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Jack's Take: Secrets from the past

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Grady Family Reunion, September 2023 — Courtesy photo
Grady Family Reunion, September 2023 — Courtesy photo

Last night I attended a preview performance of the ACT/Fifth Avenue Theatre co-production of Cambodian Rock Band, a "play with music," which had its premiere at Signature Theatre in New York and went on to Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Theatre before its arrival in Seattle.

Written by Lauren Yee and featuring songs by Dengue Fever, it is a riveting memory play about a father-daughter relationship, the power of music to heal and conceal, and forgiveness. The show delves into the horrific slaughter of 12,000 innocents by the brutal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1978, following the end of the Vietnam War. It's also about secrets that we keep from those we love, including secrets a father kept from his daughter about the killing fields he experienced.

Last month I traveled to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, to attend a family reunion on my mother's side of the family. These reunions used to occur annually while I was growing up but ended at the turn of this century, around the time both my parents passed.

Just before the pandemic, I started a conversation with a few cousins about bringing the Grady clan together again, and so the first reunion of the 21st century happened in 2021. Several of the older cousins have studied our family ancestry reaching back to the late 1800s, when my maternal great grandparents emigrated from Ireland. But there were new discoveries to be made that very weekend.

Mom and McFarland 1940, Courtesy photo  

A black-and-white photograph of my mother with a dark-haired man who was not my father appeared the night before the gathering in a trove of pictures my cousin Lori from Indiana brought with her. We had no idea who he was. We had never seen him before, and he wasn't a relative.

The next day, as we were sitting at a picnic table in the outdoor pavilion we'd rented for the reunion, my cousin Mary Anne approached me with the mystery photograph I'd seen only the day before.

"Jack, we know who this man is with your mom," she said with such certainty. "I babysat his six children; they lived down the street from us." She knew his name, that the picture was taken in 1940, when my mother was 21, and that they'd been engaged but he broke it off when my mother contracted tuberculosis and had to spend 28 months "recovering" in a sanatorium.

His family convinced him to break off the engagement, according to my cousin's neighbor, who also happened to be a friend of my mother, because they felt my mother would be sickly the rest of her life. He went off to serve in WWII, returned with his hair turned all white, and married another woman with whom he had those six children my cousin had babysat down the street.

I was in awe of this revelation, a secret neither my mother nor anyone else in the family had revealed to me. I did know about her ordeal and recovery from TB at such a young age. My mother had an infected lung collapse, then a brutal surgery that left a dramatic scar on her back. But her vivacity could not be denied; a lifelong tennis player and ice skater, she introduced me to both in addition to cross-country skiing, which she took up later in life. My love of the outdoors and sporting activities I inherited from her.

It's amazing when you learn a revelation about a parent that you didn't know in their lifetime. I began to think how foolish the man was who broke off the engagement to my mother. And then I thought that I wouldn't be here if that hadn't happened. How random it all seems.

Much like when I learned a secret about my father only one week after his death. Like my mother's initial fiancé, my father served in WWII. Upon his death in 2001, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer unearthed that his armored division was responsible for helping to free several concentration camps at the end of the war.

When I read this in print, I was aghast. He never shared this information with me. I only knew he was in the signal corps division and served as a code breaker in his unit.

One of the last films I saw with my dad was Saving Private Ryan, and he walked out at the end of the film, when the surviving soldier visited Normandy and walked among the graves of his fallen brethren. I could feel the emotional weight my father carried that day. And yet there was more I didn't know until he was gone.

We all carry secrets, some lighthearted, others more of a burden. My biggest one was during my teenage years and into college. I was Gay. I liked boys. But I felt like, other than my best friend, with whom I had a physical relationship, I couldn't tell anyone. Not my parents, not my other friends, not my extended family.

When I finally came out in 1987, it was such a relief to make it known, to let go of all those years when I felt hidden. My parents struggled with my news — they had their own secrets — but the rest of my social circle, my friends and family, rallied. I felt free.

I find it cathartic that theater and film allow us to reexamine our own lives, our histories, and shed light and understanding that we all aren't that different. We love, we hurt, we hide, and we hopefully see the light of day. Cambodian Rock Band did that for me last night. While painful or unsettling, uncovering secrets can also bring new understanding and gratitude.

Jack Hilovsky is an author, actor, and blogger who has made his home in Seattle since 1986. His first book RJ, Farrah and Me: A Young Man's Gay Odyssey from the Inside Out, was published in June 2022. It can be found at Elliott Bay Book Co., Madison Books, Nook & Cranny, and University Bookstore, among other local booksellers.