By now, most of the world knows that Oprah’s big secret was that she has a half-sister named Patricia who is the daughter of Oprah’s mom, Vernita Lee. The two met just this past Thanksgiving after Patricia, through a set of bizarre circumstances, figured out that she was indeed the daughter of Oprah’s mother.
Vernita Lee gave up her daughter Patricia back in 1963 with the hope of getting off of welfare. She also says she knew she could not raise another child adequately. While her reaction to finding her long lost daughter was not as affectionate as Patricia would have liked, Oprah that she had an aha moment after the two sisters left their mother’s house when she realized that her mother was still living in the past in 1963. Vernita was not allowing herself to fully embrace Patricia and the miracle that reuniting with her really is because she was stuck under the shame of what it meant to give up a child in 1963.
Oprah said on her show today, “I had an epiphany when I left my mother’s house. She is still stuck in 1963 and is still carrying the shame that would have been put upon her in 1963 and therefore she hasn’t been fully able to embrace you. So I would like to say to our mother: you can let that go. You can let the shame go. There are millions of people who have given up their children, so Vernita, you can let that go.”
It’s something Oprah herself knows about, losing a baby and carrying around shame about it for many years. At the age of 14, Oprah gave birth to a baby that died. Years later, another half-sister (ironically also named Patricia- they now call her Pat) who has since passed away, leaked this news to the press. Oprah says that when the news broke and was out in the open, it released her of the shame surrounding it. She recognized this same shame in her mother regarding giving away her half-sister, Patricia. Patricia never once went to the press with the news and she knew for sure she was Oprah’s sister since 2007.
As with many Oprah shows, I always learn something from them. People may have been tuning in for the big secret to be revealed but the humanity and compassion in these people’s lives was the spectacular thing to see, if not the secret itself.
It made me think of family secrets in general but it also conjured up feelings that I never want my children to feel ashamed when they make mistakes and poor choices. We all mess up at some point, some more than others, but shame is a deadly feeling to carry with you through life.
I tell my kids that they can tell me anything but if they are ever afraid to tell me something that they think might upset me, they can just simply say, “Don’t get mad but…..” and I promise, I won’t yell or get angry. They have used this technique several times and it’s usually about something simple, like breaking something, as in “Please don’t be mad but I was playing ball in the living room and I broke your frame, or mug, or vase.” When I see how nervous (and honest) they are, it immediately disarms me from getting angry, but I’ve never really had to deal with anything too huge to swallow, anything like “Please don’t get mad at me but I got kicked out of school or eloped or had a baby and gave it away.”
I wonder how I will feel when they grow up and make bigger mistakes and misjudgments. I hope I can muster the same calm reaction and remind myself that no matter what they did, I love them and will help them. I will be there for them because the only thing worse than feeling shame is having to hide it. As their mother, I hope I can be that soft place to fall so that even when they feel they are their lowest, they know they are never, ever alone.