Continued from here:
“I’m illegitimate and I’m proud of it,” said Fran in history class one day, an unimaginably brave move in Ireland in the late 70’s. I worshipped her from then on, because she took knowledge that had destroyed my sister in some way, and made it her talisman. Nobody could put her down. She simply wouldn’t accept it.
Leah, on the other hand, went crazy. It was Rachel’s and my fault. We were flush with the secrets Aunt Maureen had given us. Rachel was Dad’s unacknowledged daughter, and she, and Leah, and Ruth May, were all bastards because Mum and Dad weren’t married. If anyone found out, we’d be doomed socially. We’d be looked down upon. We’d be despaired of.
I wasn’t sure what I was. Mum had been married to J.D. when I was born, but no one knew of his existence. As far as my friends knew, I was Dad’s daughter as surely as the others were, and so if they were bastards, I was one too. He’d never adopted me, but Mum had changed all our names by court order to his last name, so I belonged to him in that sense, sharing his name if not his blood.
Maureen, gossip though she was, had the sense not to tell the two youngest ones about the mystery of Rachel’s birth and our illegitimate status. Rachel and I, though, weren’t that sensible. Maureen’s secrets were heady things to us. Rachel, who long ago had learned to hide any sensitivity, didn’t cry that Dad didn’t acknowledge her. Perhaps she was simply happy that he liked her better than he did me. Perhaps his receptivity to her was enough. Nor did she seem stricken by the news that our parents weren’t married. I think the shock of learning that there had been another man in Mum’s life before Dad came along had inured us to other shocks. Anything might happen in our family. We might peel back the facade to find murder, unannounced royalty, secret gardens, rich benefactors. The fantasies I wove were all positive ones: I was the little princess, who would be discovered to belong to another, far better family one day, and the lonely, marginalized world of my childhood would be revealed as simply a necessary step on the path to greatness.
But Leah was different. Leah liked her life. Leah was happy. She was the beloved one, adored by Dad. Every morning Mum wove her thick dark hair into two long plaits. She was clever and sweet, beloved of teachers and parents, surrounded by friends, strikingly beautiful. Until Rachel and I destroyed her.
“Guess what?” we said one day, gathered in Rachel’s room, all three on her bed.
“Maureen said Mum and Dad aren’t married. We’re bastards. Can you believe it?”
There was a moment where everything was fine, that moment when the words we’d spoken were just words, like “Have a nice day,” or “Isn’t it remarkably sunny outside?” And then Leah realized what we’d said.
Why did it hurt her so much? Why did it change her so much? It had meant so little to Rachel and me, just another secret. But Leah told me recently she’d always known Dad wasn’t my father, or Rachel’s. She wasn’t aware of any secrets at the time we told her Mum and Dad weren’t married. Life was simple, for her, until that moment.
Her face changed. She cried out. She struck Rachel, and bit her, and screamed. We hurried to fix the damage.
“We was slagging. Only slagging, Leah. It’s not true. Really it’s not.”
It was too late. Something was lost in her. She doesn’t remember it, though. When we asked her about it years later, she swore we never told her anything — that she’d always known they weren’t married. “What are you talking about?” she said. “I never got upset. I always knew.”
Still, only days later, after a school skiing trip to Bulgaria, she returned and went into the local town, and came home after two hours with blue, spiked hair. Her long braids were forever gone. She shed her conservative clothes for dog collars and chains, for fishneck stockings and black lipstick and nails. She shed her kindness to old women for nights on the town, punk concerts, drunken binges.
What had we done? I suppose it haunts Rachel still, as it does me. It was the beginning of Leah’s uniquivocal condemnation of our mother, a condemnation that lasted till the days leading up to Mum’s death years later.
Maybe something else would have triggered her transformation. Maybe.
In the end, we are all OK, so what need is there to worry?
Still. I wish I could take it back.