Post Road Magazine #29

Notes From a Suicide

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

My father, the historian, could have started the story of my grandmother's death with this: "Before she shot herself in the chest, we had one last phone call."

But that's the writer in me, and my father, ever the scholar, refused to embellish. I was twenty-six when he told me. I had just moved west and was living 7,500 feet above sea level in a little house near the trailheads of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a boy I thought I might marry. I was well away from the East Coast where my family and I had lived all of our lives, and where my paternal grandparents, whom I had never met, were buried. My father had flown in for an overnight visit on his way to an academic conference in San Francisco. I can't say if it was the distance from home or the act of releasing his daughter into adulthood that finally broke his silence, but that night we drank dark beer and looked out at the silvertip pines and he began with only the facts. 

It was 1965. Lyndon B. Johnson was president because Kennedy was dead. In February, Johnson ordered Operation Rolling Thunder to hit the North Vietnamese with a steady assault of missiles and bombs. A month later, state troopers armed with billy clubs and tear gas confronted nonviolent civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma. The Voting Rights Act became law in August. Congress recommitted to Social Security and created Welfare and Medicaid. The Beatles sold out Shea Stadium. Watts ignited.

That September, my father, twenty-three, began his American history PhD program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. My parents lived in a modest apartment off campus. Mom earned grocery money with a part-time job reading bubble chamber film at the Hopkins high-energy physics lab.

 "October," my father said. He got up from the couch and walked to the kitchen. I heard the wheeze of the refrigerator door followed by the crisp clink of two bottle caps prying free and landing on the kitchen counter. He returned, handed me a fresh beer, and sat back down. He was quiet. I understood that the real story was on its way.

"I was up late studying. Your mother was asleep and the phone rang," he said.

It was my grandfather, Charles, calling from a hotel room in Boston where he waited out another business trip. Charles had just had a disturbing phone conversation with my grandmother. She was agitated, disoriented. She had made threats about hurting herself. "I need your help," he told my father. "Can you call her?"

My grandparents lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of D.C. and about forty-five minutes from where my parents lived in Baltimore. Dad dialed the number and when my grandmother answered, he didn't recognize the voice. "If given a tape of it, I would have been hard-pressed to identify the source," he said.

My grandmother was angry and bitter, coherent, though not entirely logical. Dad described the call as a monologue that he ineffectually interrupted by telling his mother that he loved her. He grew more desperate as the minutes passed and when my grandmother finally barked at him: "Why are you badgering me? Why won't you just let me be?" the best my father could muster was, "Because I'm afraid you're going to hurt yourself. Please don't do anything like that."

My grandmother laughed, entirely without humor. "Goddamn me if you ever see me again," she said.

Then she hung up.

My father dialed again and again, but the line was busy. He woke my mother and they debated what to do next when my grandfather called once more to say that the episode had passed. My grandmother was calm. "Charles told me that they made plans to go out to dinner the next evening."

But when my grandfather checked in from the Boston airport the following morning, my grandmother didn't answer the phone.

My father skipped class, pulled mom out of work, and they sped down I-95 to Arlington. He parked behind the apartment complex where he had been raised and he told my mother to wait in the car. He saw the bullet hole in the rear window.

He found my grandmother in a wood rocking chair, the pistol thrown a few feet away from the recoil. The coroner placed time of death shortly after she lied to her husband about dinner plans. There was no note.


I grew up on the campus of a small, all-women's liberal arts college tucked in the foothills of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. My father taught American history out of a brick Colonial Revival built in 1914. The building edged a historic front quad, a postcard landscape of mature trees encircled by buildings with wide porches and rocking chairs. The spire of a chapel pierced the undulating horizon of the Blue Ridge like an Andrew Wyeth landscape come to life. Levavi Oculos read the college seal, taken from the 121st Psalm: "I will lift mine eyes unto the hills."

It was the mid-1970s, the height of the Equal Rights Movement, and the green of the ERA YES! buttons pinned to backpacks and jean jackets was as prevalent as the green in those surrounding hills. When I was born in 1973, two of my father's students gifted me my first book. It was a bestseller called Any Woman Can! about sexual freedom for the modern woman. I still have it. The inscription reads: For baby Elizabeth, who will have the power to choose her own path.

The college was exactly the kind of place my grandmother had been forbidden to go. Forbidden, perhaps, is too strong of a word. It implies passion and intent on the part of her Midwestern parents, as though they possessed a fervent disavowal of their daughter's desire for higher education. In truth, their decision was likely born out of indifference. It was a given fact, a truth as plain as the sun rising in the east and church on Sunday. Girls did not go to college.

My grandmother's fatal flaw was being female. She had the audacity to be born a girl in 1917. My great-grandparents named her Wilmeth Alvina because it never occurred to them that they would have anything but a son or that they would need any name but William Alvin.

Wilmeth had the further audacity to be brilliant. A high IQ, a national Honor Society induction, and a partial scholarship, however, were not enough to get her to college. She settled into marriage instead, and eventually, into motherhood. She had one son, my father, whom she named William (perhaps as an homage, perhaps as a fuck you) and she moved house frequently because her husband's civil service job demanded it.

Wilmeth grew into a beautiful redhead, tall and thin, but strong. She drank her coffee black and her scotch neat, played a fierce game of Scrabble, insisted on being called Mother—not mom or mommy or mama—and she knew how to handle a gun, which came in handy that time they lived in Juneau, Alaska but proved tragic later. To my knowledge, Wilmeth's parents never physically harmed her. Being ignored, though, and having your inherent talents summarily dismissed because of your gender, must have been its own special abuse. Wilmeth was trapped.

I was six years old before I remember my father speaking of my grandmother. It was a bright fall day. My brother and I ran through the yard, flopping in mounds of leaves. Dad pretended to chase us off with a rake. I burst from a pile and the autumn sun must have honeyed my hair just so, highlighting the strawberry more than usual. I looked up at my father, his face suddenly still. "Your grandmother was a redhead," he said.

And it hit me. I had another grandmother. Not the raven-haired flesh-and-blood one who arrived each holiday, laden with gifts, but a different one. A strawberry blond like me. Dad put the rake away, went inside, and didn't speak of her again.  

My father made his living as a storyteller. He was not only a history professor but also an author. He focused on the most contentious and violent of times in American history, the 19th century and the Civil War. He illuminated the era by talking not just of the facts, but also of the motivations—the love and fear and hope—that drove men onto battlefields like Antietam. "Life is messy," my father would often say as explanation for a confounding turn of events, and he meant it to be a salve, not a condemnation. That man aspires to constancy in spite of his capricious nature, that he attempts to tame his worst self in deference to a greater good, is perhaps the thing that attracted my father to history in the first place.

My childhood was steeped in his stories, some true, some that he made up for my entertainment, others that he read at my bedside each night. He never shied away from difficult topics. When my older brother chose to write a 7th grade history paper on slavery, my father realized that there was little source material explaining such a complex history to a twelve-year old. So he wrote the book himself. Years later, I would run my fingers along the book spines in my middle school library to find the one with his name on it.

My father was an eager raconteur, which is why, even as a very young girl, I found it odd that he seldom told stories about my grandmother. He rarely spoke of her. This planted the seed that something tragic had happened. I knew that she had died "too young," but what happened to Wilmeth? I dared not ask. I was never explicitly told that my father's past was off limits. His silence, however, conveyed that there were topics too powerful to talk about, subjects too dangerous to broach.

Wilmeth existed for me nonetheless. I sometimes dreamt that she sat at the end of my bed and spoke to me. Her life and death were a mystery that haunted my childhood and in the absence of her actual story, I wrote my own. Sometimes, I imagined my grandmother as the heroine, the smart woman wrongfully accused. The witch burned at the stake by the violent masses, the misunderstood Joan of Arc speaking the truth. Other times, I was the heroine. My grandmother had been kidnapped by a madman and held hostage on a secret island. I was Nancy Drew and had to find the clues and rescue her. The Quest for the Missing Grandma.

Psychologists have a term for the stories that we create and share about ourselves: autobiographical narratives. The best of these narratives not only place us in time and locale, but also speak of our emotions. Researchers studied the difference between families who talk openly about the past and those who do not and have found that those with autobiographical narratives rich in detail—not just about people, places, and events, but also about motives and feelings—have a stronger capacity to handle tumult in their own lives. You can often gauge the resiliency of a person, these studies conclude, by how well a person understands the past and his or her relationship to it. Those reared in strong narratives have a clearer sense of self.

What, then, of silence?

That night in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the six-pack gone, my father had looked drained by the time he finished his story. We hugged and said goodnight. I went to bed loaded with long-contained questions that I hadn't asked because I believed our conversation was just the beginning. Now that my father's silence about his family had been broken, more of his personal history would come.

Only it never did. Dad shared a few more details about the chronology of his life over the years, but the silence closed back in. And then he died unexpectedly from pancreatic cancer when I was thirty-seven. My father, the storyteller. It was only in his death that I understood how much he kept secret. For a man so ardent about discourse, he remained mute on the most important topics.

Silence, though, is not an uninhabitable vacuum. It is no black hole. The place where stories stop and silence starts becomes its own fertile ground; other notions take root. A story grew in my childhood, one of my own devising. I believed, from a young age, that I was Wilmeth reincarnate. This idea was reinforced by the way my father sometimes looked at me, or in the rare breaches when he would say, "You remind me of your grandmother today." I believed that I had to make amends for Wilmeth's truncated life. I would be healthy and normal. I would be smart and successful.

Unlike my grandmother, I had the power of choice and I made hard ones. I chose not to marry that man in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to risk waiting for a different kind of love. I chose to be a writer, to work for myself, to buy a very old house and to tear it to the studs in order to bring it back to life.  In a letter written to me a few years before his death, my father recounted these choices and he told me that I was brave. I had to be, you understand. Here, I had no choice. I had to prove what my grandmother might have become if given the chance. I had to show that it was merely thwarted opportunity, and not biology, that pulled that trigger.

There are times, though, when I wonder if I got more from Wilmeth than strawberry hair and green eyes. There is a melancholy that can descend on me, a kind of ache. I stand at my kitchen sink washing dishes and I look out the window. It's that magic hour of evening, when the sky honeys and drains to gray. The earth spins from the certainty of day to the honesty of night, and in that moment I can slip into Wilmeth. I feel the world shift around me and I know what it is to be unsatisfied and restless. Is this deep-seated longing, this disquiet, is it inherited?

I click lights on against the growing dark. I can still make out the scarab-like leaves of the holly tree looming in the dusk before the world dissolves into darkness. My view outside is replaced by my lamp-lit reflection in the window and there I am, a pale ghost, floating in an ocean of black.  

What happened to Wilmeth?

My father refused to ascribe an answer to her suicide in absence of the facts. Wilmeth left no clues, no diary. There was nothing of her last, harrowing days. "It shocks me now how little I understood what was going on, despite the closeness between us," my father wrote in a private journal in 1997. "I still don't understand."

Perhaps a fissure was there all along. A hairline fracture that began in the womb when cells divided under the wrong chromosome and continued to crack under the disdainful eye of disappointed parents.  A fissure, eroding at the edges with the friction of every passing day, until a slit became a crack, became a chasm, and the bright and composed Wilmeth couldn't keep it together anymore. Or maybe it was something more, something chemical. Maybe Wilmeth had become ill.

In the mid-1960s, women accounted for a minority of the suicides in the United States. Men were four times more likely to take their own lives. Most women eased their way into it, aided by prescription pills and alcohol, or like Plath, by laying a tired head inside a yawning oven. Some put razorblade to wrist. Only a small percentage used a gun. It is, to this day, rare for a woman to shoot herself to death, let alone in the heart. So maybe, Wilmeth left a note after all.

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