Shocking but True: The Secret Lives of Your Parents

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's the kiss that rocks their world, a kiss that lasts 12 seconds, the slurpy wedding kiss of an 83-year-old groom starting a new life in a new state with a new wife -- and leaving his adult children in shock. They don't remember Dad kissing Mom like that. And yet their parents had been married for 54 years, raised three children, went on family vacations, had picnics in the back yard.

Typical American Family: There are photos and videos to prove it.

So begins the documentary film "51 Birch Street," asking a question that is becoming more and more urgent for many boomer men and women: "Do you really want to know your parents?" The answers can lead to a new relationship between adult child and aging parent. They also force a reevaluation of the past, often uncovering painful secrets that crumble lingering myths of childhood.

Filmmaker Doug Block captures the transformation of himself and his family as he gets to know his parents as they really were. This is a bonus of longevity. Most couples live many decades beyond those early reproductive years of raising a family. This extra time gives adult children, who are now raising their own families, the opportunity to know their parents anew, as individuals under the shared umbrella of adulthood.

But sometimes, it takes a crisis to break down the wall between generations. Block is pushing 50, a husband and a father, when he experiences a cascade of life-changing jolts: First, his mother dies unexpectedly at age 77 of a virulent pneumonia. A few months later, his father announces that he is moving in with his former secretary and plans to live in Florida. The family house at 51 Birch Street in Port Washington on New York's Long Island is put up for sale.

"I guess I was stunned," Block says. "I was dealing with the shock of sudden death." And then the shock of the sudden marriage and "the fact that my father seemed so much happier, so much more emotive, around this new woman."

During the two weeks of clearing out the house for sale, Block confronts the past with a video camera. He gathers up old photos and family films. He gets to know his mother when he finds her diaries: boxes of handwritten and typed pages that reveal an intelligent and passionate woman, trapped in the 1950s stereotype of a good suburban wife and mother. He finds someone who is younger than he is now when she started her diaries -- a housewife frustrated with her self and her marriage, filled with desires that were played out in therapy and fantasy. "I've been too much for him all along," she wrote.

On camera, Block starts asking questions of his father, formerly forbidden questions about happiness and love. Do you miss Mom? No, replies the father. What was the marriage like? A functioning association, not a loving association, explains the father.

It was a process of "coming to an adult relationship with my father and with my mother through the diaries," Block says. "It's surprising how little we knew."

Today, his parents probably would have gotten divorced, he says. "You don't want to find out later that your parents were unhappy -- but you don't want them to [divorce] while you're in the house. After we went to college, we would have understood." Or maybe not! When is the "right time" to learn that your parents are in a difficult marriage?

The past is unfair: "They were mismatched," Block says. "My own feeling -- my parents wouldn't have gotten married these days. . . . She would have found someone more suitable to her." Maybe lived with Block's father before marriage, found fulfillment in a career.

But she lived at a time when women were under pressure to marry young, and men were under pressure to marry them. Their role as parents was to provide for children. Do whatever it took: Stay in a marriage that made them miserable, move to the suburbs when they missed the city, get a job that allowed three kids to go to college. Because that was what parents were supposed to do. And they did a great job!

At the heart of the film is ambivalence. "We all have parents. As we get older, we have this longing to know them better . . . and this intense unease about going there. We want to know them and we don't. It means we have to be grown-ups. On one level, it is the end of childhood," Block says.

And do our parents really want us to know them? Are some secrets better left buried, some pages of a diary better left unread? On camera, Block's mother's best friend settles the question: better for the truth to come out. That's what the yearnings in his mother's journal were about: to be known. His mother would be delighted that her children could know her and still love her, she tells Block.

Block's hope is that the film will prompt us to start a dialogue with our parents. "It's important to understand the urgency. Don't wait until one is gone," he says. "It's up to the adult children to make the move."

Otherwise, parents hold on to secrets. After all, they have spent a lifetime creating a narrative that protects their children from the starker realities of marriage and adulthood.

The film ends with a video scene of his parents celebrating an anniversary in the back yard. Balloons are flying, guests are laughing. His mother -- white-haired with a grand smile -- turns to her son, the documentary filmmaker, and says into the camera: "Aren't you glad we got married?" For information about how and where to see "51 Birch Street," check the film's Web site,

© 2007 The Washington Post Company