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Family secrets

The little things we can never know

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
9 min read
Family secrets

The vase had been in the house since Mom was a little girl. Innocuous, cute, blue and white in the Dutch Delft style, and only big enough to hold maybe a couple of dandelions at a time. I’d taken it from my grandparents’ house as a memento last year after they passed, and it had been sitting on my shelf for almost a year when, last week while cleaning, I knocked it down by accident.

My breath hitched in my throat as it fell. I managed to stick out a foot and the vase bounced off it and onto the lush blue carpet of my office. Unbroken.

“Phewf.”

I picked up the vase to put it back on the shelf, and when I did, something shifted inside. I thought I heard a “clink.” I held the vase up to my eye but its tiny neck was dark beyond the mouth, wide enough for just a few toothpicks to fit through. I got my phone out and turned the flashlight on, lying on my back and holding the vase up straight above my head with the flashlight pointed into it. There—the faint outline of a slip of paper.

I clicked the flashlight off. Why would there be paper inside? My brain immediately went to the most likely solution: in one of their house moves, Nana or Opa had probably put packing tissue around the vase and some had accidentally gotten inside the vase. Occam’s razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. I tried to remove the paper with some tweezers, but even the eyebrow tweezers and needle-nose pliers I tried were too big for the opening; they couldn’t even get past the neck of the vase. I almost left it there, but…

It wiggled in my brain. Like a half-congealed jello sloshing about in the fridge every time you opened the door. Something not quite right. Something… a bit annoying.

You see, the mouth of the vase was SO SMALL, and there was a not-insubstantial amount of paper in there. It wasn’t just a little rip that could have accidentally fallen in. For the paper to have gotten inside, someone literally would have had to poke it down into the vase with a toothpick, and what was the sense in that? You don’t need to pack the inside of vases while moving, so why bother? Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

I needed to get that paper out. So I sidled up to my husband. “You’ll love this,” I said, with a coy smile. And I knew he would. He does love puzzles. I showed him the vase. “There’s paper inside. Can you get it out, without breaking the vase or scratching it?”

His face lit up like he was viewing the Indiana Jones holy grail (right before the face-melty bit). “Yes.” Affirmative. statement. He. was. in.

“It’s probably just packing paper, but I want to know.” No clarification necessary—like I suspected, the thrill of the challenge was all he needed for motivation. An hour or so later, after trying various long-stemmed implements (including something I thought was a piece of uncooked spaghetti), he found the most success with a piece of metal solder (basically soft, metal spaghetti) that he could push through the mouth of the vase and then, once it was through, make a tiny hook on one end to fish out the paper.

He’d been at it with the solder for a while. “I better not be doing this for a shopping receipt,” he said.

“A receipt would actually be exciting,” I said. “It’s probably just packing paper.”

And then: “Mel! Mel!”

I looked over. Rob was pulling the tip of something out from the vase. Then it was in his hand, and HOLY SHIT, dear reader…

It was a tightly rolled up little message, with typewriter strokes on it.

A secret. fucking. message.

In my own house!

I gaped at the paper, reaching for it like it was a tiny bird. “Can I”—gulping—“can I be the one to open it?” I looked into his eyes.

“Yeah, sure, it’s your paper.” Having solved the extraction puzzle, Rob was now less intrigued. His part was over.

It was as tall as my first thumb joint and wrapped tightly into a cylinder, almost like a homemade joint filter. I started unravelling it. The paper was faded and had a slightly pink-orange hue. The typewriter letters were soft and a bit blurry, as though the ink had sat on the paper for a long time and gotten tired of keeping a crisp shape.

“YOUR CHILD HAS FAILED OUR PRE EXAM. AND WILL NOT BE
REQUIRED FOR FURTHER EXAMS. THIS TERM HAS NOW EXPIRED.”

What the fuck? I flipped my shit, obviously. Who was the child? What exam (or pre-exam) had they failed? Why was this message hidden in a vase that had sat on my nana and opa’s shelf since my mom was a little kid????

I texted my mom, all caps, just like the hidden message.

“MOM!!!! WE HAVE A FAMILY MYSTERY TO SOLVE!!!”

I thought she’d take ages to reply and leave me waiting, but instead my phone rang less than thirty seconds later. Part of me wonders if she thought I’d uncovered some other secret (haha), considering how quickly she called. Then again, everyone loves a good mystery.

I texted her a photo. We began hypothesizing. The vase itself was a tourist trinket from Noord-Scharwoude (my opa’s Netherlands hometown), with the town’s name and a windmill on the side. Typical Dutch kitsch. Since it was a tourist item, I thought it was mostly likely acquired by Mom or Nana when they visited Holland after Opa started his life in Canada. Mom filled in that the vase had been in the house since she was little, so then we settled that it must have been Nana who bought the vase, probably on her first trip to Holland after marrying Opa when their first two kids (my uncles) were young.

Assumption: the message originated in Nova Scotia, not Holland, because it was written in English. So it must have been put into the vase after it arrived here.

So, a message about a child ends up hidden inside a vase for (judging by the style of the message and age of the paper) decades. Why?

I thought maybe a kid (Mom or one of my uncles) had been given this message by a teacher to give to their parents, and they then hid it inside the vase at home (like a bad report card) so they wouldn’t have to share it. But then why not just toss it into the woods or down a drainpipe? Mom says I’m all wrong about this.

Mom: “No, no. This is exactly the kind of thing Nana would do.”

Me: “Oh yeah? I guess she did have a kind of ‘squirrel-things-away’ personality, didn’t she?”

Mom: “Ooooooh yes.”

So then maybe my grandmother received this message about one of my uncles (Mom claims it’s not hers) and then she hid it away in this vase.

So: on a trip to Holland with her husband and two young sons, black-haired, twentysomething Lola, my grandmother-to-be, buys a souvenir vase in the Delft style and displays it in her house upon her return. Years later, she receives a paper message that one of her children has failed the pre-exam to get into some other exam and she rolls it up tight like a message in a bottle and hides it away in a vase instead of just tossing it in the garbage.

The reasons why people do these small, seemingly mundane actions can keep me up at night. I supposed it’s because I’m a writer. “Why did she do that?” I’ll wonder while staring up at my ceiling at night as various scenarios play out in my head. Did she feel some kind of guilt or responsibility that the child failed? Did she keep it as a secret reminder? Was she just curious to see if she could make a tiny piece of paper fit inside an even tinier hole? What if it was a child who put it in the vase and not her? Was she putting it in there to hide it, or as a reminder? Did she remember it was still in there, years later? (???)

It’s a wonder I sleep at all. (Although my therapist tells me I actually have great sleep hygiene, thanks. Best compliment I’ve ever received.)

My uncles have yet to file their responses on the matter, although Mom plans to bring it up with them this week to see if they have any further insights. (Eh, we’ll see.)

The truth sleeps with Nana now. We left-behinds have the pleasure of guessing. The thrill of the chase. The examination of memory and character. A slip of paper sent from the past with all the specificity of the notoriously unhelpful Oracle at Delphi. Like sand through our fingers, the truth slips away along with the people that once knew it. We humans try so hard to always be going forward, standing on the shoulders of giants and using the knowledge of previous generations and all that. But sometimes even as we try and continue to weave the tapestry of our own existence, the knotted fingers of time are unravelling the picture behind us, obscuring things as we lose knowledge and secrets with the passage of time. What secrets will you take with you?

The slip of paper is in the photo at the top if you missed it. Take a look—what do you think?

Family secrets. Mysteries. Every family has them. I bet as soon as I said “family secrets,” your mind immediately jumped to something, like the eyes of a bank teller when a robber shouts, “Tell me where the key is!” Our bodies betray us. Or maybe they don’t so much betray us as say, “Go! Go towards that thing!”

Family secrets are interesting. When my parents split, I learned my dad had had a whole secret first wife that I’d never learned about. I’m sure you have something similar. Most secrets don’t have a real, physical manifestation—a curled-up note in a jar—but you can still feel them, sense them. There are mysterious voids in families, the “We don’t talk about that” faces meant to discourage curious kids. There are the outlines of bodies left behind, things left unspoken, experiences left unrealized. We can begin to fill in what a secret is by the holes it leaves behind. The negative spaces in which people walk around it. “She loved squirrelling things away,” might read, “She had a hard time letting things go.”

I’ve always loved secrets and looking for truth. I remember once when I was ten or so I went to my mom and asked her, “Just checking. We’re not royalty, right? I’m not secretly a princess?” And I think she laughed at me and confirmed that we weren’t, and I really pressed her about it. I’m sure I was fuelled by the 1997 Anastasia animated film, or maybe The Princess Diaries. But it struck me at the time as being important to ask. Such is childhood. (We’re not, for the record. Shame.)

Years ago, when I worked for a law firm, I was privy to all sorts of secrets, and I remember how thrilling it was to be standing in a corridor of white lockers and cubicles, tucking away a nondescript piece of paper and thinking, “Wow, if the wrong person saw this it could absolutely ruin their life, but depending on how the proceedings go, they might never know. However, I, a complete stranger, have access to this document they could consider so intimate.” The world is a strange place.

There are myriad reasons why people keep secrets that never come to light. Sometimes I think that once they’ve kept a secret for a while, even if they no longer feel it merits being a “secret” any longer, they may feel embarrassed that it ever was a secret and so it stays secret, ya dig?

I’ve always been obsessed with the things that people like to keep hidden, a little social-life archaeologist, digging for the nuggets of gold that explain why people are the way they are. Why? Why? Why? I want to know what Nana (or whoever it was) was thinking when she squirrelled that little piece of paper away in the vase. There’s an elegant little character portrait hidden in that action, and it makes me go “tch, what a shame” that I’ll never really know the answer, although I might have some great guesses, and some of them may even be true. But I’ll never know. Not for certain.

I think part of this comes from my genuine curiosity to understand things. To know. Things that are hidden cannot be understood. Thus, if you care about the truth, you will shine a light on the hidden things and try to figure out what they are and what they mean, ugly or not. I don’t think I’m unique in this. That’s why we love crime and mystery shows, right? The truth will out. And it will be so satisfying when it does.

Because some secrets really do go to the grave. Often unintentionally, I think. The name of a relative in an old black and white family photo, how someone felt about something. Their relationships with one another.

Maybe you’ll go to your parents after reading this and ask them ~that thing~ that’s been the jello in your brain fridge. Never quite setting, always surrounded by negative space. That funny thing. Ask your parents if they have any skeletons in their closets. Better now, when they can explain it to you, than later, when you’re cleaning house after they’re gone, right? It’s morbid but true. Death leaves so many mysteries and questions unfulfilled. And if you’re a secret holder… maybe consider just letting it out, clearing the air, and feeling a bit lighter.

I hope I’ve stirred your curiosity, my precious reader detective. I leave you with this quote by Emily Dickinson, written to friends about the inconvenience of moving and feeling discombobulated:

“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”

We’re all out there, with our lanterns, shining light in corners and trying to make sense of it all, to solve the puzzles of our own existence, to divulge and consume these family secrets that help us get to where we’re going from where we started.

Take care and enjoy the beginning of summer.

Blanket Fort

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