always in awe that you are able to create both an intimate connection, as well as a safe distance, and that you are able to utilize the subtle and almost invisible humor that is the glue that holds the story together. If you scratch away at the glue just the tiniest bit, you find the sorrow, but because you’ve taken such great care to construct the words with one eye always on the humor, we are graciously given a soft place to land. How do you manage to do that? It’s really something to witness.

    I read your words, and I want to tell you that Clyde would not exist today in this space if you had not been brave enough to speak up and say that he has a voice, too. You are lending your voice to him, and in doing so, you honor not only his memory, but you also allow us to surround him with a warm embrace across the expanse of our parallel universe. Every motherless child was once a precious tiny life in someone’s arms. Your words have brought Clyde into my awareness, and I thank you for sharing this part of his story with us today.

    • You are a gifted writer and always write such beautiful comments, full of wisdom and insight. My one wish as I write these stories is to be gentle. Somehow I imagine them as fragile and needing to be handled with care. Perhaps it comes of years of carrying them in my heart and trying hard not to break my trust.

  17. It’s hard to look at pictures of Clyde and not feel sad for what wasn’t in his life. But I can’t find blame with you for not feeling it sooner, or for not wondering about him sooner. The fact is that you were young, and he was a peripheral part of your life, at best.

    (And I don’t think we grow out of being young until about 40, and sometimes not even then.)

    I think we need to age some and gain our own experiences with pain and loss and difficulty before we are able to honestly sympathize with other’s plights. When we are young, much of what we feel is self-centered – we react and think about another’s situation in terms of what it does or would mean to us. I can well imagine that your thoughts of Clyde when you were a child centered on fears for yourself, along the lines of “I hope that doesn’t happen to me”, or “that would be awful (if it happened to me, thank goodness it’s not me)”. As you got older, those thoughts morphed into, “how tragic that must have been for him; I wish it hadn’t been so”. You are now old enough to fully and truly understand…and it hurts your heart. That says enough about who you are.

    • You share a lot of good insights here. I think when we are young, all we think about it going forward into the future. Once we get older we start thinking about the past and what went before.

  18. “I cried when my younger brother told me about Clyde’s death certificate. Next of kin: unknown. It breaks my heart that he died alone, like a motherless child. I want to tell his story but I don’t know how.”

    Someone will, someone will…

  19. Beautiful and heartbreaking. I love this line in an answer to a comment above: “My one wish as I write these stories is to be gentle. Somehow I imagine them as fragile and needing to be handled with care.”

    You handled Clyde gently, carefully and with love. What more can anyone hope for?

    My heart goes out to everyone in this sad tale.

  20. Your telling of these stories is incredible. The more I read what you write, the more I am drawn in. I like that…those little girls are still with us, yes. And your last line? I think you just began.

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