Never Come Back is a novel about family secrets. The novel is narrated by Elizabeth Hampton, and in the opening chapter, Elizabeth’s mother is found dead. I’ll let you read the book to find out who really did it—suspense!—but I hope that final revelation comes as a surprise—as it has to a number of readers already. Along the way to that final revelation, Elizabeth finds out that her mother—a quiet, retired, sixty-nine-year old—had a secret life before Elizabeth and her brother were born—and her death in the opening chapter is the result of those long-hidden secrets. Even though this novel is about a mother and a daughter, I’d have to say that the story has some of its origins in my relationship with my dad who died in 2011.
I attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, as an undergraduate. When I was a junior in high school, living in Ohio, I decided—without any real, logical reason behind it—that I needed to attend Indiana University. It had a beautiful campus, a great basketball team, and it was far enough away from home (two and a half hours) to feel like a new life. Naturally, I told my parents of my intentions. I even went so far as to tack a Indiana University brochure up in my bedroom so that I would remind myself every day to study and do well on standardized tests so that I could get into my dream school. My parents were supportive of my choice even though no one we knew had ever gone to school there, leaving my mom to worry that I’d be all alone in that foreign country called Indiana. (I didn’t tell her I wanted to go someplace where no one knew me.)
So I was accepted to Indiana. I went to orientation with my parents, then in the fall they moved me into my dorm. My parents came and visited a few times, and because I didn’t have a car, they came and picked me up on holidays and breaks. All told, I’d say they visited Bloomington about ten or twelve times during my first two years of college. At the end of my second year of college, my parents came to pick me up for the summer break. We decided to go to lunch, and I noticed that my dad—a man with the best sense of direction of anyone I’ve ever known—was driving some circuitous route to the restaurant. He was taking his sweet time and turning his head from side to side as though checking out all the scenery.
“Dad, what are you doing?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I’m just trying to remember where I lived when I lived in Bloomington.”
A long pause while his words registered in my brain.
“What do you mean where you lived when you lived in Bloomington?” I asked.
“I lived in Bloomington for a year or so before I married your mother. I’m trying to remember where my apartment was.”
Again, I paused and took this information in. Then I said, “Do you mean to tell me I’ve been going to school here for two years, and before that thinking of going to school here for two years, and you never thought to mention that you lived here?”
My dad offered no comment. That was frequently his way of handling questions. He just didn’t answer them.
“Mom?” I said, turning to the other adult in the car. “Did you know that Dad lived in Bloomington for a year before he married you?”
Without missing a beat, my mom said, “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.”
My dad was a bachelor until he married my mom. They were both thirty-six. After he died, I found a box of old photographs in our attic. They showed my dad in a lot of different places—at the beach, in the Air Force, in nightclubs and at parties. He had a lot of friends—and he posed for pictures with a lot of different women. I found a psychological profile of him written by a prospective employer. It said he could be cheerful and garrulous but also a bully who tried to argue with people until he got his way. We found out about all the creative ways he “paid” the bills. (Hint: Mom’s still paying them.)
I loved the man dearly, and I never doubted he loved me. But I sure as hell didn’t know everything about him. Is it any wonder I wrote a book like Never Come Back?