How Divorce Took Away the Sister I Never Knew
Why did the Greatest Generation’s shame tear families apart?
I was an only child, and so was my sister.
My father’s daughter from his first marriage was more than 20 years older than I. Even though my sister lived in the same state the entire time I was growing up, I never met her. My dad was never “in the picture" for his daughter, as we would euphemistically say today, and he and his first wife split up around the time my sister was born. Her existence wasn’t exactly a family secret, but her name was rarely mentioned in my home, and I don’t think my dad saw her more than a time or two during my lifetime.
(MORE: How This Half Sister Became Whole)
I spoke to my sister once — in 1977 to tell her that our father had died — but the conversation was awkward and we didn’t keep in touch. A few months ago, I became curious about her and, via Google, discovered that, sadly, she died a few years ago. I got the name of one of her daughters from the obituary, found her on Facebook and contacted her. My niece, Amy, who is now about 50, was flabbergasted to receive my message. “I am truly stunned!” she wrote in her first Facebook message to me. “I never knew my mom had a half-brother. She never said a word to anyone.”
“It makes me so sad to think that you two never knew one another,” Amy continued. Like me, her mother always wanted to have a sibling, Amy said. As it was, my sister and I were both raised as only children, she by a single mother during the Depression, I by a middle-class couple in the ’50s and ’60s. Like Amy, I find it terribly sad that the adults in our lives chose to keep my sister and me apart, and I'll never know why that was, because my parents and my sister’s mother have all died. And now my sister is gone as well.
Bob's niece is at the far right. The sister he never knew is second from the left.
(MORE: How to Make Peace With Your Sibling)
Other Boomers’ Stories
After emailing back and forth for several months, Amy and I finally talked on the phone a few weeks ago. When I told our story on Facebook, I found that similar experiences are not uncommon among people my age. Here are posts three of my friends shared:
“I had a similar experience, when I learned, at about age 40, that my father had another daughter, and therefore, I had an older sister. I was fortunate that when I contacted her, she responded warmly. I was shocked at the initial news, but I'm happy to say that today we remain in touch. Our children know each other as cousins and we are thankful for the extended affection.”
“I recently found out about two step-uncles I had, now deceased. It was not a pleasant discovery, and I'm still troubled by the secret and how it was revealed to me.”
“We found out a couple of years ago that our grandparents on my father’s side had a daughter before they were married. She was their oldest child but was put up for adoption. She had one son and never told anyone that she was adopted. When she died, her son discovered that she had been adopted. Ultimately, my brother and his wife met him and they caught him up on his family that he had no idea existed.”
Secrets and Lies
The experience has left me wondering why some members of my parents’ generation were driven to keep such secrets. Was my father’s divorce so deeply embarrassing to my parents that they couldn’t find a way to introduce me to a sister who lived a six-hour drive away? Was the failure of his first marriage so traumatic that he refused his daughter’s invitation to visit his newly born first grandchild? (A fact I learned from Amy.) How many other families who led “normal” lives in our “Ozzie and Harriet” neighborhoods lived with similar secrets and lies?
Bob McIntosh with his dad at Christmas, circa 1954.
Maybe what was not so great about the Greatest Generation was their inability to face up to the fact that their lives were less than perfect.
And it left me wondering if things were different for our generation. As a father, I can’t imagine ever turning my back on my son the way my father did on his daughter, even if my marriage had not worked out. Could it be that with changing attitudes toward divorce, today’s children stand a better chance of maintaining family connections when their parents part ways? Does modern technology make it harder to hide from our pasts?
I’ll never meet the sister I never got to know, but now I know her daughter. When we ended our phone conversation, we agreed that somewhere, someday we would get together, even though she lives in Illinois and I now live on the west coast of Canada. When that happens, I may begin to repair the family connections that the social conventions of an earlier time took away from me — and from my sister.
Bob McIntosh works as an editor for the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. He lives in Victoria with his wife, Charli, and their cats, Bette and Audrey.