Forty-one years ago, a neighbor murdered my mother's younger sister. Today, I allow myself to feel what I could not when watching my mother fall down in a public telephone booth after she received a telegram from Manville to call Joseph saying it was an emergency.
I am now 30 years past the age my aunt was when she died. She was murdered. We buried her. Then we stopped talking. Whenever we roamed into Jersey, which my mother began call the "murderous state," my father kept the roof of the convertible up, as mascara ran down my mother's face. I learned to remain silent.
When you live in Manville, life is determined by the summer and winter. The in-between seasons are gifts of peaceful days that Manville folks get either to rest or to get ready for the dominant cold winter, or the humid and powerful sun in July. On a dead end street in 1967, my aunt Renee lived with her love and husband, Joseph, and their two kids. They filled the pool in the backyard and Renee placed her yard chairs on the spotty lawn.
My cousin Cindy ran and slid on the wet grassy spots dramatizing her entrance. Luckily, most of the flowery weeds had folded in for the night. The Buttercups sleep deeply in Manville, especially in Renée's yard where Joseph cried and talked. He keeps on his white shirt. He is done for the day at work. However, in work pants and no shave he cries.
Her husband had fallen asleep in the well-lit room, at 2 am he woke up to find his wife was not back. The Volkswagen was not in the driveway, the garbage was still in the house, and her absence noticed by what she left behind, in the unfinished corners of stillness. He called the police.
The pool water was still during the first evening after she is gone. The front of the house was lit up. The yard and trees in the back are now poles, like totems. Wish upon a star, wish upon the silhouette in mass accumulations of wood. The top of the pool has created its own wave: A succession of ripples from the breeze, so gentle, so hard to feel. The house had windows like laughing square-eyed children. The rectangular door opened like the screaming mouths of crying adults.
July was true to itself in Manville. It was so hot life seemed to darken. The grassy borders around the pool grew with wide-green blades. Fed by splashing drops of chlorinated water from doggy paddling babies sound and firm roots dig into the bones of the pool. The frame on Renée's face wanted to resemble her sister's, my mother, who was beautiful by any standard.
We gather in a church and it is July. There is no air conditioning. There is no order to where we stand or where we sit. The benches are hard wood oak and worn out. My aunt lies in an open casket. She looks tiny and blue. Her hair is auburn and curly just like my mother's hair. She recedes into the cushion in her final bed. Her fingers are cut from fighting off the knife attack.
She looks like a toy and not as fragile when Uncle Joseph tries to pull her out of the final resting box. Crying and screaming he doesn't stop touching her. He keeps looking at her. His face is wet. My mother is unable to look at anyone. My father is quiet: He stands in his brown shoes, speaking softly in his plaid, button-down shirt, behaving well. Does he miss his beer? Will he cry on the way home? We continue to stand next to each other sniffing out the memory we did not have. We are related. We are the blood that bled along with Renee. She had no defense. On Long Island while she was held in a trailer for over 11-hours, I watched "Laugh-In," and listened to TV commercials for Tang, and Beryl-Cream.
Renee quietly speaks now that the words are no longer leaking out of her lips. A closed mouth signals thoughts and knowledge. Death gives life to the grieving. We dropped her off at her own personal cliff and in a second, she went over. She disappeared from the lives of her children. No longer was there cooked food on the stove, wash hanging on the clothes line in the backyard, a newspaper folded in half left behind on the lawn chair, a pack of cigarettes on the kitchen table or a cup of coffee that contained a granite of sugar on the bottom, and her orange lips imprinted on the side.
Manville changed everything. The town where dandelions dream of pools of rainwater and wasps in chains where one stood tall since the month of May, like a skyscraper: Every year there seemed to be one dandelion that stood taller than the rest. Even after the kids played tag on fire fly nights in the morning it looked back into the windows of the house. With July behind it and sun burned backs recovering in the weeks that lead the family into the fall. Now like a distant life from the afterlife; an unknown time when the kid's socks will have slipped too far into their shoes to be comfortable; the time when memory has been lost to the death of the summer weeds.
When the Western Union telegram came, I was in the light part of the house, and I should have been in the shadow. In the sharp yellow of day, the front door swung open allowing that fateful message in, go to the next place after you roll the dice, pick your card, and do what it says to do. My mother said, "come with me. I have to call Jersey, something is wrong."
In the white Plymouth, we drove four blocks to the drug store. For a small coin, the news traveled to our Omni-directional lives. The black, heavy phone receiver fell like a hammer, and my mother's screams were tremors, as her soul was birthing a new life like a twin life to the one she had. The spirit broke through to us. It vibrated into our tiny narcissistic world of petty fighting and a too-late-to-love each other family.
Then she called my father. The sound of his voice, and the look on his face was the one he had when I was hit by a car when I was 3-years-old, flat. There was the affect of deep sadness. I found that same face on me at times in my life. Then, I remembered his feelings by his features, and his sense of justice was without words, as he looked straight ahead, looking past my eyes.
We were the recipients of a ghoul who came into our house and transformed our family. He sucked Renee out of our world and decided that we would die as well. A piece of us went into the underworld where it is dark, where the worms eat their way into our sense of protection. The unseen aura of self-protection, phobias, addictions, sexual and bonding issues, alienation of trust with others, letting go of our children and perhaps learning how to die ourselves.
The terrain of Manville holds hills and valleys with the bonds of immigrants. Churches and districts of houses of worship corner the streets, and where buildings of reprieve for the lost where blue-collar workers and bleached hand-made aprons hang on soft bodies. Department stores were cropping up like 3-Guys. They were built beyond the anti-war protesters and longhaired spoiled brats of alcoholic parents in the hip cities of San Francisco and New York City.
We wait for the rain. The humidity is not on our minds but on our skin. When it finally starts, it takes us to the next level of grief and torment. She is lowered into the ground as we stand before her in her most humble moment on earth. Not one head can look up. Her roof now covers the face that her children will never see again. Her wings are on my fingers directing without a filter the event that was a bulls-eye of family grief.
We are hot with faces of death mirroring what is before us. I search in the mornings for the dreams of her where she would appear before me as an angel. It took 41 years for me to bury her, before it was cosmetic, and only now that she has not called me in four decades can I begin to feel the tragedy.