Silent Mysteries

I grew up in a house with different kinds of silence. I won’t call them all secrets, because some were born of ignorance and not deliberate. My mom’s family past, for example, belonged to the former. She didn’t know what happened to her dad. She didn’t understand the politics of communism and then later, Nazism. She was an uneducated pawn, shuffled around for authoritarian agendas. First as a kulak child, later as a munitions worker, still later as a forced labourer. I couldn’t judge her as guilty, merely naïve.

My dad’s silences, however, were deliberate secrets. Some of these were based in guilt, others based in shame. The difference, you ask? In its simplest form, guilt is based on others’ judgment of you, while shame is a self-judgment. My dog might feel guilty because I caught him stealing the cat’s food, but he has no sense of shame. I might tell him he’s a bad dog, but all he wants is my approval. In fact, his only goal is to next time not be caught in the act. 

German soldiers talking to French women 
 Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-129-0480-25 / Boesig, Heinz / CC-BY-SA

My dad voluntarily joined the Luftwaffe when he was 18 in 1936. He participated in the invasion of France and once shared how he drank cognac in Cognac, France. That’s where I—the know-it-all, Canadian-born daughter—judged him as a guilty perpetrator of war. I didn’t want to hear more of his war exploits. So he kept quiet around me.

But he had other secrets. One included a failed first marriage and dead children. That was a silence I wish he’d broken, and a secret I wish he’d shared. It took a bit of sleuthing on my part, but now I can only pity him when I finally learned the details about that secret. That was his private shame. It’s a book I’ve been working on. Complicated . . . filled with guilt and with shame. There’s nothing like a mystery to keep me exploring and writing family history. 

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