Because nobody spoke of my grandmother, Maxine, when I was a child, I pieced together the day of her death from fragments I had heard, as if I had been there—a witness.
The December day is brisk. The sky, heading toward dusk. Her eyes are distant as she looks at something beyond her three boys, her daughter; beyond the farm and her husband; beyond the cooking and the cleaning and the eight mile trips into town for groceries. Next panning out from her face, I see her sitting in the locked car. She is resolute. Then, moving farther out, I see that she’s closed the garage door. A sliver of light filters through a cob-web covered window and slides down the back wall. I taste the musty tang of that damp garage.
Yes, here I taste. My imagined memories of my grandmother become tangled with my own memories of being in Grandpa’s garage. A space with chipped cement floors, limp National Geographic magazines, flat basketballs, and rusty coffee cans filled with nails. A space where I played.
I see her turning the key.
I don’t see her last moment. I don’t know how that part goes. Just like I don’t know the cadence of her speech, how she held her hands, the rhythm of her step, the thickness of her hair, the texture of her skin, the progression of her smile, the creases in her face, or the way she tilted her head. In fact, there is only one detail that I know for sure. She died. My grandmother committed suicide on the day before Christmas Eve in 1973. She was 46.
The day seems like one of the worst possible to find a loved one gone. Imagine around the house: presents, lights; the ingredients for our family’s traditional Christmas Eve stew in the refrigerator: oysters, blocks of butter, Worcestershire sauce, and heavy whipping cream.
Ten months after her death, I arrive. When I am conceived her death, still raw; the cold of the winter, still oppressive; the days, still dark; the family, still grieving. My parents name me Melanie Maxine. They settle into a green trailer house, which is parked on the same North Dakota farmstead from which she had just vacated.
By the time I am old enough to ask for stories, her’s is absent.
Over the years I have studied images of Maxine in smoky photos from the late sixties. She wears cat-eyed glasses and plaid pants. Her skin seems faded, like the photos, fleshy peach. She is petite, especially next to my grandpa, a tall, thin man with olive skin and a wide smile. Most of the pictures also capture the people that she and I would both love, if through different decades.
Suicide, I now know, does not rest with the departed; it wraps like a wild vine around the living; it crawls through generations; it suffocates and pulls and taunts; it begs to be understood and then eludes all understanding. With suicide one can ask, but can never know why. Family lore held stories of chronic pain—too much for her to endure. Then, later, a whisper of diet pills from her sister to me over a plate of mashed potatoes at a family wedding. She was never the same after those darn pills, she said.
I dig to find an Amphetamine epidemic in the sixties and seventies that matches today’s. In “America’s First Amphetamine Epidemic 1929-1971” published in the American Journal of Public Health, the author traces an explosion of dependence on prescribed amphetamines that reached its peak in the late 1960s. Encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry, doctors prescribed Benzedrine and Dexedrine tablets for several conditions, including depression and weight loss.
My Grandfather had been on suicide watch over dinner, a distant relative told me. I imagine that she and my grandpa were eating roast beef on white bread, coated with gravy—a comfort meal. Exhausted, he had fallen asleep at the dinner table and she made her way to the garage. I don’t know if this story is true, but hearing it caused me to throw my hand to my chest. Had I known this detail when my grandpa was alive, I would have looked into his aging eyes, placed my hand on his cheeks. I don’t remember ever crawling into his lap or finding refuge in the crook of his arm. We practiced measured intimacy on that side of the family. Our distance, perhaps the toll of silence.
The only relics I have of Maxine’s are a rocking chair I found in the barn and some country western records. The records were mixed up with Dad’s Beatles and Beach Boys. I put on a record just now and listen to Patsy Cline’s voice crackle. She seems a million miles away. A million years away.
At age forty-four I stand at the threshold of my grandmother’s final years. Experience has taught me that rapture and sorrow are tangled. And so regardless of the darkness she faced, I trust that Maxine saw light, too. I imagine her standing on the farm, admiring rain soaked fields. I see her taking satisfied breathes of corn-dusted air. And there: small hands tugging at her waist—my dad, my uncles, my aunt. These faces look up at her with playful eyes that goad her into a fit of laughter.
Before the day of her death—a whole life.