My Family Secret, Part One | How it Began

Fourteen years before, he was a frightened five-year-old boy on a boat, headed for America.

He didn’t understand why he had to leave his magnificent home in Hungary. He didn’t know what this America place was. But he did know that he didn’t want to go there.

On that rocky boat, he stuck close to his parents, grandmother, and extended family, listening to their chatter, thinking about his home and all his possessions that he left behind.

And as he stared at his drab surroundings on that day in 1949, listening to the adults soberly discuss what may be ahead, a dreadful realization settled over him:

They had nothing. They were starting over.  And he was as poor as the beggars he used to see outside his gated home in Hungary.

But now, as he confidently strode through the campus of MIT on a brisk fall day, a wide smile spread over Joseph’s face. Those early days of his life seemed like someone else’s history now.

Life was good for Joseph. He was handsome. He was popular with the ladies. And he was a genius. Because of a penchant for partying with his fraternity brothers, his grades weren’t exactly those of a hardworking genius, but they were good enough to keep his scholarship.

His parents had high expectations for him, the oldest son of the family. They groomed him for his golden boy status, endowed upon him a sense of entitlement. You are our eldest son. You deserve the best of everything.

And the best of everything, he had. He was accustomed to nothing less.

Today he was meeting his girlfriend after class. Joseph was looking forward to a night of wining and dining her, and then some good old debauchery with his brothers later on.

He saw her waiting in her usual spot for him, reading a book. A wide smile spread over Joseph’s face as he studied her cute little figure, perfect hair, ankles primly crossed. What a pretty thing she was, he thought to himself, opening his mouth to call out to her.

But his quick stride slowed to a hesitant walk when he saw her look up. Her eyes were puffy, red. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. And as he sat down beside her, she whispered the two words that caused the course of Joseph’s life to take a sharp left turn into a frightening unknown.

“I’m pregnant.”

*****

I don’t know the exact details of how my dad found out his girlfriend was pregnant. But everything else I wrote is the real deal.

Here’s where I start to reveal my family secret

This is my first post for Write On Edge, an online community of writers. RemembeRED is WOE’s memoir prompt.

This week’s prompt is not the usual “write 400 words about xyz.” It’s short and sweet: Imagine your life, or part of your life, as a title and tagline.

So … without further ado …

****

Line of Descent
A father’s secret is exposed. A daughter’s identity is reshaped.

*****

On April 22, 2010, my dad suddenly passed away. The next day my mom dropped a bombshell on me. From that moment on is the part of my life I’m describing.

“Line of Descent” has a double meaning for me, as “descent” refers both to lineage and psychological decline.

PS: I plan on delving into this family secret and how it’s affecting my life in my next blog post. So if you’re intrigued, stay tuned…

Will my 3-year-old kick butt on her report card?

Yes, my 3-year-old gets report cards. New England is competitive, didn’t you know? We start tracking them early here.

Can’t tie your shoes by age 4? Not destined for greatness. Reading Dr. Seuss fluently at age 4? Great potential for Phillips Exeter.

Ok, so I exaggerate. A little. Because in Grace’s case, the report cards are more like photocopied assessment-type things. They evaluate whether she uses her manners, recognizes letters, and doesn’t throw too many blocks at other kids’ heads.

But back in the fall when I was looking over Grace’s little report card, I realized something with horror.

I was looking for the “bad” marks first.

I wasn’t looking to see what she had accomplished. I was looking to see what her teachers thought she wasn’t accomplishing.

And this is when I also realized I was channeling my dad.

I started thinking about the days when I dreaded getting my own report cards. Not because I thought I did poorly. But because I knew when my dad saw them, I’d feel awful, no matter what I accomplished.

I always felt like I was never good enough no matter how hard I tried. “That’s great you got an A-, but I thought English was your best subject. Why not an A?” “A 3.6 GPA? Why not higher? I thought this was an easy semester for you.”

My dad was a complicated man. He was a genius. He came to this country from Hungary at age five with nothing except his family and a few trunks of clothes, not speaking a word of English. Twelve years later he went to MIT on a Fulbright scholarship. But his collegiate career didn’t go the way he wanted it to go, for many, many reasons. And he never graduated.

I understand now that my dad wanted me to have everything he didn’t. He was, in his way, trying to get me to always try harder, keep doing better. He just wanted me to succeed.

But his tactics didn’t mesh with my personality. I just wanted some recognition of how hard I was working. How much I accomplished. What I was doing well. I didn’t feel I got that from my dad until I was an adult. I always felt not good enough. And I don’t want to do that to my girls.

I want them to know how proud I am of what they achieve. Focus on the positive, and then when the time is right, discuss what can be done to help them improve in areas that need improvement.

I’m sure it’s easier said than done. But that’s my goal. And given my lineage, it’s probably going to be hard for me.

So this time I will fight the hereditary urge to look first for what needs to be improved on Grace’s report card. And I will remember to give my big, proud girl a big, proud hug.

Then, in a secret, sound-proof room, Hubs and I will dissect the report card, course-correct where necessary, and devise a brilliant plan for Grace’s path to Harvard.