the anniversary of my mother’s death

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series Memoir

On April 9, 1970 at about 3:30 in the afternoon, my mother took my father’s hand gun, shot once into the wall and then she put the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. My father found her just shortly before four, when he got home from work.

I was babysitting for the neighbors, as I did every day after school. He came running up the stairs and pounded on the door. He was very pale and breathing hard, and he just said what there was to say. I don’t remember the exact wording anymore. Something like, your mother’s dead, she shot herself.

The next part I do remember: I remember exactly what went through my head. Where were you? Are the police coming? Will they arrest you? I thought those things, but what I said was, Will the police see right away it was a suicide? Almost forty years later and I can still call up that moment with almost perfect clarity, because he looked at me with surprise and something like hurt.

He said, I didn’t shoot her. She shot herself.

We never talked about that short conversation, ever again, but I often wondered if he remembered it. If he understood what I was feeling. It wasn’t a matter of guilt or innocence, suicide or murder, it was far more elemental than that: my mother had finally set me free; she was gone, and this time she wouldn’t come back. But with that last gesture, maybe she took my father away too. I was afraid he’d be arrested, and I’d have to go back to the apartment alone. That was my one, my over-arching fear: being without my father, alone in the apartment.

For a long time I did nothing but pace the length of the flat, from kitchen to front windows and back again. I couldn’t help looking. There were police cars, and people standing around. It looked like a foreign landscape, unfamiliar to me.

My territory ran from Belmont to Lawrence, from California to Clark. I knew my stretch of Lincoln Avenue as well as I knew the three bedroom flat above Byron’s Photography Studio where we lived, and where my mother died. There were many, many times when I was so desperate to be out of the house, away from my mother, that I set off with no idea of where I was going. Anything was better, anything felt safer, than to be in the apartment when my mother was drunk and my father was mad because she was drunk.

I wandered around Goldblatt’s and Woolworth’s, I looked in windows I can recall now in detail. Pink polyester pants suit, straw purse, Jackie Kennedy pageboy behind glass protected from the sun by a thick nicotine-yellow see-through shade. Ernie’s television repair shop, a heap of dusty spare parts. The orthopedist with plaster models of club feet, malformed hands, in a forest of leg braces hung from the ceiling. The butcher’s window filled with trays of pork chops, pale as human flesh in neat rows around meandering hills of sausage.

I was suddenly free, but I could not imagine ever going out onto the street, ever again. Years later, talking about this to my therapist, she asked me about that moment when I feared my father would be arrested. Could I go a little deeper there?

No, I said at first. Nope, no interest in going there. That door is closed, padlocked, bricked in, and it’s best that way. But she was a good therapist and she kept coming around to this question again, until little by little the door opened — until I opened the door of my own free will –and when I was as ready as I ever could be, I went back, and I followed myself through that day, from the time I got home from school, until it was over.

And here is what happened: I watched from the window while the police stood around and the crowd gathered on Lincoln Avenue. My two older sisters appeared out of nowhere, my younger sister wedged between them as they walked her away, down the street. That is a very clear image in my mind still almost fifty years later. A thirteen year old  bracketed by two young women, all of them going someplace else.  They never looked up to the window where I stood watching. They didn’t knock on the door to see about me. Somehow they were a complete unit of three, getting out. Getting away.

I went home. The police were gone, and the apartment was empty but for my father, who was sitting on the couch in the dim of the living room. He was pale and quiet, but he had a pile of bedding in his lap. I realized what he wanted almost right away.

The idea of cleaning the room where my mother killed herself didn’t shock me, exactly. It would have been shocking to see him do it himself; in my father’s world men did not do housework.  I was female, and so it fell to me to fill  a bucket with hot water and  Mr. Clean, to find rags and the scrub brush, and go to work so that when was finished he could go to sleep in a freshly made bed with clean sheets, walking across a floor that was scrubbed clear of blood and bone.



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