NY Magazine interview with Alexa Tsoulis-Reay
When Your Mother’s Death Is Kept Secret From You
In the 1940s, when Barbara Bracht Donsky was three years old, her mother vanished from her life. At first, her father told Barbara only that his wife had gone away for a while, and the little girl distracted herself with her grandmother, brand-new baby brother, and the various relatives and friends who regularly gathered at their lively apartment. When, five years later, her father announced they were moving and asked Barbara to call a pretty new woman “Mom” and never mention her “real” mother again, she knew something was really wrong.
But that was the end, not the beginning, of the conversation. Unbelievably, nobody in the family discussed what happened to Barbara’s mother until Donsky was in her early 20s. Only then did her father and stepmother tell Barbara and her 19-year-old brother, Eddie, the truth about their mother—that she had died giving birth to Eddie. The secret—and the silence within the family about it—cast a shadow over Donsky’s life. She hadn’t even told her own children until she was in her early 70s, about five years ago, when she began to record the story during a writing class. She’s written about her experience in her new book, Veronica’s Grave.
Do you remember anything about your mother?
I have one memory from when I was three. We lived in the Bronx, and she took me to the park every afternoon. Once, she was in bed reading the newspaper—I really wanted to go to play in the park, but she wouldn’t get up. I was riding my tricycle around the house, and when I got into the bedroom, a wheel caught on her bedspread and I fell. She pulled me up onto the bed. That’s my last, or my only, memory of her. She was not feeling well. I can recall the sun beaming in through the windows. The radio was on. And then she just disappeared.
What do you mean?
She vanished out of my life forever.
Well, that’s what I thought for a long time.
Now I think that day, with the bedspread and the radio, was the last day of her life. It was only years later I learned that she died giving birth to my brother—he was a trimester premature and weighed three pounds.
My father covered up her death, and it was never addressed. I grew up with no idea where my mother was, and I couldn’t even ask. The truth was that my mother was buried in an unmarked grave.
Did your brother survive?
Yes. My paternal grandmother had to bring him home because he wasn’t gaining weight at hospital. He came home on Halloween. I was dressed as a princess. My grandmother transported him in a little shoebox lined with soft cotton.
Where did you think your mother was?
I just thought my mom had gone away somewhere and would be back soon. But we had moved in with my grandmother, so I knew things were odd. At home, my grandmother made the baby a bassinet using a drawer. We kept it in the kitchen and lined it with hot bricks to keep his little body warm. She saved his life.
You can’t remember anything about your mother’s death or your dad being sad?
There had to have been a funeral, but I imagine they had me in the park or some place out of sight. In photos of my father holding my baby brother, he doesn’t look very happy.
Did he ever remarry?
I remember a woman started to come by for Sunday dinner. I thought she was pretty and very nice, but I didn’t know her. Then all of a sudden, when I was eight, we moved to Yonkers. My father was going to get married to this new woman. I was told, very firmly, to always say that she was my mother.
How did you respond?
I went along with it. I was very much “the good daughter.” But I really felt the weight of the secret. I would think to myself, what if I make a slip of the lip and I say something, even just to someone, even just to our neighbor? I’d fret: Would my whole family fall apart? Would my family be angry with me? I didn’t have any answers—I just knew that I had to keep quiet. I had to keep that secret, and I still had no idea when my mom was coming back. I was a child living in this fantasy world thinking my mother is always going to return. But it was a double fantasy, because I was also pretending that my stepmom is my mom in order to protect my whole family.
And still no one had explained to you what had happened to your mom?
I was still under the impression that my mother was out there somewhere. I guess I thought it was weird he was marrying another woman but that mom would come back. I was too young to understand the state or the church or why that would be complicated.
How did you get along with your stepmother?
I wondered if my dad liked her more than my mother, and that made me very sad. It was very murky, and I didn’t have the mental structures to figure it out. I had a false sense of reality until then: I thought Mom would return, she would tell me that she was sorry that she was gone for so long, and I would forgive her and we would hug and catch up on everything. I longed for her to return.
How did you cope?
As I got older, I started reading a lot. I loved stories about beautiful blonde mothers in the kitchen. And I thought, this is wonderful. What a nice kind of life. They had pets and a complete happy family. And still, nobody spoke of my mother. That haunting memory of her, in bed, would resurface, and I really wanted to talk to someone about it, but I just couldn’t.
Then I discovered Nancy Drew books. She was three when she lost her mother. She was so talented and seemed to live the most interesting life. And I thought, well isn’t this great? Even though she doesn’t have a mom, look at all the things that can do! And look at how independent she is. I was so obsessed I thought she was real. I wanted to move out to River Heights to find her.
When did you find out what actually happened to your mother?
After a few months in Yonkers, my cousins came to visit. We were playing jump rope, and I tripped and hurt my knee. I said, “I’m going upstairs to have my mom put some ointment on it.” My father insisted that I call my stepmother “Mom,” so I did, and I do think of her as my mother. But my cousin, who’s a little older than me, looks at me and puts her fists on my shoulders, and says: “She’s not your mother. Your real mother is dead, my mother said so.”
Did you believe her?
It was a tremendous blow. I thought, my aunt said that? If she said that, she’s a grown-up; she must know what she’s talking about.
How did that make you feel?
I think my world was shattered. I lost trust in people and in adult authority in general. I felt like I had been living a fairy tale and nobody had shared the truth with me. Recently, when my cousin heard this story, she felt terrible, and I said, “Don’t be silly. You were the first one who told me the truth, you should be proud of yourself; you’re the truth teller.”
You were still so young, but why you didn’t immediately run to your father and confront him about it?
I was in shock. It was shattering. I ask myself: Why didn’t I say something another time? I think I was hurt that I was the only one who didn’t know, and I couldn’t understand why my father didn’t say something. It seems very strange to use the word embarrassing in this context, but I really was embarrassed that I’d been out of the loop. I felt like I was the only one out there with this worry and concern for my mother and everybody else seemed to understand that she was really gone forever.
Also, the fantasy always had such a wonderful ending that I didn’t want to give it up. But when my cousin told me the truth, I knew that I had to. My mom wasn’t coming back.
But you still never talked about her death, right?
I never mentioned it to my parents. If you can believe it, we never, ever, discussed it. My father went to his grave without ever mentioning my mother’s name or talking to me about her. I didn’t confront him. I kept that secret my whole life until I told my husband when I was an adult. I didn’t even tell my own children for years.
You must have put a lot of energy into keeping that secret.
I was always afraid of making a mistake, and that impacted my personality. I became a perfectionist. I was terrified of slipping. I thought what I was doing was a mortal sin—how did I stand a chance of getting to Heaven? I’d been taught all about Heaven, Earth and Purgatory. And I’d think, wow, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.
That’s a lot to put on yourself. But what about your dad—why do you think he repressed the information? Was he protecting you, or was he just in such denial he couldn’t deal with it?
He lost his own father when he was in high school, which must have been a tremendous blow. Maybe this brought back that pain? I think he dealt with pain by putting it behind him. And he didn’t want to talk about it again.
How did it affect your attitude toward your dad?
Looking back, I think that I needed a lot from my father, but he was not affectionate or in touch with his emotions. He never told me I was smart. I didn’t get much affirmation from him. I was desperate to establish a relationship with him where we could talk about my mother; where I wouldn’t feel like the whole burden of remembering her was on my shoulders. I wanted to share that with him. That did not happen. I think that I was always waiting for him to bring it up and then he died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 69. I remember feeling quite sad that he hadn’t chosen to mention it.
One of the hardest things for me was at the end of the high school I desperately wanted to go to college and my father said, “You don’t have to go to college, you’re getting married in a few years, you’ll have kids. Period.” I was really unhappy about that, and they wouldn’t help me. Eventually, I took a job at the old New York Telephone Company. I hated it. It was so monotonous and so boring.
There were a lot of arguments around the dinner table. I remember my brother saying, “Why are you and Dad always arguing like this?” And I looked at him and I said, “I don’t know.”
How different do you think things would have been if your father had told you everything?
It would have absolved me of the burden of feeling like I was the only one responsible for remembering Mom. No one else seemed to remember her.
There was a time when a friend came over to visit me and I’m leaning out the window and my stepmother yanks me by my braids to get me back in the house because she heard me say to my friend, “She says I can’t come out today.” And she was very angry over the word “she,” so she hit me and I hit her back. I said to her actually in that altercation, “You can’t hit me, you’re not my mother.” And then, you know, when I spoke to my father later, he just said, “She is your mother, and I don’t want to hear anymore about it.” Nobody had ever hit me. I thought, how can she? My grandma never hit me. Why would she do this? But I think she was very young, she was very new to being a stepmom, and I was probably being obstreperous or just a nuisance, and she didn’t really know how to handle it. But after that there was not physical abuse or anything. Those early incidents stay in your mind because they were so painful.
You were able to keep it to yourself—that’s impressive. I can’t imagine being able to do that.
I think it became especially painful during adolescence. All my girlfriends shared everything. We talked constantly, and they were so open. So it left me feeling as if I had a double life: One person knew the truth, and the other was an imposter.
But why do you think this was kept secret from you? Was it to protect you? Was it really his denial? Was he really so repressed he actually couldn’t talk about it?
Only two weeks ago—two weeks ago—my brother said to me, “I’ve never asked anyone this, but I wonder if Dad blamed me for Veronica’s death?” And I said to him, “No!” But that got me thinking maybe my father blamed himself?
Because it was pregnancy-related? That’s dark.
Just before my oldest aunt died, she said, “Your mother had been warned.” Apparently, after I was born, Mom was told that she shouldn’t have another child—she wasn’t strong enough to carry it, and my birth was difficult. The doctor said: “You’re not going to be able to do this again.” Mom came from a large Irish Catholic family. I don’t think she wanted me to be an only child, but who knows? So I said to my brother, “Dad may have really blamed himself for his wife’s death,” and if that was the case, I can understand why he didn’t want to talk about it.
Did your family also keep the secret from your brother?
He was 19 and about to join the Navy when my parents told him. And they didn’t even tell me that they told him. After that, my brother didn’t talk about it for years. I think finding out as an adult made it easier for him to absorb, because had they told him when he was a kid, he might have thought he caused his own mother’s death, and that’s a big burden for a child. Who knows how that guilt could have impacted him? He worries about it now, so I am sure he would have as a kid. He has no memories of the Bronx. His life began in Yonkers, and he always loved Dad’s new wife as his mother. He just loved her. When he found out, he was old enough to accept the story, so in that sense, I actually think the family secret worked very well for him because he was not burdened as a child.
He obviously couldn’t have any memories of his mother, but he was so young when your father met your stepmother he just thought of her as his biological mother. But that was partly because you helped keep the secret from him, is that correct?
For him to come out scot-free, I had to keep the secret. I carried the burden of that secret. There was always this big barrier between us. If you cannot be 100 percent honest, you can’t be 100 percent yourself and sometimes I ponder, did we lose anything by not being even closer? Or, what if we had been able to share more?
Do you know exactly what happened to your mother?
Her death certificate reads “death by parturition”—death by childbirth. I don’t have many photos of her, but one of the things I had thought is that she probably had a hypoactive thyroid because she had puffy-like eyes. When you’re giving birth, it can create a lot of complications. Of course, this is pure speculation, because the truth is I don’t know what happened and probably never will.
“Closure” is a bit of a fallacy, right?
It’s a very modern way of thinking. I think that children who lose parents early lose part of themselves. I don’t really believe you ever “process” the death of a loved one. I think you get used to having this extra weight in your heart, and you just move on, able to cope with that weight. Like how you work out in a gym.
I once read an interview with the great British actor John Barrymore. Someone asked him, “How is it that you can emote so effectively?” He explained that his mom died when he was a child, so when he needed to call up some strong emotions, he would remember how painful and frightening the loss was. He channeled all of those emotions that were still immediately accessible to him years later. He said he fully expects he’ll die with that pain intact. Has he gone on to have a wonderful life and career? Yes, but that injury is still there, and I don’t know that we really process it and reach a “resolved” state. We just live with it.
Have you learned how to deal with it better as an adult?
When I became a mother I made a real effort to be affectionate and much more vocal about my feelings. When I was growing up, there really was the thought that children should be seen and not heard. But by the time I had kids, I was happily married to my best friend, and if I wanted to discuss anything, I could talk to my husband; he’s always a wonderful listener. But I never shared this with my children until they were well into adulthood, so in a way I continued to keep secrets. I was still concerned that if I said anything my family would look bad. I’m still protecting my family!
What do you know about your mother now?
Very little— even her sisters fell in line with the family policy of secrecy and never really spoke about her. When her older sister was dying, I noticed she still had a picture of my mom, her little sister, by her bed after all those years. But she was suffering from dementia, so I thought it would be too difficult to talk about her dead sister.
Again, I didn’t ask. We have a few photographs, and she’s usually laughing, so I think she had a sunny disposition. I’ve been told she was a fantastic dancer, but every little detail about her life seems to have been buried forever. My brother has tried to do some research. He hasn’t found out too much about her except everyone who knew her says they loved her and remembered her smile when she danced.
That's it from New York for this week, Guys and Gals. Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you next week when I'll have the coffee ready. Would you take a second now to share this post? A bereaved child somewhere will thank you. Merci beaucoup.