As human beings, we struggle to know ourselves; no matter how close we are to someone it is impossible to completely know another person. This is particularly true for our parents.
When my friend, Naomi*, was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning) for her mother, she discovered some flabbergasting news. Naomi’s father was her mother’s second husband. Not only had she been previously married, but she and her first husband had two children. That husband and those children were murdered by the Nazis.
Naomi had known that her mother was in a concentration camp, though her mother never spoke of those years. She knew that her parents met in a DP camp; she knew that she and her older siblings, named for slaughtered grandparents, were born after her parents reached America’s blessed shores. But she never imagined that her mother’s life had included a previous young family. This information explained so much. She now could see her mother’s hyper-vigilance combined with a certain emotional gruffness not as personality quirks but as the tortured expression of inestimable pain.