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'After Visiting Friends': Michael Hainey talks about his journey into his father's past

'After Visiting Friends' by Michael Hainey is part detective story, part memoir, part elegy.

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I tried very hard to honor everyone living and not living. I wanted to treat anyone I encountered with compassion and humanity: this is a life lived.
 
Q: You interviewed people who vividly remembered personalities and conversations from more than four decades ago. Were you surprised how they remembered so much?
 
A: I wasn't surprised. They were young and vibrant back then. These were very vital years for them, and it's a generation that learned to retain its memories. We have to hold onto those stories because that's how we form our identities.
 
Q: One of the saddest moments in the book comes when your mother bitterly remembers how her married women friends abandoned her, apparently because she became a pretty and available widow – a threat to their husbands. Did it surprise you to look back at that time and see things like that?
 
A: I forgot what it was really like.

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My brother and I couldn't even remember a divorced family in our neighborhood. People were still two-parent families and very nuclear. To be a single mother in our neighborhood was just unheard of.

I also see how far we've progressed. I went to school the day my father died, and the day after the funeral I was back at school with my brother.

There was no such thing 43 years ago as grief counselors or school psychologists. I'm sure that if someone with a trained eye had seen me, they would have thought, "This boy is having problems adjusting."
 
Q: But no one noticed?
 
A: As my mother said tearfully at times, "I didn't know any better."
 
Q: Do you think parents have a right to keep big secrets about themselves from their kids?
 
A: Sure. You have a right to your secrets. But if someone asks a parent a question in search of a truthful answer, there's a responsibility to tell that answer. Whether it's a kid or someone in their 40s, I don't think anyone should ever lie to someone actively.

But unless someone chooses to ask you about it, you don't need to reveal it.

I have a friend whose father told her when she was a teenager that he was having an affair: Don't tell your mother.

She said: "I didn't want to know this, why did you tell me this?"

What are you supposed to do with that? Does a kid want and need that information?
 
Q: Do you ultimately think you made the right choice by uncovering what happened?
 
A: I learned some not-good things, and I learned a lot of good things. Ultimately, the book resonates with readers because it inspires a lot of conversations with parents while they are still alive.

That's a really positive powerful gift of the book: It's never too late. What do you really know about your parents? We all have families and we all have these secrets. If we look at our lives, once we learn the truth about something we're always relieved.

The truth might be upsetting in the moment, but you never regret you know the truth because it allows you to move forward in your life. [The problem comes] when we don't know the truth, or choose to not hear the truth, when we know we're compromising and choosing to tell ourselves a lie or allow a lie to have life.

We need to go into our past sometimes before we can go forward.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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