He came to visit me when I was living in Gilbert, Arizona. We had been in our house for almost six years with my son and daughter. Attending Arizona State, I had gotten my teaching certificate and was working as a substitute teacher in three local school districts. Earlier that year, he sent me a letter to say he was going to pay us a visit. According to his letter, he would be coming in August.
He had set the date for the second week in August and asked if I had time for a lengthy visit. I told him in my return letter that he would be welcome in our home anytime. True to his word, he rang our doorbell on the day he had promised he would be there.
Long retired, Uncle Ken was eighty something years old and spent his time traveling across the country. He had two sons, Bobby and Danny and a daughter Nancy, all grown and married with children, living in Cortland County, New York where they had all been born. Uncle Ken had married my Aunt Ruth who had passed away a few years ago after a long bout with Altiezmers. Before my aunt passed away, Uncle Ken would arrive at her nursing home every morning to help feed her breakfast. He also had boarded three of four Chinese students in his empty home. These Chinese students were attending classes in the colleges in the area.
To be quite honest, I had little contact with him or any of his children. His sons were older, but his daughter was about my age. It seemed as we had grown older, I did not have much in common with them. We had gone our separate ways.
Looking at him, it seemed he hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw him at Carole Ann Bent-Frost, my step mother’s funeral at Christmas time in 2003. He had a gentle unassuming manner and a quick smile.
“Good to see you, Frosty.” He greeted me as he stepped inside. Frosty was my nickname used since I was George Jr. in order to save any confusion about which George was which.
Your mother Mary Alice committed suicide, dad would tell me whenever I asked. I could not fathom what had depressed her so much that she would take her own life.
Uncle Ken sat at our kitchen table. His tone became serious as he said, “I think I should tell you about how your mother died.”
Mary Alice True was my mother and she was only twenty-seven when she passed away. She had come from a family of privilege. Her father William True was a well-respected lawyer who had received a gift from one of the Vanderbuilts. It was a decanter with four different colored glass bottles. Carole made sure I got this decanter set before she passed away.
When I got my job at the country club in 1976, grandma told me that her and grandpa William used to have parties out there and the mayor would attend along with a lot of prominent people in the city. As a boy, before she got sick, she would take me to some old friends’ homes...these domiciles were mansions and the people would call her “Bill.” I asked her about this strangeness and she told me that’s how they remember her wass by her late husband. She was quite alright with her gender twisted name.
Mary Alice lost her cousin, Suzie, her father, and her mother-in-law Gertrude Frost whom she had become close with over their short time together. As a result, she collapsed emotionally, unable to cope with these people leaving her...and she had just given birth to a son...me.
My father, George Sr., had gone to Korea during the war and came home taking advantage of the GI Bill that would put a lot of ex-military into college. My dad was admitted to Syracuse University where he graduated valedictorian receiving his accounting degree. For all the great things he did, his relationship with his first wife was not one of them.
I heard a noise. I had been left in the crib all day...again. Over the lowered side and onto the floor.
“Uncle Ken, dad told me she committed suicide.” I told him. Dad had been so distraught that he did not get her a proper headstone. He felt that because she took her own life, she did not deserve it, but some of the family pitched in to make sure her grave was appropriately marked.
“She did not. She was a confused young lady who did the wrong thing at the wrong time.” His voice was steady as he ended the lie I had lived with all my life.
“Do you mean her death was an accident?” I asked cautiously
“Accident may not be the correct word, but she did no intention of committing suicide as your father told you.” He crossed his arms across his chest.
I sat there for a moment feeling as if Mike Tyson had hit me with an uppercut. I was flabbergasted.
I heard them downstairs...there was some shouting...that woke me up...but now someone was crying and I had to go see what happened…
He drank his water that he had requested and told us about all the happenings from back home in New York. Both my wife and I enjoy hearing about relatives we have not heard from in a while.
“We made sure your mother got her headstone.” He said after a brief pause.
I did not like talking about my biological mother, because dad told me that she was having trouble with her mental health and decided to commit suicide when she was twenty-seven. She met dad when she was attending Syracuse, getting her diploma before becoming a fourth grade teacher. After managing to get my certificate, I wondered why she would take her own life.
Was I the reason?
How many times had I asked myself if that was true.
Her mother would never answer the question since I was too young, only twenty when she peacefully passed away watching television. Grandma lived a privileged life that ended abruptly when William passed away a year short of getting his pension. As a result she lived a pauper’s life after that rooming in a two bedroom efficiency with her older sister, Helen. Her daughter was an only child, but she would never recover from her father’s death.
I snuck down the stairs while they were arguing and went to the kitchen. In the cabinets were some pots and pans. I would remove them and make them my orchestra...a true cacophony of sound...all was quiet out there...I would change that quickly.
A scream? Had I heard a scream? I did not wish to stop my performance, but I had to see what was happening.
“Frosty, you need to know the truth about your mother. She was a wonderful person. I thought you should know that.” He said, taking another sip of his water. “Your father wanted to protect you. So he never quite got around to telling you what really happened.”
I had asked Carole once what the truth was and she got angry, “I thought your father had told you.”
She didn’t want to talk to me. Everyone wanted to protect me from a painful truth. Instead she insisted on talking to my wife. When she was done, my wife turned to me and said my mother needed help that she never got. She was a child of privilege who was not supposed to suffer from depression. People of privilege were supposed to live above all of that.
Protect me? What from? I was there. I was only three years old at the time, but I was there. I heard and saw things that will be in my memory for the rest of my life.
I took a deep breath.
“I felt I should tell you since there is no one left.” He nodded.
I had suspected that dad did not tell me what really happened since I found his old army uniform in a storage closet when I was about nine years old. I was exploring our rather mysterious basement when I happened upon the storage unit. On the left pocket hung two purple hearts. I plucked them off his uniform and shoved them into my pocket.
Later when he was watching the news, I pulled them out and showed them to him.
“What were you doing in the basement?” He was angry.
“I found these.” I confessed.
“You are to leave that closet alone.” He was very firm in his order. I could tell, because his lips were nothing but a straight line across his face.
“What are these?” I asked as he took the purple hearts from my hand.
“Purple hearts. You get them when you are wounded in war. But in Korea they were giving them out like water. Cut your finger opening a can of ration beer and they’d give you a purple heart.” He lay back on the couch, tired from his long day at the office.
“So you were in combat?” I asked.
“No, no.” He said sitting up his mouth again in a straight line, “I told you that I didn’t have to do anything to get those.”
He took those things. I had no way of knowing that I would never see them again.
Sensing that he wasn’t being completely honest with me, I decided it was time I told him the truth about what I had seen.
I found my mother lying on the stairs. Her eyes were open. I shook her.
“Mom, it’s me, Frosty. Get up. Come into the kitchen and we can play.”
But there was no response. She just lie there staring blankly at the ceiling.
It was there my memory ended.
“You were only three. No way you can remember that. You were just having a bad dream.” He shook his head.
But then I told him what had happened a few weeks before.
In Manlius, New York where he lived, dad had a friend at a Shell station who fixed the car whenever he was asked. While he was “shooting the breeze” as he called it, I got behind the steering wheel. Back then the Chevy steering wheels were nearly as big as I was at the time. Here I was, driving the car just like dad when I reached the gear shifter. Since the driveway was on an incline, when I moved the bar, unknowing I had put the car into drive. Slowly I began to roll away still behind the steering wheel. Both my dad and his friend ran to get me before the car rolled into the road. One of them managed to prevent that from happening.
Once again he sat up, but this time he did not say anything. He just sat there with a stunned expression on his face.
Nobody was as honest as my dad was when he was doing taxes and would not even let his brother or his sisters get away with an exemption that did not have coming to them. His honesty became a family legend, but there were secrets he held in his hand like an ace of diamonds.
They might call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD for short. Back then it was called “Shell Shock”and a lot of servicemen came home with a mental illness the V.A. would not admit to until the Gulf War. It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? Shell shock? Don’t be a sissy. You’re supposed to get “over it.” Those nightmares of watching your buddy disappear in a cloud filled with shrapnel only to be lying there disemboweled trying to shove his own insides back to where they had come from. So much damage. So much damage that would take more than a medic to repair.
And what happens when an undiagnosed illness goes untreated and you marry a woman who suffers from postpartum depression? We cannot forgive what has not been forgiven in us. Rage rises from instability when all you ever longed for was stability. In her own depression, she could not see the suffering of those around her. She could not see the needs of her toddler and was not capable of caring for him.
At the beginning of my day, she would put me in my crib and leave me there for the rest of the day while she slept in her bed…
One time, I remember waking up. The window had been left open and it was a cold New York autumn day. When I looked up, I saw a flock of birds perched on the rail of my crib looking down at me. When I reached up, one of the birds clamped onto my finger. I screamed because of the pain and blood that was running down my finger. The birds made a quick exit as I bawled...I don’t remember anyone coming in to see how I was…
I found that Uncle Ken was not much of a talker. He had always been a quiet man who let his wife Ruth do most of the vocalization, but he had done what he came for. In some deep place, I truly believe he had feelings for the poor rich girl who married my father. In looking at their wedding photographs, I saw that Uncle Ken was one of my father’s ushers at the ceremony. He looked so young in that picture.
“She was a confused young lady who suddenly had a child in the middle of her struggles.” He concluded.
While I had it figured out in my head when I started going to college after my discharge from the United States Air Force, my literature teacher did a unit on Silvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. In 1963, suffering from depression, Sylvia committed suicide by placing her head in a gas oven. As I read the interview done with Ted after her death, I could almost hear my father saying the same thing to me. Reading some of Plath’s poetry, I kept thinking of the last time I saw my mother lying with her eyes open on the stairs, realizing her pain had also been my mother’s pain.
He finished his water and told me he had to be moving on. He told me about his life after Ruth passed away and how they would come to Apache Junction (where I would teach for eight years) in their trailer, enduring the anti-tourist attitude from the locals that I would come to know so well over my tenure.
As he made his way to the door, I hugged him, thanking him for finally telling me the truth about my mother. Someone had sent me a picture of her tombstone: Mary Alice True-Frost (1930-1957). She had one son who was grateful that I finally got to know her through the eyes of someone who was there and remembered.
During the holidays, I sent Uncle Ken a card, thanking him for telling me the truth at last. A week after Christmas, Nancy sent me a short letter explaining that he had passed away from a massive heart attack while watching television. In the envelope was a thick packet of pictures that he had kept. I got a picture of my father with his dog while he was in uniform while serving in Korea in 1951 at the base in Punsan. There was an obituary of both Mary Alice and my father George, Sr. Uncle Ken told me that as he got near the end, he could barely cross Silina Street to get to his office in Syracuse. In July 1978, he would pass away at age 47 from congenital heart failure.
I was notified of his death while I was living with my first wife in Concord, North Carolina several hours after he had passed away. He probably told Carole, my stepmother, not to bother me with his hospitalization the day before he passed away in order to protect me. I would go back to Syracuse for his funeral where nearly two hundred people he had an association with came to pay their respects. One of them, Terry, who was the foreman of the docks when dad got me a summer job, told me that he was one of the finest men he had ever worked for. I would never argue that...not one little bit.
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Nice Story George. I wonder if you wrote this out in an outline first before you crafted the story? Have you heard of the Hero's journey? Just a suggestion when writing a story to follow the Hero's Journey and use who what when why and how to help give the story a solid outline. I also loved cartons of ration beer, and they'd give you a purple heart. Very vivid imagery.
I am a teacher who teaches the heroes journey every year. This was crafted to be part of a memoir. Most of this story was based on actual events. I have worked other stories to follow the Hero's journey, but not this one. Thank you so much for the feedback as all feedback benefits me as a writer.
Hi George, that was some suggestions as part of a course I am taking on memoir. The course is amazing if you want any information on it. I think you've got the beginnings of a great memoir here. Keep at it!
While I am getting busy for another school year, I really appreciate your recommendation and will look into it when I get a chance in a few weeks. I am not only interested in memoir, but I want to teach it to my students as well later in the school year.
Look at Alison Wearing. She has a fabulous course and some online resources. You will not be disappointed.
"Cut your finger opening a carton of ration beer, and they'd give you a purple heart" 😅 I've saved this line in my head. Nice piece by the way. 👌
Eliyas, Yes, my father like to put his own spin on things...he once told me that my Viking ancestors came to this country long before Columbus, but they could not find a parking space so they went home. I told my teacher that...he did not stop laughing until the school year was over.
Hmm, that's a wow fact you've just said there. History has lost its credit-giving logbook...sad isn't it. And teachers...they forget that no one is a sole custodian of the fountain of knowledge. It's in everyone's head.