Off the Clock: A family affair

My family may have some secrets, but Valerie Spruill has me beat, by a long way. Read about what our families hid from us and why we’ll both probably be OK.

“Your sister looks really pretty, today.”

My know-it-all cousin, whom I was pretending I wasn’t with, because, well, see “know-it-all,” was blabbing again, and I was ignoring.

“I said, ‘Your sister looks really pretty, today.’”

“Yeah, I heard you. Who are you talking to?”

I looked around for the poor sap who was, inevitably, unwittingly about to engage her. There was no one near. And I didn’t have a sister.

She dramatically slapped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

“Nevermind. Forget I said anything.”

She was 16, I was 15, and we were sitting in a small, utilitarian-looking auditorium, which sat in the middle of a small utilitarian-looking high school, located an hour outside of our big city, watching our male cousin graduate.

“What’s your problem, anyway?”

I was annoyed with her. I was always annoyed with her. She was a one-upper. A bragger. Someone who would correct everything you said, regardless of whether or not she was right. I always got stuck hanging out with her because we were roughly the same age and our fathers, who were brothers, were also friends.

“Nothing. Nothing. Please don’t tell anyone I told you that you have a sister.”

OK, now this girl was really getting on my nerves. Especially the fact that she had this weird, gleeful, Joker-like grin on her face.

I fell for it, though. I bit and insisted she tell me what she was talking about.

She explained to me that my dad had been married before my mom, which was news to me. Further news to me was the fact that I had a half-sister, born of that union. Further, further news to me was the fact that I already knew my half-sister, and had for years. Her parents were friends of my family. They were even neighbors, for a time. In fact, I had been to their house for dinner and hung out with her sister several times, because she was my age and it was convenient as she was close by.1

Being a teen who loved drama, as if there were any other kind, I didn’t approach either of my parents right away. Instead, I decided to sit and stew on this new information. I had to decide how best to maximize the fact that I knew something my parents didn’t know I knew, and it was scandalous. I did, however, approach my brother who is a year younger.

“Oh. Yeah. I know. I heard Mom and Dad talking about it.”


OK, now I was mad. Was there anybody who DIDN’T know this family secret, aside from me?

Turned out, no.

— ∮∮∮ —

Valerie Spruill, a 60-year-old Ohio woman, knows all about what secrets can do to a family. She recently discovered that the man she’d been married to for years was also the father that she’d never met.

Let me repeat that for the folks just joining us, mid-column. She was married to her own dad.

Six years after Percy Spruill died, Valerie’s uncle told her the truth about her marriage to the man who was her second husband. A DNA test done on one of his hair brushes confirmed the story, though you’d think the same last name thing would have been enough.

What’s not clear, and may never be, is whether Percy knew he was married to his daughter.

“I don’t know if he ever knew or not. That conversation didn’t come up,” she said. “I think if he did know, there is no way he could have told me.”

Spruill has had two strokes and has been diagnosed with diabetes since she got the news. She is convinced it was all brought on by the stress of learning the truth.

“Pain and stress will kill, and I had to release my stress,” Spruill said. “I’m just telling the story to release my pain.”

She’s now shared with her children and grandchildren that the man they thought was their step-father and step-grandfather was actually their step-grandfather and step-greatgrandfater. Spruill is convinced she’ll be okay, citing her faith in God and the therapy she’s had since finding out.

Ultimately, she says, Percy Spruill was a good man and a good provider.

“We had a good life.”

Valerie Spruill admits that she initially struggled with anger, and I have an idea of how she feels. When I dramatically, and loudly, confronted my parents with the fact that I knew their awful secret, they acted like it was no big deal. They indicated that they didn’t tell me because I wouldn’t have been able to handle the truth. I suppose that the way I dropped the “I know your secret” bomb might have been proof that they were right.

Still, more upsetting than the fact that I had a half-sister was the fact that my whole family knew and was keeping it from me. I felt betrayed. As a parent, though, I know that doing the thing you think best for your child isn’t always going to be the thing they think best, and, like my children will have to do, I accept that.

I just wish I could have found out from someone a little less exasperating. Then, again, we are talking about family.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Hey, friendships have been forged from much, much less. 


Photo by: Capt’ Gorgeous

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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  1. Oh boy…sounds familiar. I found out I had a half-brother & half-sister when I was 15 yrs old altho my parents were the source of the info. Secrets change family dynamics & can carry wounds far into adulthood. Growing up with a family secret was my “normal” & led me to have relationships that had to be hidden. Much better to hear the truth early on.

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