Every family has its secrets. Whether it’s wanting to maintain a sense of privacy or avoiding having hard conversations with their children, there’s always a reason for keeping these secrets. Unfortunately for those trying to hide them, secrets always get out and the results are about as shocking as the secrets themselves. As some of these stories cover sensitive topics, there is a trigger warning.
All content has been edited for clarity.
The Incorrect Form Of Coping
“’Who’s that, Gramma Helen?’
I pushed the photo album towards her, opened to a late eighties DIY family Christmas portrait. Gramma Helen’s gnarled forefinger perused the scene.
‘That,’ she began, with the sort of undue self-referential formality she was known for, ‘is Grandmother and Grandfather.’
‘That,’ she continued as her finger traced their forms, ‘is Uncle Eric and his wife Allison.’ And I smiled at the inside joke with myself, for although I recognized the couple my parents colloquially referred to as ‘Eric and Al,’ at thirteen years old— and living two-thirds a continent away— half the time I thought it was short for Aunt Erica and Uncle Alan.
‘These here,’ she tapped her fingernail with just a hint of matriarchal pride over the newborn twins propped up in Al’s lap, ‘are your cousins when they were very little.’
‘And this,’ she paused and blinked at the figure half-shadowed by the sparkling bough of a tree, ‘was your Aunt Karen.’
Gramma Helen gently closed the photo album without further comment. Her long, steel-gray hair was parted mercilessly down the middle to expose a shout of the frosty white scalp, then bobby-pinned methodically into a lacquered cinnamon bun at the nape of her neck. With her faded green eyes swimming behind gargantuan glasses and her penchant for loose, large-buttoned cardigans over dark turtlenecks, Gramma Helen was the quintessential midwestern grandmother of pioneer stock. Kind but strict. Stern but gentle.
Nevertheless, Gramma Helen was not MY grandmother. Hence the awkward first-name basis with my elder. I simply called her what my father called her, and he had always called her Helen ever since his own mother had died and Helen took him in at the age of eight. Dad and his older brother, Mac, both. But they were never adopted, and there was always an unwritten divide there between Helen’s own offspring and the others she cared for. My dad and his family moved to the west coast and visited only every few years. Mac moved down south. They weren’t in the annual Christmas pic, only Helen’s children.
Uncle Eric. And Aunt Karen.
The realization ignited my memory. ‘I do have an Aunt Karen,’ I announced, to no one in particular, and Gramma tutted, ‘Of course you do. She was the same age as your father.’
I seized the photo album back. There Karen was, under the tree in that snapshot and all previous years, her permed nut-brown hair crowding her eyes, a faint closed-mouth smile on her lips. In one scene she sported a busy lime green Cliff Huxtable sweater, in the following year’s tableau a red velvet jumper over a cream blouse, and in a third, as her hair grew out, a navy blue suit with pearls peaking out from her lace collar.
She was pretty—shy, lonely, but definitely pretty. Just as pretty as I envisioned her two years prior when my parents insisted she was only a figment of my imagination.
‘Aunt Karen?’ my mother retorted in what I now recognize as over-the-top hammy confusion, ‘You don’t have an Aunt Karen! You must have dreamed that up.’ My father teased, ‘You’re a little old for invisible friends, Meg.’ And I figured it must be true. Until now.
Now, right in front of me, was the woman I had certainly not imagined. Right here was my Aunt Karen. I turned the page triumphantly.
And she was gone.
The following year’s photo featured the same plastic pine, my uncle Eric in a new mustache, Al with her hair fresh out of curlers, and a slightly blurry shot of the twins, now full-fledged toddlers, squirming for dear life. Grandpa looked a little paler, Gramma was a little more wizened. But no Karen. In fact, no Karen for any of the years following. Not a single one.
Gramma watched me hurriedly flipping pages and laid a cool, soft hand over mine. ‘Karen died. Four years ago.’ She did not tear up. It was not her way.
I was not close to Karen. But at thirteen I was morbid. I wanted to know why people died so I could calculate the possibility of similar misfortune befalling myself or my parents. Thus, with all the self-centered blatancy only a young teen can easily muster, I asked Gramma Helen: ‘But how did she die?’
Gramma exhaled slowly. She leaned forward on her creaking chair, peering around the front room curtains onto the empty residential street at 9 pm on a Friday night. My parents wouldn’t be back for hours. Then she turned to reappraise me through her all-seeing spectacles and finally murmured into her teacup, grief catching in her voice, ‘She hung herself. Karen hung herself.’
It would take many more years— decades even— before I realized the irony of this moment. That the great shame was not the loss of a loved one to a horrible disease, but rather, the cowardice of a family that would sooner obliterate a woman’s entire existence than expose, discuss, learn— and truly own— the devastation of mental illness within their ranks. They sacrificed all the beautiful memories left them of their daughter, and sister, for fear of stigma. That is a messed-up family secret.”
This Actually Took A Wholesome Turn
“Last year I did Ancestry.com and found out I am 47% Ashkenazi Jewish. I asked my parents about it and they said they are not Jewish, that no one in the family is Jewish, and that I wasted my money on the foolish genetic test. This conversation was followed by my parents not speaking to me for about 3 months. Since I’m Jewish they weren’t going to associate with me. The irony is not lost on me; since I’m half-Jewish, they are either both half-Jewish or one of them is 100% Jewish.
Nevertheless, I thought my parents were probably right and there had been some mistake with the test. I purchase a 23andMe kit and did the test again. The results were the same. I didn’t mention it to my parents and the matter was shelved. This past May, I received an email from 23andMe telling me that I have new relatives. I login into the portal and find two genetic matches: one is a 25% match and is my uncle and one is a 12.5% match and she is my cousin. I had never heard of these people so I immediately contacted them through the portal. The uncle answered back. We exchanged a couple of messages through the portal and I sent him my phone number. He called, we talked, and after comparing family histories, I determined that he must be my mother’s half-brother. He was 100% Ashkenazi Jew which makes my mother at least 50% Ashkenazi Jew.
The next day, out of the blue, my mother called me and told me that she was illegitimate and she didn’t know who her father was. I comforted her and didn’t say anything about the half-brother. My mother’s revelation lined up perfectly with my recent discovery; she and my uncle were half siblings and his father was her father. The cousin I saw on 23andMe was my uncle’s daughter. It was all nice and neat. I flew to NYC the following month and met my uncle.
He was a very pleasant man, I sort of looked like him, but he really had no interest in my mother so I resolved not to tell her about her half-brother unless he expressed an interest in getting to know her.
July rolled around and there was something that was nagging at the back of my mind and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I order two more 23andMe kits and resolved to go visit my parents (they live 1200 miles away) and get them to spit in the tube. I found all sorts of excuses to not go, but as fate would have it, my parents came to town and stopped by to see me for a couple of hours. This is providence and I enlist my son (he’s 20 years old and knows everything about the situation) to help me.
He sweetly told his grandparents that he was doing research about his family and asked if they would please spit into the tubes so he could make more progress with his family tree. My parents were less than enthusiastic about participating, but I desperately sweetened the pot by promising not to tell them the results unless they asked. They reluctantly agreed and spit in the tubes. I was beside myself with excitement. The math that was bothering me about the previous results would be resolved. I registered the tubes, packaged them, and the next morning took them to the post office and shipped them off. My life moved forward as normal and in September, my husband and I went on a riverboat cruise in Europe. Halfway through our cruise, I get an email from 23andMe that my dad’s results were in the portal. I eagerly logged in and looked at the results.
The results didn’t make sense. My results showed my uncle and cousin, but I didn’t see my dad. My dad’s results showed he is 80% Baltic and 0% Ashkenazi Jew, plus I didn’t show up on his DNA results. I’m not biologically related to my dad. I look like my dad, and my dad’s niece and I look so much alike that we could be sisters, my dad’s nephew and I look like siblings too, and I’m not related to this man or to his niece and nephew. I must have been switched at the hospital and my parents’ child is somewhere out there, and so are my birth parents. This is incredible. The next day, I receive another email from 23andMe regarding my mom’s DNA results.
I eagerly logged into the portal and found out that my mom is my biological mom and that she is not an Ashkenazi Jew. My parents were right; they were not Ashkenazi Jews. The lights went off in my head and I finally got it. My uncle is not my mother’s half-brother, he is my biological father’s full brother! I send my uncle a text message and explain my findings. He called me right away and we discussed the matter. He did not volunteer to tell his brother so I took matters into my own hands. Like anyone in today’s world, it took me a few minutes to locate my uncle’s brother on FB and send him a friend request.
It took my biological dad a couple of weeks to accept the friend request. He’s 72 so I was delighted he even used FB. I sent him a private message with a picture of my mom from 1969 and a message that reads ‘Hi my name is… I understand that you knew my mother in 1969 in Bucharest. Her name was …. Please let me know if this is you. Thank you.’
He doesn’t answer for a couple of weeks, but it was fine since lots of people are not savvy about the instant messenger and certainly not this age group.
He finally answers saying, ‘Yes, this is true. You are as beautiful as your mother. My God, it has been 50 years. Just curious, how did you know it was me?’
We continued to FB message for about 30 minutes making small talk until he messages me, ‘Are you my daughter?’
My response was, ‘My phone number is….’
He called me, we talked for over 3 hours, and we made plans for my husband and me to fly to see him the next week. He offered for us to say at this house and we accepted. We spent 3 days with him and his wife. He was gracious and open, and I felt fortunate to know him. He was so much like my dad. They both had dark curly hair, they were both opinionated, inflexible, cheap, and self-centered. He has a son and a daughter (I’ve always been an only child, but now have a half-sister and a half-brother out there), and he has a tepid relationship with them, much like my relationship with my dad. The reasons are so similar it’s uncanny.
I don’t know if my parents know that my dad is not my biological father. I decided never to tell my parents. I’m still shocked by this secret. I look more like my dad and his family than like my mom. I don’t look like my biological dad or my half-siblings. The whole thing is wild. I am certain that there are millions of people in my same situation and that very few of them know their true biological parents.”
Wrong On So Many Levels
“Before my friend was born, her parents had had two daughters. They kept trying to conceive because they wanted a son. When their third child (i.e. my friend) turned out to be a girl, they didn’t want her.
They gave their third daughter to her uncle to raise (her uncle and aunt did not have a child).
So she was raised thinking that her two sisters were really her cousins and that her aunt and uncle were really her parents.
They told her the truth when she was 12. They heartlessly even told her the reason why her parents hadn’t wanted her.
They then asked if she wanted to live with her biological parents, to which she said no.
There were tears in her eyes as she explained to me how her cousins were actually her sisters and that they had grown quite close.
I didn’t know how to react. What is an appropriate reaction when someone tells you this? And this girl is from a well-to-do family of educated people. It’s shocking.
Thankfully though, she has grown up to be a very intelligent girl and is happy with her life. I’m glad she managed to find the strength to move past this.”
Something Fishy Is Going On Here
“My father, experiencing an aortic aneurysm, told me something I have kept a secret to this day He lay in the ER of the hospital, waiting for a helicopter to take him to a larger hospital for emergency surgery, that he would not survive. His pain was under control and he told me to take out a pen and paper. He gave me all his passwords to his email, ATM, etc. Then in front of my friend, who went with me to the hospital, and the medical doctor, he told me he had made a mistake in naming my sister as executor of his will. He apologized for his choice and told me he had always meant to correct his will to make me the executor. I told my father not to worry, all would be well, and I tried to soothe him until the helicopter arrived.
My father died hours later. To complicate the situation, my mother was in a hospital, 100 miles away, recovering from a surgery she almost did not survive. She was very medicated and unaware of her surroundings for a few days after his death. My sister and I were in a very difficult place, as we feared the shock of his sudden death could affect her adversely. We chose to wait until she was stronger to tell her. In the meantime, told her dad was resting, tired from making the commute to her hospital, as he had in the days before his death.
Initially, my sister and I worked together to piece together my father’s financial situation, and to keep his estate running. I did all the accounting of income to bills ratio. I set up spreadsheets to organize our progress. Organizing information and data is essential for any project’s success. I made the calls to the insurance companies, and my sister sorted and organized the paperwork, all the while we worried for our mother.
I calculated there was enough income to pay for a caretaker for my mother, who was now in a rehab hospital, and who would recover. My sister announced she would quit her job as a custodian in an office, and move into the large family home, to receive a salary for caring for our mother. She did so, and her husband sold his business and moved into our parents’ home. My sister did a great job, and Mother recovered, is mobile, but needs help with shopping, cooking, cleaning, and such.
It has been four years. My sister has shut me out. I have no clue about how the estate is being managed, except seeing with my own eyes that the rental properties are not being kept up. She will not discuss anything about the estate. My sister is very bitter, and to be honest, has become verbally abusive to me when I go to see my mother. She has caretaker burnout, but won’t allow me to help, other than taking my mother out for lunch and to the salon for her hair. Our relationship has disappeared. If I call her, she tells me to call our mother, not her. When I go to visit, the visit must be for mom, not her. Usually, my sister and her husband disappear when they know I am coming, as I always call my mother a couple of days in advance.
Once, after seeing my mother, I was able to speak to my sister in private. She admitted she was miserable. I told her I could see her stress, and that I wanted to help, would she consider taking a vacation, or a break, for her own health? This angered her and she told me she was not the kind of person to take vacations and ridiculed me for having suggested paying a caretaker for our mother 4 years before. I told her there was still money for it, and I would still take that route.
Now, during the holiday season, my sister does not want holidays as a family. I offer to host the holidays. I live 30 miles away, and my 81-year-old mother does not want to travel that far to my house and back. My sister does not want me there on the holidays. I feel so sad, and as though she has shut me out.
My father was correct, he did make a mistake in naming her as the executor of his will. We never know how others will behave when given a great responsibility. This is the secret between my father and me. It would only make matters worse, to tell my sister my father’s dying words. Painfully, I have lost my sister, for no good reason. So sad. So messed up.”
They Shouldn’t Have Kept This One A Secret
“This is pretty awful, but yeah my secret could potentially ruin a family.
My brother had an affair that led to a child born of the girlfriend and to a very messy divorce. The girlfriend was a bum, living a bum life, soon taking my brother down the same road.
He tried being with his children from his first wife as well as his girlfriend’s child as much as time allowed. But, with two families to support, he was stretched thin.
His girlfriend hated his kids from the first wife and was not shy about letting everyone know how she felt about his other children.
My brother began to spend less time with his older children, making his girlfriend a happy camper. Unfortunately, this proved fatal for the children. Their mother had always been lazy and neglectful so their dad was their rock.
His daughter committed suicide. When my brother called me, my son and I drove to the house. Seeing my deceased niece’s computer, I asked my son to download everything to a disc and erase all the contents.
Sadly she had called many friends and family members before she died. She acted like her life was all good, calling ‘just to say hi.’ None of us thought anything about her calls, she being the last person we thought of who would ever harm herself.
Later my son and I read what was my niece’s last communication prior to her suicidal end. She had problems dealing with her parent’s divorce, her mother’s gambling, and her father’s girlfriend’s hatred for her. This she couldn’t understand.
And the day before, my niece had called to speak to her dad and his girlfriend told her that her dad was busy, to stop calling him, and to leave him alone; stop bothering him with all her problems. She never got to talk to her father again.
My son and I have held this secret for almost 20 years now and will take it to our graves. But when I see her, I am swept up in a wave of what I believe is hatred. I’m absolutely repulsed by her presence, which is unusual for me, I am known for getting along with everyone.
Do I blame her for contributing to the situation, sure, but more than that, her hate for innocent children will never leave me. What would brother do if he knew?”