Erin Philpott Childers
Jon Tribble Memorial Award Winner
I was five years old when the little girls on the bus confronted me with the strange accusation of: “That woman is not your real mom.” This was the same year that teachers would start when they saw my step sister walk into their classrooms saying, “Your mother is the one who married that man… that poor man from the newspapers.” I never knew how to respond to these bizarre occurrences because as far as I was concerned, my “real mom” did not exist. She was a phantom who lived on the very outskirts of my memory—a hidden, ugly scar marking the haunted past of my father. She lived as a distant shadow in my infant mind—a brief remembrance of a smile’s flash, the brush of a kiss, a cut-off gasp with a glimpse of blood. She remained unphotographed, undisplayed, and unnamed throughout my childhood, donning the ominous title of “The Secret” whenever the ghost of her memory threatened to resurface. It was not until I was 16 that I discovered the true origins of her story and by association, mine, after accidentally stumbling upon her online obituary. The words had the effect of a vile poison upon my mind, but my eyes continued to drink them in quickly… selfishly… desperately. A loving mother walking with her children. A truck driving too fast. A broken trailer hitch and a cargo of cement blocks. A crushed triple stroller lodged upside down in a ditch—the children somehow, if barely, alive. Three new orphans and a widower with the cornerstone of their home taken far too soon.
In the years following this staggering discovery, I pieced together the string of events that followed that fateful day as I attempted to justify the extensive and heart-wrenching erasure that had taken place. My father spoke of the funeral and the year that followed only one time that I recall—a tempestuous explosion of word vomit and sorrow that burst forth from an enormous buildup of age-old grief. Afterwards the story once again vanished behind a steel door of locked down, inaccessible emotions somewhere deep in the recesses of his heart. Grief. Mourning. Despair. Three impossible words to deal with for an Irish farmer like my father—a man adherent to the culture of his forefathers and the patriarchal expectations of his homeland. In that singular deluge of honesty, he revealed that he gave her as true of an Irish funeral as he could manage in America, just as he had given her an Irish wedding back in his little village across the Éire sea. Irish wakes last far longer than typical American ones, sometimes lasting a full 3-4 days. Irish people never leave the body unattended during this period out of tradition and a tragic hope that they may indeed “wake.” All clocks and timepieces are halted during this time out of respect for the dead and windows are opened to allow the soul to exit safely. My dad, with three young babies to care for and his family thousands of miles away, had to turn to his community for help. Friends, church members, city leaders, and hundreds of random strangers organized a 48-hour vigil, taking turns sitting in a hallowed watch with my father and her body—a woman that many of them hardly knew—just to try and bring comfort to their broken neighbor. What they didn’t know—couldn’t have known—is that Irish men do not have the freedom to mourn. They are seen as the stoic, strong pillars of the community—forced to harbor their feelings behind rigidly masculine emotional armor. The worst thing an Irish man can do is break down in public. What sort of example is he setting for his sons, his friends, his community if he can’t hold it together and weather the storms of life with courage? What example is he setting if he can?
Perhaps this is why he erased her. His beloved of almost 10 years. The mother of his children. The Secret. Perhaps this is why he remarried just a short seven months later and set out to adopt so many lonely, hopeless children—maybe it was his way of channeling all of that pent up rage and heartbreak into acts of love and benevolent purpose. Perhaps this is why he visited the prison that held her killer, imparting his forgiveness before wiping his hands of it forever. Perhaps this is why he filled all of the empty spaces of our home with clocks—eighteen of them in the living room alone because stopping time meant losing her all over again. Perhaps this is why I myself never learned how to grieve until I got married and my husband taught me that unresolved trauma can destroy you from the inside out. Perhaps this is why I decided to reject this section of my family history and culture—silently and secretly working to learn more about this woman who gave me life because erasing her erases a part of me. It’s been 20 years since her death and I am just now wondering how much of her is looking back at me when I stare into a mirror—how much of her can be heard in my voice, seen in my mannerisms, captured in my displays of affection. I am also realizing the steep cost of such a remembrance and left to wonder if she could forgive me for allowing her to be forgotten, expunged, deleted. It is because of these thoughts that I have decided to deconstruct her from “The Secret” to an actual person. I view it as an act of anti-patriarchal rebellion to reclaim what was taken from me and reinsert it back into the narrative. I chase her memory in a sacred procession with the Gaelic keening and recall Oscar Wilde’s declaration, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.”
She is my tragedy.