Word Salad

Mom and Dad

When I was in my Master’s program in Marriage and Family Therapy we had to write a Family of Origin (FOO) paper.  It was a long intense work in which we explored family secrets and myths, patterns of power, dynamics, etc. on the sides of both parents as far back as possible—then analyzed our immediate family of origin and current marriage or relationship.  The FOO paper was a monumental task and major part of our grade.

To collect information, we interviewed our parents and relatives.  On my mom’s side I only had my mom to interview, and on my father’s side, I had his two younger brothers, Uncle Earl and Uncle Dick.  Daddy had died of a heart attack on August 25, 1975—six years earlier.  Collecting information was surprisingly easy.   Mom and my uncles happily talked about their lives and childhoods and personal perspectives.

Analyzing the information was difficult.  I squirmed uncomfortably upon recognizing the dysfunction within my family and myself.   To own it, organize it, write it down, and give it to other people to read (and grade!) was even harder.  But the most difficult part was that both my uncles and my mom wanted to read the finished FOO paper!  I found myself feeling protective of my immediate family of origin.  I didn’t want to share intimate details of the dynamics of my parents’ marriage with my uncles.  Nor did I want to hurt my mother by giving her a cold hard analysis of what I now thought of as my “dysfunctional” family.  I solved this dilemma through the arduous process of writing three slightly different versions of the FOO paper—one for my uncles, one for Mom, and one that I turned in.  It was to protect them all from what I knew to be the truth.  Little did I know.

The second year of the program we picked one family member to write about.  I joyfully wrote about my father.  My mother worked as a bookkeeper/accountant all her adult life—while secretly dreaming of becoming a writer.  Mom was solid, dependable and boring.  She also suffered from anxiety disorders that made her overly cautious and constantly nervous.

Daddy was the fun one, the interesting one, the talented and restless one.  He was the one that people actually remembered meeting after the fact.  Outgoing and complicated in a fascinating kind of way—a musician as a young man in Chicago—a paratrooper in the Special Forces.  We had pictures of parachutes descending from the sky, my father a tiny figure somewhere in the billowing silks.  We had pictures of him in uniform, wearing his enormous, sturdy black paratrooper boots.  Daddy was charming, handsome, and smart.  He smoked a pipe, did crossword puzzles in ink, and was unbeatable in Scrabble.  And he loved me, loved me, loved me.  I never doubted his love for a second.  I was his favorite.  Daddy loved me “like a rock.”

I wrote lovingly and forgivingly about Daddy’s long absences from the family while he chased the big deal that would finally set us up for life.  I explained away the bad checks he wrote when “kiting” failed, the bill collectors whose calls I fended off in the afternoons after school when I was the only one home, the cars repossessed in the middle of the night.

All were “passive-aggressive” behaviors—the only defenses Daddy had against Mom’s rigid adherence to budgets, and refusal to allow any outward displays of anger within the family.  In hindsight and in truth, Mama was the steadfast centerboard keeping our family ship on an even keel, while Daddy was the hurricane-force winds whipping the sails.

Still, theirs was a love story.  My mom’s version of the story was that there was an Armistice Day dance being held in Macon, Georgia on November 11, 1942.  Mama was a 22 year old “spinster,” living at home with her parents, and working as a bookkeeper. Mom wanted to go to the dance, but didn’t have a dress to wear.  The morning of the dance Mama went to work and when she came home that afternoon, a beautiful new red dress lay across her bed.  Grandma, who was a seamstress, had sewn it that day.  Mama wore the red dress to the dance that night, and a yellow ribbon tied around her neck.  That ribbon is pressed between the crumbling pages of a scrapbook.  Next to it, written in my mother’s lovely handwriting—Around her neck, she wore a yellow ribbon.

At the dance, when Mama saw the tall, blond, blue-eyed soldier walk into the room, the world stopped turning.  German-Irish, from Chicago, with a wide easy grin— the most exotic and handsome man she had ever met.  He was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, training for the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army.  His name was Edward Flaherty—called “Ed.”  They danced and talked and Ed got her phone number.

When Mama got home that night she told her mother, “I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”  Mama was a tall, skinny, green-eyed woman with long wavy auburn hair.  She was self-conscious about her pronounced overbite, and never saw herself as the beauty she was.  According to Mama, she and Ed quickly settled into a complicated courtship.  Ed was often away on duty, and she waited for him, or took the train to meet him somewhere.  I have a vague memory of a wedding date where he left her waiting at the altar.  Somehow, they worked that out and on March 15, 1943 they were married.

Another important part of the story is that Daddy had been married before—to a woman named Virginia—and they had a son named Michael.  Virginia and Mike lived in Oxnard, California.  I didn’t know about Virginia and Mike until I was twelve and Mike was twenty-two.  Mike was taking a motorcycle trip across the country and planned to visit us, so Mom and Dad figured they should tell me.  Brought up a little Christian girl, I had strong opinions about things like divorce.  Mom said that was why they had never told me that Daddy had been married before and that I had an older half-brother.  I was shocked at hearing about Daddy’s divorce, but thrilled to have an older brother—I had always wanted one.  All I remember of Mike’s visit was that he looked like a younger version of my handsome Daddy and rode a motorcycle.  It was pretty cool.

Now that the BIG secret was out, Mama began to tell me other things.   The rest of Daddy’s family was named Flaharty, instead of Flaherty.  The story was that our tiny branch of the family was different because the Army had messed up the spelling and “once the Army made something official it could never be changed.”

She told me that right after she and Daddy got married, Daddy called his mother in Chicago to tell her the good news.  Grandma Flaharty, proper German woman that she was, responded with, “What kind of a woman marries a man without meeting his family first?”  Daddy, in defense of the insult to Mama’s honor, hung up the phone and didn’t talk to his mother or see her again until ten years later, when I was five.

Mama told me at some point, Daddy discovered that Virginia had never filed the divorce papers “like she claimed,” and he realized he wasn’t legally divorced.  That meant Mom and Dad weren’t legally married and they had to get married again.  But also, during that time, Mom and I lived in Macon with my grandparents for a while.  I have a black and white picture of me with a birthday cake, four candles ablaze, Grandpa smiling in the background.  I knew there was a separation, and another woman was involved, but details were vague.  Mama’s family was adamantly opposed to Mom and Dad getting back together again, but they ultimately did.

Mama died on September 10, 2003, still in love with Daddy.  On the front of the program for her memorial service is a colorful drawing depicting the night Mama and Daddy met.  The handsome soldier walking into the room is highlighted in a beam of light.  The lovely woman, wearing a yellow ribbon around her neck and a red dress, is gazing in his direction—spellbound.  The rest of the room is a blur.  Time stopped.

Over the years I saw Mike only a handful of times.  He stayed in California and got his heart broken on two occasions, but never married.  He lived most of his life in Oxnard, sharing the house with Virginia.  After she died, he remained in the house.  Mike was an extraordinary musician—playing drums, piano, trumpet, and saxophone.  Mike was a gentle man, and kind—one of the kindest people I’ve ever known.  He smoked constantly and talked incessantly, and was very childlike, but he also collected pieces of knowledge like nobody’s business.  Mike was like an encyclopedia on his areas of interest—trains and music, mostly.

Mike came to visit us in Evanston a few times, and after that we talked frequently on the phone.  I can still hear his voice, “Hi, Sis!”  And when we hung up after late phone calls, “I love you. Night, night.”

When Mike was dying of lung cancer in the summer of 2005, my husband Barry and I sat with him in his hospital room as Mike told us stories about his childhood.  Mike said he got shots when he was fourteen, because he and his mother were going to go live with Daddy in Japan, where he was stationed.

I froze, remembering the painful and traumatic series of shots I endured when I was four, because Mama and I were going to go live with Daddy in Japan.  I also remembered my fury when Daddy came home instead, after I had gotten all those shots.

Mike talked about Army doctors and Army benefits he and Virginia enjoyed up until he was fourteen.  Said they qualified for Army housing, but Virginia preferred the little house in Oxnard.

But I was four when you were fourteen!  I thought.  We lived in Army housing at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.  I had Army doctors.  My younger brother Joe was born at Ft. Bragg when I was 5½.

Mike talked about Virginia and Daddy.  “I don’t know what happened,” he said with childlike confusion.  “I don’t know why they got divorced.”

Mike said other things, but I don’t remember what they were because by that time I had gone numb—the ringing in my ears drowning out his words.   I excused myself, went down the hall to the waiting room, and called Joe.

“Daddy was a bigamist!”  I sobbed, when Joe answered the phone.

“Of course he was.  He was never home,” Joe said, flatly. “I figured that out a long time ago.”

“Maybe it’s not true,” my husband tried to console me. “Maybe Mike is confused.” Barry reminded me that the cancer had metastasized to Mike’s brain.

But you know that feeling you have when everything suddenly slips into place, even if you didn’t know it was out of place?  When you suddenly know the truth?  That was the feeling I had—suddenly I knew the truth.  Right that minute I started grieving in a whole different way.  I was enraged at my dad and I had all kinds of mixed feelings about my mom.  Mostly, I felt betrayed by both of them.

The truth was somewhat confirmed later that summer when, at a wedding reception, I ran into Bob, one of my mother’s dear friends.  A man I hadn’t seen since her death. After several glasses of wine I said to Bob, “My daddy was a bigamist.”

Bob nodded with a goofy, compassionate smile.  “Your mom kept a lot of secrets to protect you.”  Later that evening, after more glasses of wine, Bob said, “I have a lot of things I can tell you, but you have to promise not to hate your mother.”

I thought he was going to say, “You have to promise not to hate your dad.”  Bob and I made plans to get together later in the summer, but he cancelled at the last minute and I’ve never heard from him again.  I figure he promised Mom he would never tell.

My Aunt Betty, Uncle Dick’s wife, died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s just weeks before Mike’s death.  We never told Mike, not wanting to upset him as he himself lay dying.  Almost a year later, to the day, Uncle Dick called me out of the blue wanting my address.  He had been working on a memoir and wanted to send it to me.

I called Uncle Dick back on July 4th, 2006.  We talked about a lot of things, catching up on him, me, my cousins.  Uncle Dick told me stories about my dad as a young man, a young musician in Chicago.  That he had a gambling problem.  Once Daddy called my grandpa, a Chicago police officer, and said he was in trouble with the mob for gambling debts and there was no way out.  Daddy had gotten hold of a gun.  My grandpa and my uncle rushed to my father’s apartment where Daddy sat holding the gun against his head—crying and trying to find the courage to pull the trigger.  After many hours Grandpa talked him out of it, took the gun from him, and, somehow, through his own mob connections, made the problem go away.

Daddy was a musician, a creative.  And then suddenly he was in the Army, in Officer Candidate School, learning how to jump out of airplanes.  I have only the sketchiest of details of the years in between.  How he met and married Virginia, who was also an artist.

I know when we lived in El Paso, Texas when I was ten or eleven, Daddy was hospitalized for a while.  And immediately after that, he was no longer in the Army. Somehow, even then, I knew it was more mysterious and complicated than a medical condition, but I never knew what it was.  Knowing what I know now, I suspect it was depression.  Daddy might even have been bipolar, but I’m running out of people to ask.

Uncle Dick and I had chatted for about an hour and were winding down when I said, “One of these days when you’ve got time, I want to ask you some questions about Daddy and Virginia.”

“I’ve got time right now,” Uncle Dick said.

He said Daddy was impulsive and rushed into things, and Dick wasn’t sure why Daddy and Virginia had married.  He never had the feeling the marriage was a passionate one.  Uncle Dick went on about this and that for another 20 minutes or so.

“One of these days when you’ve got more time, I want to ask you about Daddy and Virginia and when Daddy and my mom got married,” I said.  “They are all dead and I think I’m old enough to know the truth.”

There was a long pause. “ I’ve got time right now,” Uncle Dick said, quietly.

Uncle Dick was a conscientious objector during the war, and instead of enlisting he became a smoke jumper in the Civilian Public Service (CPS).  Daddy was stationed in Georgia and he knew a lot of women (of course he did!), so he encouraged them to write to Uncle Dick as pen pals.

“One woman wrote me and said she had heard that Ed was getting married,” Uncle Dick said tentatively.  “She said she didn’t know he was divorced from Virginia.”

There was a long silence on the line, so I said it for him.  “And he wasn’t ”

“No, he wasn’t ” said Uncle Dick.

There it was, the truth spoken aloud after all these many years.  I don’t remember what else Uncle Dick told me, what other details.  The truth was so loud and resounding, that it was like the minutes and hours after an explosion or a rock concert, when all other sound is muted—filtered through a ringing or tinnitus.  I can only imagine that somehow the shit hit the fan when I was about four.

Now I wonder if the misspelling of Flaharty was a deliberate act to keep it all separate, or just a convenient coincidence.  I cannot imagine that the phone call to my paternal grandmother ever happened.  I can only imagine the drama that must have unfolded once the secret was out.

And this makes me an illegitimate child, a “bastard,” if you will.  Even though I felt I had known the truth for a while I still had to wrestle with it.  Not to mention my bruised ego!  I’m the Clinical Psychologist, after all, the one who had written the FOO paper.  How could I be the last to know?  How had I been so stupid?  Easy!  I was simply blinded by the truest and most profound love from and for the man who had feet of clay encased inside his paratrooper boots.

It took a while, but after I got over all my hurt and anger, my feelings of betrayal, and it being all about me, I was able to go to a whole new level of understanding and compassion for both my parents.  Compassion for my mother whose heartbreak and shame I cannot even begin to imagine.  And respect for the woman who was able to keep a secret of this magnitude—to literally take it to her grave to protect me and my brother Joe from whatever bad feelings we would have had about Daddy.

And I found compassion for my father for the amount of shame he must have carried.  The incredible burden he put upon himself early-on trying to keep two women and two children safe and happy—and the tremendous, stressful burden of secrecy and lies.  I can only imagine the relief that must have flooded his soul at some level when it all came out.  No wonder Daddy died of a heart attack so young.

Oh, and poor Virginia!  Although I know now that Virginia hated Daddy in the aftermath of his betrayal, she too kept his terrible secret—protecting the love Mike had for his complicated father—poor, sweet Mike.

Since discovering the truth I’ve poured over old family photos looking for clues as to what might have been happening at different times.  I’ve used them as a Rorschach of sorts, making up my own versions of the story as I’ve gone along.  I’ll never know the middle of the story, but I do know the ending.  Mother loved Daddy enough to stay, and they made it through.

And I know I inherited the best and the worst of both my parents—her green eyes and overbite and his Germanic build and coloring—his tendency toward depression and her anxious nature—her steadfastness and his restlessness—their creativity.  In my youngest son, I see my father—tall, blond, blue-eyed, and ridiculously handsome with a treacherous smile.  It is an interesting and complex legacy.

In the final analysis, my family’s dysfunction wasn’t drugs or alcohol, physical abuse, or name calling.  It was lies and secrets.  And it isn’t my place to forgive, because it was never really about me.  I do wish both my parents were alive so I could find out more of the story.  I’d thank them both for loving me enough to stick it out.

But I’d remind Mama of her favorite saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  And if Daddy was here I’d have to smack him real hard and ask him, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Mom and Dad



  1. Maureen
    March 15, 2013 @ 6:49 PM

    Sheila, what a fascinating story. And what a perfect photo of your Mom and Dad to end it. I imagine most would have a hard time not forgiving a man with that kind of smile and twinkle in his eye!


    • Sheila Flaherty
      March 16, 2013 @ 6:34 PM

      Maureen, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Yep, Daddy was a charmer…I sure did love that man!


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