I have been thinking about secrets lately. How many I have kept and how many I have confided in my life, and why they were secrets in the first place.
When the good news is not a sure thing yet (“Guess who’s pregnant?” ) we don’t want to jinx it, or so terrible (“I’m not supposed to tell you, but…”) that telling it will confirm its reality, but we just can’t contain the news, we tell just one person and make it a secret. Or when something is unbelievable, like the secret my friend, writer Marion Renning wrote about in her poem, “Blabbermouth”:
Swearing me to secrecy
My mother told me
Where babies came from.
I got up on an orange crate
And told all the kids.
Imagine the faces on “all the kids” that day. What confusion she erased! How many pregnancies she helped avert among those eight-year olds! How the reputation of storks was righted in that neighborhood of Chicago the day she spilled the beans!
Secrets can be bonding or bondage.
Telling someone a secret is like a pledge, like saying, “I give you this nugget of information that no one else knows because I like you best, or trust you most.” But sometimes that can be a challenge. (Or something worse. What if someone lets you in on something illegal or immoral or evil? )
Keeping the secret can be a pledge, too, of honor and faithfulness. Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s “it’s in the vault”? Though if it’s something illegal or immoral or evil it pits your sense of honor against your disapproval, or your concern for some hurt that can come out of your keeping that secret. (“Promise you won’t say anything, but I murdered Fred who isn’t really little Jimmy’s father…remember Larry, best man at my wedding? Well, right after the rehearsal dinner…”)
Some secrets have expiration dates, like that pregnancy only you knew about, or the friend who finally comes out to his parents so you’re not the only one who knows, or the job offer no one knew had been offered gets turned down or accepted. Some secrets are so deep in the past that they live longer than the people who told them and kept them, and are discovered so long after the fact that they can be like those buried land mines from World War II which may detonate unexpectedly. (In the Depression people sometimes sold their jewels and replaced them with paste and never told a soul. Imagine inheriting those family jewels.)
I am the repository of secrets that have expired, and secrets that stay buried in me after the person who told them to me are gone (which is a lonely feeling).
In my parents’ generation, health was a secretive issue. You couldn’t even say the word cancer, you spelled the first two letters, CA…and the rest was implied. In my own family, we couldn’t speak of having even a cold outside the walls of our apartment. Now, the family rule is no secrets when it comes the health.
With the perspective of age, I understand secrets differently from the way I used to understand them. I think they should be used exclusively to prevent pain and hurt, and never to delay pleasure. Even if it’s not a sure thing, sharing the anticipation of something wonderful puts a little more joy into life. So if you cheated on your taxes and you’re feeling guilty I’m your girl, I won’t tell a soul; but if you think you might win the lottery and want to keep it under wraps, don’t confide it to me. I’ll probably blab it to the world.