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June 6, 2024 60 mins

Growing up, Whit was extremely close with her mother. But when she becomes pregnant in her twenties, her mother extracts herself entirely; she spends the rest of her life pretending as if Whit simply does not exist. Why? To answer this burning question, Whit must dig and dig and dig.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio Deep in the Woods.

Speaker 2 (00:06):
Deep in the Woods, it was ringing real good, ten
inches down, ten inches down with a solid sound.

Speaker 3 (00:19):
That's Nashville based singer, songwriter and memoirist Witthill Wits is
a story of love, loss, tenacity, redemption, and the way
secrets seep from one generation to the next without our
knowing how or why, until the lights finally blink on
and we see what had been hiding in the shadows.

(00:41):
And while finally knowing doesn't fix everything, it's a hell
of a start bay.

Speaker 2 (00:48):
But you know the one no cod that dog.

Speaker 3 (00:54):
I'm Danny Shapiro and this is family Secrets, the secrets
that are kept from us, the secrets we keep from others,
and the secrets we keep from ourselves.

Speaker 1 (01:21):
I was born in Manhattan in nineteen fifty eight, so
the landscape was vertical. A lot of tall buildings and
small buildings and hard edges, lots of brick and stone
and cement and marble stairs and metal, and lots of
noise buses and trucks and honking and screeching of brakes.

(01:45):
I was born in Mount Sinai, and they brought me
home to this microscopic one bedroom apartment. It's the third floor.
The building was on the corner of First Avenue and
fifty second Street. My dad moved out, and I was yelling, well,
very young, like it's unclear, no one alive remembers when
he moved out, so it was either maybe two or

(02:07):
four something like that. So I have no memories of
my parents together, and so I grew up as an
only child. My parents were both from the South. My
mother was born in rural Mississippi, very poor family farmers.
She picked cotton as a child, and my mother had

(02:28):
two sisters, younger sisters, and little by little they moved
to Columbus, Mississippi, which was an upgrade from the totally
rural setting that she was born into, and then got
to go to public school. And she was very, very bright,
but also kind of a tortured child. She felt very different,

(02:48):
like she had been dropped into an environment that she
was not sated for. She had great goals and aspirations.
I remember her telling me once that she was in
the outhouse, back in the farmhouse that they first lived in,
and she picked up a copy of a magazine that
they used for other purposes and she saw an article

(03:12):
about New York City and delicatessens and decided that that's
where she was going to end up. And she just
kind of zeroed on that. And she was very bright
and got a scholarship to what was then called Mississippi
State College for Women. No one had ever said, Marian,

(03:34):
you should go to a college, but she got a
scholarship and graduated with a degree in speech I think
it was, but also did a lot of theater. And
the minute she got out of there, she headed north
and ended up at a summer stock in Massachusetts where

(03:57):
she met my dad, and he likewise was from the South,
well from Appalachia. He was the son of Armenian immigrants
who had come to this country to escape the genocide.
My grandfather opened a saloene called the Sanitary Lunch, and

(04:17):
my father was their first son. Then they had twin boys,
one of whom died young. And at that point my
father's mother disappeared. She was always a troubled woman, according
to what little my father remembers of her.

Speaker 3 (04:35):
How old was your father when she disappeared?

Speaker 1 (04:38):
I think he was twelve or thirteen, and his little
brother was more like eight. My father grew up in
cold country with miners in the saline at night and
my grandfather selling moonshine and speaking Armenian upstairs in the
little apartment that they lived in and English the rest

(04:59):
of the time. My dad, like my mom, was very smart,
kind of different from everyone else, and was encouraged by
a teacher to really go for it. He went to
college at Concord College, got a theater degree, and started
getting a master's degree, but ended up going to the
same summer stock in Plymouth, Massachusetts that my mother went

(05:23):
to in nineteen fifty four, and the die was cast.
I cannot get any information from my dad about how
that happened or what smarked their relationship. But when the
summer was over, they moved to New York City and
got an apartment together and married, and very very quickly

(05:44):
they were a couple. I think they probably got married
because there was a cheap apartment that they found out
about and they took it. So they married in nineteen
fifty five, and it was three years before I was born.

Speaker 3 (06:00):
And you have no memory of the three of you
together as a family before your father moved out.

Speaker 1 (06:07):
No, it's hard to say because even though I would
imagine things were a bit tempestuous at the time of
the break. They really pulled it together and were quite
civil with each other Throughout the rest of my upbringing.
My father moved very close just down the block. My
mother could lean out her window and look to the right,

(06:29):
and my father could lean out his window and look
to the left, and I could walk between their buildings,
and so they really kept up appearances and were quite
civil with each other, which was great, and so we
did things together. Sometimes there were times we all vacationed
at the same house. Some family friends lived across the

(06:51):
hall from my mother. Their names were Tom and Margaret Knight,
and they became my godparents, and I thought of them
as another set of parents. They were a childless couple,
older than my parents, and just the best people, and
I loved them so much, and they were very invested
in me, and I ended up thinking of my parents

(07:14):
and Tom and Margaret as being the four legs of
my table in my mind, and that's how I saw them,
that they were these four people that supported me and
I loved to distraction. And Tom and Margaret had a house,
a little tiny cottage on Cape Cod, and when I
was three years old, I started going there, sometimes just

(07:34):
with Tom and Margaret, sometimes with my mother, sometimes with
my father, sometimes all of us together. Was very progressive
considering what happened later. My life with my parents very
much revolved around theater, but also any kind of creativity.
It was quite clear to me from early on I

(07:54):
would be some kind of performing artist. It was destined.
And I say that from their perspective, and you know,
happily I was interested in that. How much of that
was because I sensed their investment in me, but there
certainly was a lot in me that responded to that.
It was very comfortable on stages. They brought me on

(08:16):
stages all the time. One of my earliest pictures of
me is on a stage with some actors I don't
even know who they were. And I loved it, you know.
I loved the idea of theater and plays and music
and dance. I always had music lessons and dance lessons
growing up, and you know, I'm happy about that, of course,

(08:40):
and my mother in particular was extremely invested in that.
For me, I look back on it and it just
seems kind of golden and just so cool. How I
was encouraged to do anything. If I didn't want to
go to school because I wanted to write a short
story about an avocado, I could stay home and do that.
She didn't care, and you know, I'd finished the story

(09:02):
in like fifteen minutes and watch TV the rest of
the day and nobody would know. And the same with
my dad. They were just very encouraging of my interests.
That said, things in the apartment with my mom were
I mean, this is a hackneyed word, but complicated. I
mean she was a very anxious person. She was moody.

(09:27):
How much she drank, I'm not sure, but there were
many trips to the liquor store and she could turn
on a dime. There could be you know, bluebirds and
rainbows one minute, and then just coldness and an abuse.
She was physically really abusive to me at times in
ways that it's really difficult for me to even describe.

(09:51):
And it was incredibly scarring, emotionally scarring and confusing because
this was somebody I loved. I just felt so accepted by.
And so I remember going off to college and telling
my roommate and my friends at college all my mom
and I are so close, it's like we're one person.

(10:13):
In two bodies, and I thought that was great, and
I thought they'd be jealous of me or something, and
everybody just looked at me and like I was there
was something wrong, which, of course there was something very
wrong with that.

Speaker 3 (10:24):
It's one of the things that comes up again and
again on this show. And you know when we talk
about secrecy and family, is that as children, whatever our
reality is in our family just seems like it must
be the reality, you know, and that surely everybody's family
is like this, So right.

Speaker 1 (10:45):
Yes, when I'd go and visit my friends that had
both parents at home and they'd all sit around the
dinner table together and read stories while the kids ate,
and my eyes were wide open, it was like, Wow,
this is this thing happens. And I never was jealous.
It just was so different early on. I mean, there

(11:07):
were times when it was just so fun and I
felt like we were buddies in the apartment, but I
was lift alone a lot. When she finally realized she
could leave me alone in the apartment, she did and
it didn't bother me. I mean, we were just on
top of each other all the time in that tiny space.
I mean we shared a one bedroom and I remember
I spent a lot of time looking out the windows.

(11:28):
And if I looked out the living room window, it
was on to First Avenue, and I could just watch
this river of cars going by, and I would stare
at it just for hours. It was like watching the
sun on distant mountains or something like that. It was
always changed, and it was always fascinating to me, the
movement and the fact that it always flowed in one direction.

(11:51):
And if I went and looked out my bedroom window,
I looked out onto fifty second Street, and it was
quieter there, but not much. And there was a building
across the street, kind of a large, much nicer building
than ours, with many, many windows, and I could stare
in those windows at night and just watch all kinds
of things happen, which was very instructive to me growing

(12:12):
up and fascinating. And I remember I did, I said
this thing where I would write notes and I would
say I am very happy, I am a very happy child,
and I would crumple them up and throw them out
the window, and then watch to see if anyone would
pick them up. And I look at that now, and

(12:34):
I think, what was I doing? Was I trying to
be rescued and I didn't even realize it. Basically, what
I was doing was littering. Nobody ever picked it up,
not one time. And I did that at the bank too.
If I went in a bank, I would find a
deposit slip at the bottom of the stack of deposit
slips and write how happy I was on the deposit

(12:55):
slip and slip it in for somebody to read, which
was I don't understand that.

Speaker 3 (13:00):
Do you think that you were trying to convince yourself
so that you were a happy childhood? What do you
think your motivation was.

Speaker 1 (13:08):
I think subconsciously it was probably a bit of a
message in a bottle kind of thing. But I do
say looking back that all the window gazing was I
really saw myself as Rapunzel and like the princess in
a tower. The only thing I didn't have was the
braid because my mother kept my hair chopped really short.

(13:30):
I begged her for long hair. I had a long
haired wig that I wear around the house because I
wanted long hair so badly. She had long hair, but
I couldn't, and she would just chop it off with scissors.
And throughout my childhood till I was probably about ten
until I really laid it down the lawn said, I'm
growing my hair out and it's just what it is.

(13:51):
Until then I had just this very strange chopped haircut.

Speaker 3 (13:54):
Why do you think she did that?

Speaker 1 (13:56):
I don't know. I've never understood why she did that.
It looked terrible, I mean, look ridiculous.

Speaker 3 (14:02):
In pictures, Witt has taken on the role of the observer,
as only children often do. She watches and listens. She
continues to look out her windows and into the windows
of others, and when her mom leaves her home alone,

(14:23):
in many ways, things are better, more calm. After all,
Witt never knows which version of her mother she's going
to get, so in her mom's absence, Wit does her
best to connect with herself and with the world. She
gazes out at the traffic on the street below and
tosses notes to the sidewalk. She blasts the stereo and

(14:45):
dances in the living room as hard and as long
as she wants. She creates a whole world for herself
alone in that apartment. Outside the apartment, she has a
world too. She's just gotten accepted to the High School
for Performing Arts.

Speaker 1 (15:02):
Oh my god, when I got into that school. My
mother was just over the moon. Everything was going according
to plan. I was a drama student that I was
also dancing, and midway through my time at Performing Arts,
I wanted to switch to the dance department, and my

(15:23):
mother was all for it. She wanted me to be
a dancer more than anything. I don't know what that
was about. The fact that I wanted to switch majors
and be a dance major was huge for my mom,
and the school said that I could not do that,
that I would not get a degree from the High
School for Performing Arts if I switched majors. And you
would think that the school had sent me to Siberia

(15:47):
for the amount of rage that instilled in her.

Speaker 3 (15:53):
When Wit finishes high school as a drama major, Alas
she leaves for college to study dance. She spends her
first two years at the State University of New York
and then transfers to the University of Michigan in ann Arbor.
Wit flourishes there, excelling academically and creatively. She meets a guy.

(16:14):
He's a dancer and carpenter, an enticing combination. They begin dating,
and after graduation they moved to New York City together
with all the changes, their relationship becomes rocky, but they're
in it. Then Wit becomes unexpectedly pregnant. She thinks back
on how her mother had always made it very almost

(16:35):
abundantly clear to her that women had abortion rights, but
Wit doesn't want an abortion. She wants to have the child.

Speaker 1 (16:45):
It wasn't an ideal relationship, but I felt like we
could make it work. I had heard from my dad
and probably from Tom and Margaret, how distressed my mother
was when she she got pregnant with me, and I
know that she threatened suicide. My father had to physically

(17:08):
restrain her from throwing herself down the stairs of our
apartment building. And I also know that she starved herself.
She told me that her doctor said, don't gain too
much weight, and so she took that to me to
not eat. And they say that by the time I

(17:30):
was born, she was skin and bones, and I was fine,
you know. I took what I needed and was a
healthy baby, a small but healthy baby. And that was
a clue that became really apparent in later years that
there was a connection between what happened when she was
pregnant and what happened when I got pregnant.

Speaker 3 (17:51):
When were you told that this was the case and
this was the way that your mother was when she
was pregnant with you.

Speaker 1 (17:59):
That's one of those things where you just kind of
always knew it and you don't remember who told you
were how so it was just part of legend. Ha
ha Marion tried to throw herself down the stairs, ha ha,
and oh she was so skinny, as sort of family lore,
but it was not presented in this within hushed tones.

(18:20):
It was just part of family legend.

Speaker 3 (18:25):
That's so interesting because you'd think that that could be
pretty traumatizing for a child or a teenager, you know,
a young person to hear about the way their mother
felt about being pregnant with them. That you know that
it wouldn't be like, oh, presented with you know, some

(18:48):
sense of lightness and hilarity around it.

Speaker 1 (18:51):
A year or so, right, And in my memory, that's
how it was presented, And I don't remember taking it personally.
I was like, yeah, she's a little weird. Whatever, I'm here,
Woo woo, everything's great, We'll be right back.

Speaker 3 (19:24):
It's September fourteenth, nineteen eighty, the day of what wit
now calls the Telling the day she tells her mother
the news of her pregnancy. It's a beautiful day. And
Wit takes the train up Lexington Avenue and walks the
same blocks she's walked thousands of times from the subway
station to the apartment she grew up in with her mom.

(19:47):
But despite the familiar steps, a sense of foreboding weighs
her down.

Speaker 1 (19:54):
And I told her I was pregnant, and it hung
there in the space, and all the cars and the
trucks are zooming by, and the whole world is completely
unconcerned about what's going on in here. And I remember
she was standing over by the window of the doorway
to the kitchen and she just turned to me and
she said, get it taken care of. And I knew

(20:20):
what she meant, and I said, no, or, we're not
going to do that. I don't want to. It's going
to be fine. We're going to get married and we're
going to move to Cape Cod. And we had already
planned to move to Cape Cod and renovate this old theater,
and that plan was in the works and we were
so excited about it, and so I said, that's what

(20:42):
we're going to do. And it's going to be fine,
don't worry. We're going to get married. And she said
you're going to be barefoot and pregnant on cape cod.
I said, no, I'm not. It's going to be fine,
you know. And it was just like talking to a
snarling dog. It was terrifying. She was like a frozen human.

(21:04):
And then she said, then there can be nothing more
between us. And I don't remember anything after that, I
guess I grabbed my bag and went to the door
and went downstairs, and I walked to second Avenue, and
then I walked to the third avenue and then I
turned right and I went down in the subway and

(21:28):
went back to Soho and I remember calling my aunt.
My mother had these two magnificent sisters who I just loved.
And I called my aunt Celia, and I was crying
and saying, you know, telling her what had happened. And
my aunt Celia said, oh, honey, you know, of course
she's shocked right now, but she'll be fine. She'll get

(21:49):
over it and it's going to be fine. And I
really took that to heart, and it wasn't fine. It
was never fine after that.

Speaker 3 (22:00):
Perhaps she just needs some space, Wit thinks, and thankfully
that space is filled with the support and love from others.
WIT's dad is over the moon, optimistic as he's always been.
Tom and Margaret are thrilled too, So hard as it is,
Wit doesn't reach out to her mom, she lets it rest.

(22:21):
Some weeks later, one of WIT's medical bills of twenty
dollars is routed to her mom's apartment, as her mom
still has Wit on her insurance plan. Soon after, Wit
receives a frosty note from her mom with the bill attached, saying,
if this is the way things are going to go,
you're going to have to pay your own bills. Wit

(22:42):
is struck by her mom's tone, but of course she'll
take care of the bills. Not a problem, and yet
the problem. The big problem persists. In the fall, Wit
and her boyfriend designed to get married, despite the fact
that their relationship is still unsteady, a small affair just
friends her dad, Tom and Margaret and her future mother

(23:05):
in law. After the wedding, the two moved to Cape
cod to the same town where Tom and Margaret had
their summer house.

Speaker 1 (23:14):
It's the place that I loved, This town called South Yarmouth.
We rented this little old house on Main streets from
the eighteen hundred said it was just beautiful. I love
old things and old houses, and it had those shiny,
wide pine floors. And he sold the loft, you know,
he sold the fixtures, took the loft, and he moved

(23:36):
up a couple of months after me, and we just
sort of settled in. In May of that year, I
had this baby in the house with my husband and
a college friend who took the train in from Boston.
And it was fantastic. It was magical, and you know it.

(23:57):
Through this entire gestation period, I wrote to my mom constantly.
I thought, I'm just going to keep writing and pretend
everything's okay. She's got to wonder how I'm doing. I
wrote all these little, chatty little letters about oh, and
then we went to the movies, and then we went
for a walk on the beach. And the baby's growing

(24:18):
and I can feel her kicking. You know, all the
stuff that you would write to a mother, and I
just sent them out into the world. And sometimes I'd say,
you know, I don't even know if you're reading these letters.
If with a tree falls in the forest, does anyone
hear it? And you know, ha ha, And just keeping
it light and talking about how I felt and how

(24:40):
much I missed her and that maybe we could work
it out, and so many letters and she never answered them.

Speaker 3 (24:49):
It's so interesting with the parallel between throwing those notes
saying I am happy out your window as a kid
into the void.

Speaker 1 (24:58):
Yes, you're so right. I never thought what about dad.

Speaker 3 (25:05):
After the baby is born, the new family of three
moves back to Michigan, where WIT's husband goes to graduate school,
and Wit falls absolutely in love with motherhood. She's living
a rich and fulfilling life that combines being a mom,
the very thing her own mother abhorred was eventually returning
to dance, teaching classes and founding her own dance company.

(25:29):
She's actively making up for the loss she's experienced with
her mother, adapting to a new life without her. In
nineteen eighty six, she has another child, a boy named Sam,
and all.

Speaker 1 (25:42):
Through this, I'm writing to my mom and also going
to therapy, a lot of therapy. I couldn't afford anything,
but I paid for that therapy, and the therapists uniformly
were horrified, which was gratifying to me. Would have been
upset if they'd said I'd just get over it. No.
They were like, what happened? She what? And they said, well,

(26:07):
of course you're having a hard time. You have no closure.
You have to find out about this. You need to
reach out. And one of them suggested that I call her.
And I remember being in the kitchen of my house.
My kids were asleep, and it was a beautiful day,

(26:30):
and I just did it. I called my number. This
is the number of my childhood. And to be honest,
I had called it many times. I had called it
dozens of times. I would call it and just let
it ring, and then I'd hang up. I just wanted
to own my home. You know. I didn't just lose

(26:50):
my mom. I lost my home, my apartment where I'd
lived for eighteen years, and I wanted to own it.
I wanted to be there. I wanted to see my stuff.
But I'd always hung up, and this time I let
her answer, and she answered and she said yes. My
mother never said hello, she always said yes, And I

(27:13):
just said it's me, and I said, I just need
to know if this is permanent, is there any chance
for us moving forward? And oh my god, it was
so bad. She screamed. She screamed into the phone, and
she screamed, I can't stand it. I can't stand it,

(27:33):
over and over again, and I just hung up. And
it was, oh the worst, it was so painful. Then
this weird thing happened a few days later. I got
a card in the mail from her, and she apologized,
and it was the weirdest note. It said, I'm so sorry.

(27:57):
I screamed, and she said, none of this is your fault.
She said, it's my bete noir and mine alone. And
of course, well I took French and that means black beast.
And she said something about I hope you're as happy
as you deserve to be, and then she said if

(28:19):
I was thinking any part of this was warm, She
closed with, if it ever is profitable to make contact,
I will contact you, and then she just signed it
with her initial and that hurt. That just hurt.

Speaker 3 (28:37):
The word profitable is is profitable? What do you think
she meant by that?

Speaker 1 (28:43):
Well? Profitable for her Throughout this whole experience of losing
someone this way, the parrot that has been so hard
is that she was never uniformly horrible. I mean, I
loved her. She's knuggled with me, she rubbed my back.
She said she loved me, and then she'd hit me

(29:05):
like crazy, and then she'd want to hear my every thought,
and then she wouldn't speak to me, and then the disowning,
and then this letter that seems apologetic and like she's
owning her shit. You know it's my fault and mine alone,
and then ending with this. It's so back and forth.

(29:25):
It's so ambiguous that it's hard. It was always so
hard for me to know how to feel about her.
And I'm the kind of person that wants to know.
I want to know how to feel. I wonder what
my role is. I wonder what your role is. I
never got that with her, and it just got worse
and worse. Through this process, and through the years, I

(29:47):
found that I did get stronger, and I started writing
less in parts because I was so busy with life.

Speaker 3 (30:04):
We'll be back in a moment with more family secrets.
Not only is life busy, but it's also pretty wonderful.

(30:26):
Wit has fantastic kids, a fantastic dance company, and now
positions teaching dance at universities too. She has a robust
group of cool, creative friends, and she thinks to herself
more than once, my mom would love these people. Why
did this have to happen? Everything would be so different
if she were still in my life. As she gets

(30:48):
closer to these friends, inevitably people start to ask her
about her family. She doesn't know how to handle the
fact of her estrangement from her mother.

Speaker 1 (31:00):
I really never quite knew what to say, and I
had all these stock answers, none of which were good.
And one of them was, oh, yes, she lives in
New York. Changed subject immediately. Another one was, yeah, my
parents are divorced and you know we're not terribly close,
changed subject immediately. And then sometimes I'd say, yeah, she

(31:24):
lives in New York. I guess you could call it
a living and that would shut the conversation down, and
it was a little hostile, and I didn't know which
one was right, and it really put me in this
kind of awful situation to have to answer that question.

Speaker 3 (31:41):
Well, it's interesting too, because the desire to shut it down,
you know, in the sense of, you know, mothers and daughters,
you know they're supposed to be together in some fairy
tale way forever. I mean, to be someone's mother is
you know, that is an idea shifting thing. Once you
are somebody's mother. You are always somebody's mother, right, And

(32:06):
I would imagine that, you know, in meeting new people
and making new friends, part of not wanting to talk
about it is there's something that's so kind of dark
and secretive that you might have felt that it reflected
on you and not only on your mother exactly.

Speaker 1 (32:26):
Those conversations were hard, like if it was somebody and
I just I said, I'm throwing caution to the wind,
and I'm going to tell this nice person what happened.
They were horrified, they couldn't well, and also filled with disbelief.
They didn't believe that such a thing could happen. And
I didn't really want to get into the minutia of
what happened. And I didn't want them to think that

(32:48):
I was a bad person, because maybe they think I'm
a bad person because what mother would do something like that?
And I did internalize this line of questioning brings this
around to how I internalized this stuff. I did feel
sometimes like did I do something really bad that I

(33:10):
don't remember? And that became kind of this sneaky snake
in my mind. They kind of undermined me in my life.
You know, I've always been an artist, a performing artist,
an actor or a dancer, you know, and now a
songwriter and writer. And there's an undercurrent in me of

(33:35):
and I'm just making my little dances. Oh, I'm writing
my little thing, and it won't make any difference in
the world. And I'm you know, sort of comparing her
life to mine and undercutting the value that I've put
into the world. I'm not saying I'm the greatest person
in the world at all, of course not. But I've
looked from the outside at myself and my lack of

(33:58):
drive and my life of ambition, and my willingness to
sort of undermine my successes. And now, whether that's because
of what my mom did, or whether that's how I'm wired,
I don't know. I can't say for sure. While all
this was happening for me and my little world of
my family and friends in Michigan, this happened to my

(34:22):
family too, to my mother's family. Before this happened, we
had these fantastic holidays together, Christmas in Easter, and you know,
we weren't a huge family, but I had four cousins
that I was very close to, more or less my age.
We adored each other and my two aunts, who I
just absolutely can't even tell you how much I adored

(34:45):
them and their families, and we got together all, you know,
every possible chance. And this affected them too, because they
were forced to take sides. My mother was like the puppeteer,
and you know, her name was Marian. And it was

(35:06):
years later when I thought, she's like the Marionette, and
she's like this grand puppeteer telling everybody in our family
how to behave She shut down any mention of me,
and she's a powerful personality. Everybody felt bad. She's the
kind of person who walks in the room and you
feel her power and positive or negative. And everybody was

(35:30):
a little spirit of Marian, and so nobody wanted to
bring me up. If there was going to be Christmas
down in Baton Rouge one year, I might get a
very cautious little phone call saying, just so you know
your mom's coming down this crispin I play okay, Well,
I won't call. And that was painful. I hated that

(35:54):
I didn't even get to go to my grandparents' funerals.
I mean I volunteered to not go. I didn't want
to make a scene. I thought, oh you know her parents,
She gets the custody of the funeral. You know, these
tilsees with killus. Decisions that had to be made, and
everybody was just trying their best to keep the peace.

(36:18):
And some of them thought, oh, you know, if we
just keep the piece long enough, she'll come around.

Speaker 3 (36:22):
And I knew she wouldn't, and of course she didn't.
But Witt continues to thrive. Her dance company is successful.
She begins writing songs as well. She's creatively on fire.
She and her first husband divorce, and a few years later,
Wit marries a musician in ann Arbor and becomes part

(36:45):
of his wonderful, warm, open family. His mom steps in
and treats Wit like a daughter. Eventually, Witt is ready
to step back from dancing, which has become hard on
her body after so many years. She and her husband
relocated to Nashville. She writes more and more music, and
it's been a long time since she's tried to contact

(37:06):
her mom. Life has great momentum, and she's in the
right place at the right time, in the flow. And
then comes the pandemic, and though she worries about her mother,
she doesn't reach out. She's just going to upset an
old woman, there's just no point.

Speaker 1 (37:24):
In June of twenty twenty, my aunt calls me on
the phone and says she always calls me a little chick, said,
little chick, I can't reach her mother. And there, you know,
the bottom kind of dropped out of my stomach because
I knew. I figured at some point i'd get a
call like that, but I didn't know how it would happen.

(37:46):
And she said, yeah, I've been calling since Wednesday and
there's no response. I leave messages on the machine and
she doesn't answer. And then we got a hold of
the business office of her apartment building and they said
that she had been taken to a hospital. They didn't
know which one, and my aunt was like, how are

(38:08):
we going to find out which hospital she's at? And
I said, I'll call you right back. And I called
two hospitals nearby and found her at a nearby hospital,
and of course, the operator said, do you want it
and want me to connect to I said no, thank you,
and I called Judy back and gave for the number,

(38:28):
and the story was that she had broken her leg,
broken her femur. My mother said, Judy, I've broken my femur.
And I'm going home to die in three weeks, none
of which made any sense. My mother didn't want anybody
to have found her. She was furious that Judy had
tracked her down and didn't want anybody to come up.

(38:50):
She didn't want any help. But little by little word
came out that she had had cancer for years, nobody
knew about it, and she had broken her hit for
her leg, and she probably was in her last weeks
or months she worsened. She came home to be cared
for by a woman who cleaned her house. That's the

(39:13):
only person she wanted with her. And I immediately go
into this. I could help, you know, maybe I could
help in some way, And just my brain just kept going,
what can I do? And then you're not involved, You're
not involved in this, but I want maybe I could.
She loves tomato sandwiches. Maybe I can arrange to have
a really good tomato sandwich sent to her apartment and

(39:35):
then stopped. That makes no sense. No one is going
to send it's a pandemic. No one's going to bring
her a sandwich, you know. Just these crazy thoughts of
wanting to ultimately know what happened, be forgiven, be spoken
to be involved in some way, and it was a

(39:57):
strange place to be, just liminal place between being a
daughter and a nobody. And as she worsened, her attorney
contacted me and he knew about this disowning and he
didn't have to reach out to me, but he did,

(40:19):
but didn't really tell me very much. She died on
July twenty third in her apartment with her housekeeper, and
my aunt Judy called and told me, and I cried
a very particular cry. You know, I was in my
sixties and I just felt like a kid abandoned all over,

(40:40):
which is ridiculous, but you know, you feel what you feel.

Speaker 3 (40:44):
Yeah, it doesn't strike me as ridiculous at all, because
you were that kid. You know, all of those selves
are always alive inside of us, and you never got closure,
and the you know, the idea that they're could possibly
be closure was always there, even as this most remote

(41:05):
possibility while she was still alive, and that died with her.

Speaker 1 (41:10):
Yeah, I mean the lawyer, he blessed him. He went
over to her apartment and said, you really need to
talk to your daughter, you know, would you like to
talk to her. She's ready to talk to you if
you like, and she just wouldn't even respond to him.
And at that point I just said, like that was
a lawyer. I like, just let it go. It's not

(41:31):
going to happen. And you know, I had pity for
her at this point. You know, she's suffering and dying,
and I didn't want to make it worse for her,
so you know, of course I'm not going to push that.
And then came the realization that she had remembered me
in her will and that my aunt and I had

(41:54):
full custody of all her belongings, her entire apartment, which
was filled with beautiful antiques and art paintings and silver.
And a few months later, my husband and I were
in we were visiting my dad, and I got a
call from the attorney that he had made arrangements with

(42:16):
the superintendent of the building to let me into the apartment.
Could we be there in six hours? I was like, okay,
we'll be there, and we were actually getting ready to
return to Nashville, so we just packed up our stuff
a little early and we drove into Manhattan and parked
across the street from her building, and we went in

(42:39):
and it was it was like walking into an Egyptian tomb.
I would imagine where you feel like the world has stopped,
the world from a different time is preserved. And that
was just me and with my life experience feeling that.

(43:00):
I mean, it was just an apartment sold with stuff.

Speaker 3 (43:03):
An apartment you'd never been in it before.

Speaker 1 (43:05):
I had never been in this apartment. But there were stings. Oh,
there were things that I remembered, and those were the
things that I looked for and wanted. A certain cabinet
that our telephone sat on, a tiny little table that
sat in front of the sofa when I was growing up,
and my dad used to turn that table upside down

(43:27):
and I'd get inside it and he'd swing me around.
I wanted the things for my childhood, and I looked
for the sculptures. When I was young, my mom went
and had her bust made by a very good artist,
a sculptor, and it sat in our living room, the

(43:50):
head of my mother with these hollowed out eyeballs. It
was very beautiful, bronze, very it was life sized. And
I remember when I was a child, she said, Oh,
the sculptor would like to do your sculpture too, and
I'm like, yeah, I don't know about that, and she
talked me into it, and for a couple of months

(44:12):
I had to go down to this creepy, cold, filthy
artists studio in the West twenties somewhere before that was cool,
and climb up these filthy stairs and put on a
leotard and stand in front of this sculptor. I mean,
she was with me, but it was cold and uncomfortable,
and I didn't understand why we were doing this. And

(44:33):
she sort of had me in similar pose to the
little ballerina at the Met and so I had my
arms crossed, but I did not look anything like the
little ballerina at the Met, let me tell you. And
it was maybe three feet high when it was finished,
and she had it cast in bronze and put it
on the bookshelf next to her. So we were there together,

(44:55):
cast in bronze, and those were there long after she
disowned me. I remember relatives seeing, Yeah, we went to
the apartment, and that sculpture of you is still there.
And so I went into her apartment after she died,
and I thought maybe I would find those things, and
they weren't there. And all I can imagine is they
wound up at goodwill, and I hope wherever has them

(45:17):
enjoys them. Or if they were melted.

Speaker 3 (45:19):
Down, maybe they were turned into something good, or maybe
they were separated.

Speaker 1 (45:22):
I actually think that the bust she returned to the sculptor,
and I saw some paperwork about that she turned the
bust to the sculpture, But I don't know what happened
to my sculpture.

Speaker 3 (45:34):
Metaphors abound.

Speaker 1 (45:35):
Metaphor is about absolutely.

Speaker 3 (45:40):
Instead of her mom's sculptures, what Wit does end up
with are her mom's journals, of which there are many.
She grabs all the notebooks and papers she can find,
hoping that something must be recorded somewhere that it would
explain in her mom's eyes, what happened between the two
of them, something that is perhaps introspective, self aware, some

(46:04):
snippet that perhaps can provide answers and closure.

Speaker 1 (46:09):
When I got home with all her writing, I remember
sitting in my room that I often write in and
just looking around, thinking, there's got to be something in there.
This got to be the reason. And I started writing
my own accounts of what had happened and staring at

(46:29):
these journals, and I suddenly realized one day that in
her travel journals they were dated, and I had my
journals that were dated, and I thought, what if I
compare my journals with her journals on specific days, then

(46:50):
I could answer this question that I'd asked myself so
many times, and that question was I wonder what she's
doing right now? And it worked. I was able to
match up my wife with hers on specific dates. And
I looked at my journal for April twenty second, nineteen

(47:12):
eighty six, which was when my son was born, and
I was in labor in my house at ann Arbor
and giving birth and all that that entailed, and I
just I had in kinded this hour by hour account
of what had happened. And I looked in her travel journals,
and she was in Kenya at the time at a safari,

(47:32):
and I accounted for the time change, and I matched
up what was happening like when I was roaming the
house in the middle of the night by myself in
labor and looking out the window at the snow. And
then I could look at her journal and know that
what she was doing she was having little teacakes for

(47:53):
breakfast and then going out on her first safari of
the day and looking for the tigers and the hyenas
and the lions, and she wanted to see the cubs
and it was fascinating to see. And you know, I
don't know that there is any psychic relevance to that,
but boy, it sure felt it was so interesting to me.

(48:15):
And there were more there were more instances of that,
and I ended up writing about those connections. I called
them connections, but you know, I think they were just
coincidences that I tried to make into connections.

Speaker 3 (48:30):
So one connection that you do make is there's a
letter from her.

Speaker 1 (48:34):
Yeah, So my mother's belongings were brought to a storage
facility in Alabama, and my cousin, while going through a
desk drawer, found a letter actually more like notes for
a letter to me, and their dated November of nineteen eighty,

(48:57):
so just a short pit after the separation, and my
cousin made a PBF of the document and emailed it
to me, and in the email, she said, cause this
is going to be painful, and I'm so sorry, and
I knew that this was going to be bad. And

(49:18):
in this document, which is born and tattered, and it's
really just notes scribbled and also typewritten notes, but she's
trying to explain what happened, And there's a lot, but
the part that I found really really interesting is this,

(49:39):
and I'll just quote a little bit of it. She said,
your recent choices have disappointed me and distressed me acutely.
But that's none of my business. But that's only one
level of my problem. The outer crust. My deeper problems
have to do with, if you will, a psychological wark,

(50:00):
the origins of which are vague, buried under nearly fifty
years of fears, denials, confusions, ignorance regarding pregnancy and birth,
and the bottom line adds up to a response of
passionate hysterical revulsion since the time of my own pregnancy

(50:22):
of what yours is turning out to be a replay
emotion wise, I've obviously known something was wrong. Perhaps unconsciously
I believed and hoped you would make other sets of
choices so that I'd not have to deal with it.
The clincher, I now weighed into the ever deeper, darker
Maybe I never loved you. All My life with you

(50:44):
as a mother was a performance designed to atone for
never having wanted you, an attempt to make good at
the same time, a desperate attempt to make you so informed, aware, sophisticated.
If you will, you should never face the nine months
of sheer hell, my ignorance and fear brought me to

(51:05):
make you different from me.

Speaker 3 (51:08):
There's so many layers to that, yeah, so many, you know.
And one thing that strikes me is that you were
different from her. Earlier in our conversation when you quoted
her as saying something like, you know, now you're going
to be barefoot and pregnant in Cape cod the thought
that went through my mind was and what's wrong with that?
Of course right? But for her, for her, it was

(51:30):
a nightmare. But for you, you weren't her. You weren't her.

Speaker 1 (51:37):
Yeah, you know, we had to separate at some point.
I mean, every therapist I ever have spoken to it said,
you know, you were incredibly enmeshed with this woman, and
you knew that in some way that this gave you
the perfect out. You had to separate so that you
could be a mom and live the life you were
intended to live, the life that you wanted to live.

(51:58):
And so at the end of it, she basically just says,
I can do you no good except by absenting myself
from you, which is what she did. And she meant it.

Speaker 3 (52:14):
Witt learns that there is actually a clinical term from
what her mother suffered from, one that shaped their entire relationship,
totophobia of fear and revulsion revolving around pregnancy. In her journals,
WIT's mom writes extensively about her own childhood experience of
watching her mother give birth and how it terrified her heartbreakingly.

(52:39):
Wit also discovers all of the letters she wrote to
her mother over the years, all those letters filled with
hopeful updates on her life. They were tied together in
a bundle, unopened.

Speaker 1 (52:56):
I figured she would have thrown them out, so I
thought it was interesting she saved them in a way
that was a message like I'm just going to save
these so that when I die, you will know that
I never even opened your letters. So I thought that
was that's communication. There's some sort of communication going on there.

Speaker 3 (53:15):
It surely is.

Speaker 1 (53:17):
But it's been fascinating to open them. I could only
do one or two at a time because it was
just too much. It's just overwhelming to hear my own
voice change as I grew older, my written voice. You know.
She's just so young and so positive, and we're going
to get through this.

Speaker 4 (53:37):
And oh, it's going to be fine, and oh I
went and went to the library today, and I wish
you would respond, but it's okay if you don't, because
I'm still you know, just that voice compared to the
one in later years, where in the nineties it's like,
where are your manners? I sent you a letter, why
don't you respond? I became a little bit more hard edged.

Speaker 3 (54:03):
Alongside all of these discoveries, Wit makes another one, but
this time it isn't a secret she discovers or a
stack of papers. It's a hobby, possibly the most poetic
hobby you could ever imagine. Wit has taken up metal detecting.
She finds a metal detector on Craigslist for two hundred

(54:24):
and fifty dollars and takes the plunge.

Speaker 1 (54:29):
It changed my life. Nashville is a great place to
metal detect There have been people here for centuries and centuries,
and I've dug Indian artifacts, native artifacts in my garden.
This is a place where people have lived since before time.
And so I started metal detecting, and it provided this

(54:52):
enormous amount of relief for me. Always been a little
tightly wound, a little anxious, and it is the most meditative,
meaningful hobby, and anyone who does it knows. I joined
a club. I joined the Middle Tennessee Metal Detecting Club,
and I started in the backyard and dug up Civil

(55:13):
War bullets and musketballs, and I've dug Spanish reals from
the seventeen hundreds right in my neighborhood. And yeah, there's
meaning to it. When you're looking in the dirt and
it's chaos in the dirt. It's roots and rocks and
mud and bits of grass, and then all of a sudden,

(55:34):
you see something shiny and you pull it out and
it's a Liberty dime from nineteen twenty two, and it's
as shiny as it was when it fell out of
someone's pocket and you hold it in your hand and
you think about the person who dropped it, and there's
this connection to the past. And not everybody has that,
but people who metal detect have that. They get this

(55:55):
history rush. You want to connect with people from the past.
And I think that's probably one reason this thing with
my mom has been so painful, because I feel connected
to her. I felt connected to her even when she
did terrible things to me, Even remembering the things she
did when I was a child that were really not good.

(56:20):
I felt connected to her and I told her that,
I said, Mom, I feel like we're connected by a
silver band, and no matter where we are, we have
a connection with a silver band. She appreciated that. She
liked that, she liked to know that I loved her.
But you know, it didn't last. And then she went

(56:40):
off and had her freedom and saw the world. And
in all the writings, in all the journals, there was
only one place in all of that writing where she
mentioned me. And it was the saddest thing I've ever seen.
And she had written it in the middle of the
night after having the dream, and she just talked about

(57:03):
me being a baby. It's too sad to even say that.
It was very short, just a couple of lines, and
it showed her ability to self reflect and to look
at herself and to acknowledge that what had happened was
really sad. And so you know, I found that, and

(57:23):
it happened in a hotel in Tokyo, and I just
I don't really know the meaning of it. I just
know that she did dream about me. So there was
that where this lives inside me. Now I will tell
you that a long time ago, when I was in
the throes of it and she was still alive, and

(57:44):
I thought about her a lot, and so often I
would think, Oh, she woke up today and she's still
not calling me. Even the thousands and thousands of days later,
I'd still think that, and it would hurt. She made
the decision every day to let this happened. And I
remember sitting with a girlfriend of mine in nan Arbor

(58:05):
and I was crying and remembering this because it's still hurt,
and I would still cry, and I said, how am
I going to feel when she dies? If we haven't
worked this out? How am I going to feel? And
my friend looked at me and she said, relieved. You're
going to feel. Relieved had never occurred to me, And

(58:26):
that's how I feel. It's over. You're so sweet. I'm
going to take you home with me. I dug it up.
I dug it.

Speaker 2 (58:45):
Up from my baby buddy one.

Speaker 1 (58:51):
Now he says, go wash your hands.

Speaker 3 (58:58):
But what about Only Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio.
Molly's Acre is the story editor and Dylan Fagan is
the executive producer. If you have a family secret you'd
like to share, please leave us a voicemail and your
story could appear on an upcoming episode. Our number is
one eight eight eight Secret zero. That's the number zero.

(59:20):
You can also find me on Instagram at Danny Rider.
And if you'd like to know more about the story
that inspired this podcast, check out my memoir Inheritance.

Speaker 2 (59:39):
Under the Sand, Under the Sand, Bad Goal, Band.

Speaker 4 (59:46):
Big.

Speaker 1 (59:54):
For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite IT shows.

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