A charming married man in his early forties, a father of three, has a roughly three-year affair with his young secretary.
So, what’s new? It happens every day. Indeed, it is an old, old story.
What is new is that it was my father and I only found out very recently. I was in my early teens at the time and the secretary, herself in her early twenties, was a frequent visitor to our house. This was ostensibly because she was far from her own home in Australia, but of course, there was undoubtedly another reason.
I knew my father was very impressed with this woman, as he told me that she had had no college education, but could recite long passages of poetry, including Shakespeare. He was trying to help her to move from a secretarial to an administrative position in the office, which he felt would be more appropriate given her talent.
The affair stopped when my mother learned about it. Evidently, she offered him a divorce, but he decided to stay with her and the three children. To the great heartbreak of the secretary. Again, a very old story.
And I found out over sixty years later. When everyone involved has long since died.
How I learned this news
You may well ask how I came to learn of this affair so many years after. The simple answer is that the woman kept a diary.
Almost immediately after the end of the affair, she moved to Italy and began to write both novels (her main interest) and non-fiction. And she gained some success and fame in this endeavour. Indeed, she was a good enough novelist – some say a brilliant one – that now, after her death, a professor has written her biography. It is gaining very good reviews and considerable attention.
And the diary was, of course, a wonderful source for the biographer about her life and thoughts. Leading to my father. He is a minor character in the story, but he plays an important transitional role and I learned a bit about their relationship.
Life lesson from the above – don’t have an affair with a writer or an aspiring writer. They tend to like to write things down.
Our many inner selves
We may be 50 or 70 or, in my case, 81. It doesn’t matter. Inside this older woman is the little girl of five, the teenager of 14, the young uncertain adult of 25 and so forth on up.
We don’t shed these personas like snakeskins. Rather, we grow new layers like trees. But all the layers are still there. They don’t come out from the shadows very often, but when they do, we remember the pain from before.
Or, I should quickly add, the joys experienced along the way.
So, when I learned about this affair, for a moment I went back to being a teenage girl in New York City. All I could think about is why didn’t I notice? The woman even stayed over when my mother was away – and the house wasn’t very large.
And how do I feel about it now? Much less than you might expect. Not judgemental, certainly. Just surprised, bemused, perhaps a bit thoughtful. I really don’t think my reaction would have been very different at the time. My mother was the opposite of a motherly sort of woman and we were never close.
But I do wonder what would have happened if my parents had divorced. I got on much better with my father than with my mother. Who would have taken me? And how would my life have been different?
Perhaps I should worry more about the main participants in the affair, as well as my mother. But teenage girls, which I temporarily become when thinking about it, are much more wrapped up in themselves. And the participants have all passed on in any case.
The importance of these layers
The wider importance of the layers lying beneath our present selves came home to me last December, when I was talking to a man in his late fifties who said he never liked Christmas. When I asked why, he said that his mother had walked out on the family on Christmas Day when he was seven years old.
What a tender age. And every Christmas time, he becomes seven years old all over again and very vulnerable.
A lot of pain to live with each year.
These things hit us from time to time. For some unexpected reason, we are reminded of an event in our twenties or forties or whatever – and all of a sudden, we are back there with a vengeance. If we were hurt then, we are hurt now.
If it was something exciting then, it is exciting now.
The here and now
Yes, we have some perspective and, happily, we can switch into our older selves and the pain – or the joy – recedes.
I wonder whether we would prefer to be different. We have no choice, but I think it makes our lives richer to have these many layers underneath, even if they make our lives occasionally painful.
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com
Thank you, Ann, for this reminder: it is what I love about my life so much - all those layers - and the richness it brings up when I'm writing, the 'down times' the richest of all! Judith
It is the second time I read this story and it still moves me. It is beautifully written and very personal, but not overly dramatic. It touches me as I know all characters mentioned. Finding out that my father was having an affair would've been very disturbing to me and fortunately I don't think it was ever the case but who knows? There certainly was no writer that I knew who would've left written evidence and my father is now dead.
My favorite passage in this article: "We don’t shed these personas like snake skins. Rather, we grow new layers like trees."