My great-Aunt Helen died when she was 88-years old. At the time, I was 35, and had just been hired onto the tenure-track. A scant three years earlier, I had left a violent relationship, running away in the middle of the night, with our 9-month old son. When I returned to my hometown in New Jersey to live with my parents and try to rebuild my life, I was desperate for work. I had abandoned a teaching job in Texas, where we were living, and had lined up courses as an adjunct for the coming fall. But it was January. When my cousin Cindy—Helen’s daughter—contacted me to say that she needed help caring for her mom, who was getting over a serious illness, while she worked during the day, I was relieved. But I also felt immense guilt for taking money to “watch” Aunt Helen.
“Shut up,” Cindy said with the droll candor characteristic of my mother’s Irish-American family. “It’s either you or a nurse who’s a total stranger. I’d rather it be you, and so would Mom.”
So, for the next five months, I went over to her house every morning. Aunt Helen was my grandmother’s younger sister—my grandmother had died of complications from smoking and alcoholism when I was nine-years old. She was a first-generation Irish-American from a working class, Catholic family, who married my grandfather, the wealthy, Ivy-league educated son of a family who had come to the United States in the early 17th century and founded the town of Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. He managed to bungle a series of high-end corporate jobs and by the mid-1960’s, they went from living like Don & Betty Draper in Armonk, New York, to poverty and collapse in Atlantic City. According to my mother, things got bad after their fourth child, a little girl named Marie (after my grandmother), died of “crib death.” That’ when the drinking really started.
By contrast, my great-Aunt Helen married wisely, and for love. Her husband, great-Uncle Jim, was a beloved doctor, who for years was the Chief of Staff at Atlantic City Medical Center, where I was born–in the “Frank Sinatra Wing”–in 1980. They met when she was in nursing school after the Second World War. They were glamorous and well-off. They lived in a massive house a block from the beach and traveled the world. When Cindy was cleaning out their house to sell it she gifted me a vintage fur coat, with Aunt Helen’s name embroidered on the tag. “She got that one in Greece, in 1968,” she said.
At Cindy’s house in the mid-mornings, after I dropped Hank off at a local daycare, I would wake Aunt Helen, and help her use the bathroom and shower. It was strange and sad to see how she had transformed from the grand dame of my childhood, but beautiful to be able to help her and to get the hell out of my own head, foggy from the nightmare I had just escaped. She had the dignity of a dowager queen—a few months after I began helping out, she had to be hospitalized in the ICU for a serious infection. During one of my visits a nurse came in to change her linens—she was incontinent from the infection, and hospitals, apparently, refuse to use adult diapers, instead wrapping their patients in cloth. “Do you want me to start from this side, or the other?” the nurse asked with a clinical cheerfulness.
“How about you stand there, and I’ll lie here, and Emily can stand in the corner and cheer me on like the party this always is, dear?” she replied, gesturing to me and rolling her eyes. After, we laughed and we cried, and I held her frail hand in mine.
At Cindy’s house we watched daytime television and listened to old music and she told me stories about her life. I said, once, “What did you think of my grandfather?”
“He was… difficult,” she said, with shaky venom, leaving me to understand that he was a stone, spoiled idiot and she still hadn’t forgiven him for ruining her adored big sister’s life. Another day, I said, “I’m sure everyone is… angry at me… for what happened,” with a wave of my hand, a vague gesture to the nightmare my family had experienced when I upped and left for Texas with a maniac and our two-month old infant.
“It’s a difficult situation,” she said gently, taking my hand and closing her eyes. It was a study in the elegance and force of tone. It left me to understand that she understood me—in that moment I imagine I was a sharp and tragic double: I look like the modern twin of her older sister. My maternal grandmother.
But unlike my maternal grandmother, I escaped. And when I did, her little sister held my hand.
I had a great-Aunt Grace, on my father’s side, but we never met.
As the story was told to me, she died of tuberculosis in the dark and forever time before I was born. My family’s stories swirled in my head in a colorful whoosh that, periodically, I would insist they tell me in critical detail so that I could nail them to a timeline. One such example of this happened when I was in the sixth grade, a time when I was gobbling up nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century women’s novels—the Brontës, Du Maurier, Lucy Maud Montgomery. In those books, women dropped like proverbial flies of TB, or “consumption,” as it was called. Their names and their deaths lived in my head like a string of decade beads: Ruby, Cathy, Helen, Cecily…
I was curious about this strange disease which killed you in fits of hacking, apple-cheeked beauty. I knew my grandmother’s sister had died of it, and so when I was tasked with writing a “disease report” for my sixth-grade science class, I decided on tuberculosis, and decided I would interview my paternal grandmother, “Nanny,” about this.
Nanny lived next door to us, and we were thick as thieves. I wandered over to her house every day after school and we had milky tea and crumb cake together at the massive walnut table my grandfather had built in 1960. There, she told me the stories of her life. Once, she told me about her own father’s nastiness toward her, how when she asked if the stork brought her, he said, No, we found you in the garbage bin in the alley outback. She paused. I had a wonderful childhood, Emmy, she said, and burst into a bitter laugh.
Because she was so full of candor, I assumed she would be willing to tell me about her sister who had died of the mysterious coughing disease. I was obsessed with these dead girls, with a time period not so far off, but in drastic contrast to my suburban life with its stark lack of romance. So I pressed the issue when, rather than begin a frank discussion about great-Aunt Grace, she withdrew into herself.
There was awkward silence.
But… what was she like? Do you remember when she got sick?
She pressed her hands together.
I was very young. I don’t remember much.
She wouldn’t look to her left, where I sat, as always, in my “queen’s chair,” the funny, high-backed chair her husband had built years before my birth, which she always stacked with two cushions. She was almost six feet tall, a beautiful woman who wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I had transgressed in some impossible-to-know way. I finished my tea and left.
I was 20 when my Aunt Susan, Nanny’s daughter, told me about great-Aunt Grace.
Who had not died of tuberculosis. Who had, by all accounts, been diagnosed with the disease when she was in her late teens, at the height of the Depression. Her once-wealthy father (my great-Grandfather, Hugh O’Donnell) who became a cooper—a barrel builder—and a millionaire after coming to the US from Donegal during the First World War, had lost everything after the 1929 crash. We still have two letters he wrote—the first, in 1922, is to Houdini, challenging him to break out of one of his barrels (Houdini declined). The second, in 1937, is to the mayor of the small Jersey shore town where I grew up, asking if he might take a job maintaining the tennis courts, for $75 a month.
Grace went to a sanitarium in rural North Jersey to recover. My grandmother told her own daughters her family was so broke that, when they would visit Grace, her father would make her crawl under fences to sneak into farms and steal potatoes, apples, radishes, whatever she could get her hands on. It terrified my grandmother, the younger daughter, but she did what she was told.
I don’t know what happened at the sanitarium. I don’t know where Grace is buried. Her nieces, my aunts, don’t know either.
In graduate school, I tried and failed to write a long, narrative poem about this, and then tried and failed again to compress it into a short lyric. It would not expand, and it would not be compressed. In one version, I imagined that she fell in love with a young doctor, unmarried, that they made love in his single room, that she lay there and stared at the long crack in the water-stained ceiling. There was a basin and a metal-framed bed. There were various trappings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s novels that had impressed themselves with such force on my young brain.
In another version, she creeps alone down a back staircase to a metaphorical back alley, where she dies.
Reader, of course she dies. She is a dead-broke first-generation Irish-American woman, daughter of two immigrants, one of whom will become so undone by the death of his beloved oldest daughter that he becomes violent with his youngest, who will grow up to become my paternal grandmother, a woman who will never, not once, raise a hand or a voice to me, in anger, but will drink and drink and drink. Reader, of course, upon discovering she is pregnant out of wedlock (with whose child? Why, Reader, when I try to imagine this, can I only come up with one possible father, a flawed but gentle young doctor at her sanitarium? How stupid am I, about all of this? How could I be expected to be otherwise, in the wake of the silence, the wake of the shame?) she finds someone to perform an abortion, after which she either bleeds to death, or dies of some infernal complication from an infection.
No one knows which.
Later, my grandmother will tell me one thing about this time—she was twelve when Grace got sick, and her parents couldn’t always afford to bring her to visit the sanitarium. So, sometimes they left her alone. And that’s when she started smoking. My ciggies were, she tells me, brandishing a lit Benson and Hedges 100, like friends to hold hands with.
I have a picture of Grace, taken right before she got sick—she sits in a rocking chair, grins, wears a short plaid skirt. On the back, someone scrawled, in beautiful script, Grace—the sweetest girl in all God’s world.
Reader, of course the family had a ready story—tuberculosis. Such a shame.
My great-Aunt Helen died of kidney failure three years after that spring of caretaking. I went to her hospital room where Cindy kept watch in the corner. It was just the three of us there—three raven-haired Irish-American women bound up in love and grief and duty. Cindy practically yelled, “Mom, it’s Emily! Em’s here!” to rouse her mother.
I took Aunt Helen’s hand, and gripped it, and cried. She said, her voice shaking hard, “Hi, Em,” and I said, “I love you, Aunt Helen, I love you.” She said, “I love you, too, Em!” and she smiled.
In the hallway, Cindy asked me about the job I had just gotten at the university up the road. She must have known that without her early support, and that of her mother, who was dying in the next room, I would never have made it. “Everyone told you no,” Cindy said. “But you kept the faith.”
Her mother died the next day.
I don’t know how to end this dark little essay, with its brief moments of light, which do manage to spark up from the shadows. A young woman flees a violent man, clutching their baby. She barely makes it. But an old woman lifts her up. The old woman dies, but not before she learns that the young woman might, after all, succeed. Live.
The old woman dies holding her daughter’s hand.
In Texas—Georgia—in Alabama—all over this vast canvas of fear that we call America, women will die. They won’t have time to run away. They will be great-Aunts only in name, and in death. And their deaths will disappear into a language made and remade by men to cover their shitty sins.
Before I left the violent father of my beautiful son, I lived in a curtain of lies. I wove a constant story to cover another until my life was the thing that lay beneath and I was cloaked in a rich tapestry: a woman kneels at a dais, head bowed, bottom left, a little threadbare, now—her deep, red cloak is faded at the hem– the hem is made from stitching, it is stitching amalgamating stitching, it is unraveling in its art and in its real time. The woman is and is not me, knitting a story, telling a truth about lying all the time—
Tuberculosis was called consumption, because it seemed to consume you from the inside out.
Like lies. Like love. Like how I was consumed by those dead girls: Cathy, Ruby, Helen, Cecily.
My great-Aunt Helen was a boon to everyone in her life until she died, surrounded by love, at 88.
I never knew my great-Aunt Grace. She died from complications of an illegal abortion in 1940. And I can make connections about dead girls and hand-holding and smoldering lies and smoke and my own egregious mistakes that still wake me in the night. I can do that forever.
But I don’t know how to end this essay, except to say that women will die like this. And men will lie about it.
And I am on fire.