Big Me, Little Me
Little Me: Mommy was 33 when she “passed away” in June of ‘61. She died at home napping.
I recall it was a perfect Missouri summer’s day. Azure sky interspersed with the sweetness of straw-hat breezes.
I was attending a grade school friend’s birthday party. His mom pulled me aside, “Something bad happened. You need to go home.”
Our across the street neighbor picked me up. Worried, riding along dusty, rural gravel roads, I concentrated on the ping of gravel against the car’s fenders. Then he said, “Your mom died.”
At home, Daddy hugged me and said, “It’s okay to cry.” I couldn’t cry. Men don’t cry.
I never saw her again. Closed casket there was no family viewing. She passed on Thursday. We buried her two days later on Saturday, the day before Fathers’ Day.
The Highway Patrol extended the courtesy of a police escort, 150 miles funeral to burial. I don’t remember the funeral or the burial. I do remember the troopers, not their faces but the strength of their presence.
I was 11, my eldest brother was 12 and the twin boys were nine.
Big Me: In latter years speaking of Mom I often commented, “In this day and time a pacemaker or medications might have saved her life.” The autopsy concluded that she died of a “heart insufficiency” and “edema of the brain.”
Mom’s dad, a newspaper publisher and editor, wrote his only child’s obituary.
Newsprint recounted, “She prepared the noon meal but put no plate on the big round table in the kitchen for herself. When the family gathered she said, ‘Clear the dishes after lunch and put them in the dishwasher, I will go up and rest. I’m not feeling very well.’”
“And thus she went up for her afternoon nap and in restful sleep lay her burdens down. When she didn’t come downstairs after her usual time, they checked and found she had been called home.”
The autopsy found thickened walls of the heart, coronary insufficiency.
In latter years, my paternal grandmother told me that our German shepherd, Kim, howled when Mom died. Kim brought forth that primal, primitive, wolf-like howl. Mom and Kim raised us. When Mom passed, Kim understood; she understood better than we boys did.
The adults sent the howling Kim to the basement. To this day, that saddens me. Kim deserved better.
Little Me: I hated summer school. I never was a respectable student.
Home following classes each day, I often stood inside Mommy’s closet. Her scent lingered in the soft folds of her clothes.
Following Mommy’s passing, I ran into the house yelling, “Mommy, Mommy!” For a moment, I forgot she was gone. I sat on the bottom stair, on the very staircase she walked up but never walked down and I cried.
Alone, head in hands, I cried.
Adults didn’t consult children in 1961. In fact, there was no conversation about Mommy’s passing. Most cruel they buried Mommy in her hometown so far away. Evermore her boys would not be there to honor her grave. Never lay down fresh picked, springtime peonies.
Two weeks after we buried her; just home, we walked into our house from summer school and we boys were overwhelmed. Mommy’s closet was empty. Everything Mommy touched was gone: clothing, photos, books, dishes and silverware. It was as if she had never lived in the house.
Mommy’s parents took it all. With that taking, we grew up without a single picture of our Mommy, nothing.
I can’t remember talking about Mommy to any adult or my brothers until just before my eldest brother “passed.” It was then that I asked him how he found Mommy dead.
He was home, downstairs reading while she napped upstairs. He checked on her. When he couldn’t rouse her, he called Daddy home from work.
Hiking up the hill through the woods, I vividly remember looking back at our German shepherd, Kim. Kim had always scampered alongside, puppy-like. This day she struggled to make her way. Kim was old.
Then our beloved Kim passed. She was elderly for a German shepherd.
I remember thinking, “Now, we’re truly alone.”
Those were the darkest days of my life; Mommy was gone and never spoken of again. Kim was gone, too. It never got better.
Big Me: I was 31 when Mom’s dad, grandpa, passed. Aged 89 he lived comfortably in a “nursing home.” I visited often.
We boys had earlier decided to leave grandpa’s house as he left it; hoping that one-day he might return home. Grandpa’s longtime housekeeper cleaned the house regularly and kept it up well.
She like Mom and Kim raised us. We loved her and she loved us.
We gave her our grandparent’s house. She sold the house and bought a house on her sister’s block in Mississippi. It’s where she retired.
The first grandson to arrive at grandpa’s house following his passing, there to make funeral arrangements, I walked into grandpa’s house.
Every item taken so many years ago was once again gone.
The eleven-year-old me exploded. That same little boy who for 20 years never saw a picture of his mother; now the adult man who once again faced the possibility that he might never see his Mom’s image again. The same little boy who cried one time yet not one time complained as an adult.
The next day Mom’s first cousin brought the “taken” back and for the first time in 20 years, we boys held and viewed pictures of our Mom.
Little Me: I visited Mommy’s parents, my grandparents, when I was 12. It was ‘62, the summer following Mommy’s passing. Without discussion, early morning, grandpa drove me to the state’s youth prison. He dropped me off with the warden.
The warden took me into the chow hall for breakfast. Inmates on the serving line spat in my food. It got worse as the day went along. Later that evening grandpa picked me up and took me home. We spoke not a word.
The day following, again without discussion, grandpa took me to the adult men’s state prison where the sally port prison bars slammed deafeningly behind me. On Death Row I flattened myself against the wall as prison guards marched an inmate down the center hallway yelling, “Make a hole, dead man walking; make a hole dead man on the floor!”
That afternoon, again, we spoke not a word as he drove me home.
Big Me: Working the family history; from the Internet I downloaded Mom’s death certificate.
Mom died by suicide. She ingested sodium fluoride rat poison. Acute poisoning killed her immediately.
Dad didn’t know either. He was as shocked as I was. We all learned Mom’s cause of death from her dad, from grandpa, who was the sole “informant” on her death certificate. We never saw the autopsy report and we had no reason not to believe what he told us.
Grandpa never mentioned suicide.
I recalled Mom’s obituary, ”If you and the boys will clear the dishes after lunch and put them in the dishwasher, I will go up and rest. I’m not feeling very well. And thus she went up for her afternoon nap and in restful sleep lay her burdens down.”
The truth; at age 33 Mom walked upstairs on a beautiful Missouri summer’s day, perhaps sat on her bed’s edge, drank coffee laced with rat poison and lay down.
With the immediacy of her death, she abandoned her husband and four little boys.
Grandpa wrote Mom’s obituary. He wrote a lie that perpetuated the enduring family narrative that Mom died of a heart insufficiency and edema of the brain. In fact, those two conditions are legitimate consequences of sodium fluoride poisoning.
Knocked down one last time, I finally realized how weary I was at the topic of Mom’s death.
Big Me: I will always love Mom. Nothing can diminish that.
Little Me: Here’s hoping that Mommy loved me, too.
I wish I knew.