- Private: memoir: about this series
- magical thinking
- sharp things
- in which my father deals with post office shenanigans
- Lincoln Park Zoo 1959
- men in bars
- The Bat, the Knee, the Bicycle, and Dick, the Doctor
- what came before; what’s coming
- Mathematician Update and Statutes of Limitation
- Irritability and the Mathematician
- the anniversary of my mother’s death
- islands in the storm
- the mother-granddaughter (dis)connection
- the inbetweens
- 25 years ago just before Halloween
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.
I wish it was a story. But it’s good telling. Thank you.
What Pam said
I can’t imagine what this would do to a young child. Maybe you don’t want to hear anybody say “I’m so sorry this happened to you” but I am.
I read it. But I have absolutely nothing to say. Yes I do. Potential suicides need to read it.
I thought you’d save this part for a little later. Well, you did say you weren’t going chronologically…
“But I have absolutely nothing to say. Yes I do. Potential suicides need to read it.”
Well, that depends. What effect are you hoping the piece would have on someone who’s suicidal? It might convince them that they need to choose a method that is going to leave no doubt it was suicide. And the bit about “my mother had finally set me free” might encourage someone suicidal to go ahead, because that way they, too, can set their family free.
I’ve been thinking about this bit, though: “I could not imagine ever going out onto the street, ever again.” I was wondering if that’s because everything on the street seems to be described in such a way that it recalls the suicide. In other words, normality has been changed, “all that had been turned upside down,” and the sights on the street have been given new meanings.
I remember that in a previous piece clothes (the communion dress) were used as a statement, to conceal the problems that existed. But here the clothes are described as being empty, without a living person inside them. Instead of concealing a problem, their emptiness points to the absence of a real person: “Pink polyester pants suit, straw purse, Jackie Kennedy pageboy behind glass protected from the sun by a thick nicotine-yellow see-through shade.”
There are the memories and people left behind, taken apart by what’s happened, and in need of repair: “Ernie’s television repair shop, a heap of dusty spare parts.” Are we reading Rosina’s “dusty spare parts” that have been lurking in the television repair shop of her mind?
There’s the way that the problem that was previously something that could be ignored by the neighbours has now become almost as visible as the “plaster models of club feet, malformed hands, in a forest of leg braces hung from the ceiling.” Mental health problems can be invisible in a way that club feet or “malformed hands” aren’t, but they become very visible when someone turns themselves from a living body into a collection of limbs and other body parts.
And with that thought, we arrive at “The butcher’s window filled with trays of pork chops, pale as human flesh in neat rows around meandering hills of sausage” which makes me think about the physical consequences of the act, and perhaps an autopsy.
Maybe I’m reading too much into these things, but that’s what I thought when I read the descriptions of the shop windows.
This piece I think is more about your response to your mother’s suicide than her actual suicide, if that makes sense. As a reader, the piece for me also really told me more about your relationship with your mother. I know you don’t want any pity/sympathy etc but it must have been difficult for you (not just your mother’s death but her life as well). Will be thinking of you on the 9th.
Of course you were worried about your father being blamed for your mother’s suicide, the realization that the world is unfair came to you at an early age. I think it has to do with perception, your mother had the power to make your life miserable, you just hoped she didn’t have the power this last time.
Thank you for sharing.