I always had a wish, mysterious in origin, that I would have grown up in working class Brooklyn in the 1940s. Maybe I watched too many Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly movies with my mom, or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more times than I should have.
Though indeed there was a romantic innocence back then, what I didn’t realize as a child was how much suffering people went through, sometimes in unimaginable ways. People throughout the world endured tragic losses as a result of the war, and yet there were also people living other kinds of pain, pain that was often hidden from those they loved most. One of them was author Barbara Donsky.
In Barbara’s compelling new memoir Veronica’s Grave, she tells the story of how her mother simply disappeared when she was three years old. Unbelievably, nobody told Barbara that it had happened. Not her father Eddie, nor her beloved Nana, nor any of the aunts and uncles that were a part of her life. One day she had a new baby brother (also named Eddie), moved with him and her father into her grandmother’s house, and no one ever spoke of Veronica again. In Barbaras’ mind, her mother had simply vanished.
Though very much aware her mother was gone, Barbara learned quickly that she was never to speak of her. She remembers her Nana saying that any mention of Veronica would “open a can of worms”, something most people didn’t want to do in the 1940s. There were no photographs of Veronica in the house, and nobody ever spoke of her. While everyone else thought she’d forgotten her mother’s existence, Barbara spent years wondering where her mother had gone, all while secretly harboring hopes that she would come back.
Five years later, when Barbara was eight years old, her father remarried. He simply told Barbara that she should call his new wife “mom”, and to tell anyone who asked that she was her “real” mother.
It wasn’t until Barbara was in her early twenties that she discovered the truth about what happened to her mother – that she died while giving birth to Eddie. Even still, her father never discussed his emotions or why he had kept silent about Veronica for all of those years.
Her story is so hard to understand in today’s pop psychology/reality show culture. People routinely “shed their inhibitions” (if they have any left) and expose their souls to the world at large on a daily basis. It seems we talk about everything, all the time, to a point where old fashioned discretion can even seem refreshing. Yet I would surely choose a culture that celebrates expressing emotions to one that disguises them them, any day.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I really related to some of the emotional aspects of this book, especially with respect to my own family. My mother is similar to Barbara’s father in that she is extremely uncomfortable with expressing emotions. When my mother’s sister gave birth to a baby girl who died upon delivery, my grandmother neither visited her in the hospital or even spoke of the loss. I can tell how much this memory still hurts my beloved aunt. The withdrawal and refusal to speak about difficult things was so common for families at that time, and unfortunately, is still is a struggle for many of us.
Veronica’s Grave carries an important message. It reminds us that burying such hurt only creates more pain. This lovely book enhanced my gratitude for the more open and honest communication we have several generations later, even if it means keeping up with the Kardashian’s more than we might wish. Sharing our joys and sorrows with those we love most not only helps us as individuals, but is also crucial to healing our world.