All families have secrets. Some are deliberately kept out of embarrassment or shame. Some are kept because someone somewhere along the way decided to hoard the information because it gives them power over other family members still in the dark.
And some, like the one I'm about to divulge, are kept because the knowledge was assumed to be so widespread that there was no need to continue to tell the story.
My older brother Dale has hosted a Memorial Day cookout for the last several years. Our families - mom and dad, aunt Ginger, my other brothers and their spouses, me and Warren, miscellaneous children and grandchildren from very young to mid-20s - make up the core party. Friends - his, mine, ours - are added from year to year.
This year was no exception. I invited a colleague from the courts and his girlfriend to join us. She is from Kentucky, which is where my dad is from, so some time was spent with the two of them determining where each of them hailed from (not too far from one another, as it turns out). In a discussion about the water sources in the various hollers, the guest told how her family hired a dowser who found a natural spring 50 feet down when they moved to the farm.
"It was the best water," she said, and you told tell from her smile and the way her eyes lit up that she was remembering the sweet taste as she spoke.
The discussion turned briefly to dowsing and the art of it. Dowsing is one of those folklore items that I always attributed to the hills culture and had never seen demonstrated. No one has ever come up with any explanations of how and why it apparently works. Small wonder it is called "water witching" in some parts - there is a mystical, magical air to it.
So you can imagine my response when my mom, sitting in front of me, turned around and said "well, you know your dad can dowse for water."
If my mother had announced that she had a full-sized head of Elvis tattooed on her backside, I could have not been more stunned.
"Oh, didn't you know that?"
No, mom, I didn't know that.
I looked across the table at my brother Mark, who was sitting there with his mouth agape.
"Mark, did you know that?"
Mark shook his head. Nope, never heard it.
Mom prattled on. Dad dowsed with straightened coat hangers. If we had a pair, she'd have him demonstrate.
"Oh, and by the way, Dale also dowses."
Now Mark was looking as if mom had said she had Elvis in a rhinestone suit tattooed on her backside and was taking off her shirt to show everyone. He and I both had the "so who was the keeper of this information all these years?" look on our faces.
About that time, my brother Dale walked back in the house from an ice run that he and Warren had just made. We accosted him the moment he entered the kitchen.
"What do you mean, you know how to dowse for water? What's this all about?"
Dale, my most easygoing brother, laughed heartily. It was nothing to him, just something he could do. In short order, he had a pair of wire cutters and was cutting two coat hangers open to make them into dowsing rods (imagine two very tall Ls). Five minutes later, all of us were in the back yard.
Dad lead the demonstration. Hold the rods by the short base (with the long parts on top) in front of you, perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other. Use an easy grip and don't put your thumbs over the tops of the rods.
He then proceeded to walk into the yard. Four or five steps and the rods started to move towards each other, then crossed. Dad stopped and Dale spoke up.
"Drainage ditch under the ground there."
Dale took the rods and walked in another direction. The rods soon crossed. Another underground drainage line ran near the property line.
Who wanted to try?
My nephew Matt took the rods and started walking towards one of the known sites. Sure enough, the rods starting crossing one another as he neared the unseen ditch. He laughed - a short "HA!" Matt was so delighted he walked away and started again in the same direction with the same result.
Several of us tried the rods. As it turned out, those of us who were related by blood - all the Nelsons - had the touch. My mom didn't. Neither did the guest who brought up dowsing in the first place.
Matt took the rods back and started towards the picnic tables. As he came up to the cooler, holding iced down sodas and beers, the rods started to swing and cross again.
When Sam arrived an hour later, we had him try it, without telling him what to expect or where the ditches were. When the rods started to swing towards one another and cross as he neared one, he reacted just like his cousin Matt did.
The afternoon eventually moved on to the stuff of cookouts - food, storytelling, long conversations, laughter. We flowed from house to yard and back again. Someone kept taking my chair in the ring in the yard, so I sat inside and caught up with another nephew. The mountain of deviled eggs disappeared one by one, as did the hamburgers. My colleague endeared himself to my mother by praising (and consuming) her brownies. My niece Lizzie played with her cousin's two children, ages three and five. Matt secured the dowsing rods in his family's car; we teased him about taking them to college this fall and using them as a pickup line with the coeds.
In short, it was a Memorial Day cookout a lot like any other Memorial Day cookout.
Except for the family secret that is now out in the open.