October 1961: The Wreck
I am five years old and looking down on my grandmother in her open and brightly-lit coffin. My father holds me up; I feel his strong hands in my armpits, and from behind me I hear him whisper “She died from a fractured skull.” He wants me to see her and to see death, though many in the crowded parlor probably thought he was, as usual, too blunt.
Her son David, 12, lies beside her. A single glass dome shields Granny and David — one glass chamber, not two, so they are together beyond the glass and not alone. Every time I recall the image, now, I’m fascinated at how bright the glare is on the glass. As Dad talks I have to look around the flare to see that their foreheads are similarly bruised. I wouldn’t have noticed the dark splotches but dad points them out as the signs of the skull-fractures. The twin marks and the phrase “skull-fracture” intrigue me like new information, though I feel nothing. New information; it is new that a skull-fracture could kill you, and that it had killed two people at the same time, and that it left a bruise on your forehead. The bruise was not in the middle but on one side. Later, much later, I would imagine them turning their faces away in their final instinct.
Dad says they had a wreck.
It was October 1961. A sunny evening, and the family piled into the car for the half-hour drive to a gospel sing. At the last minute, Dad decided to take his own car, so he followed the one Granny drove. She had two sons with her and a neighbor boy, David’s friend of his own age. Mother and grown son in the front, two boys in the back. One from each seat would die.
The caravan rounded a long curve, known locally as “all-day curve”. As the road straightened again in front of them, dad could see perhaps a half-mile to the speeding car coming on fast and all over the road. She must have seen him, too, because she pulled way over to her side to escape him. Yet the drunk hit her full on; Dad said he saw what seemed like an explosion in front of him and cars spinning backwards past him, one on either side.
He made it to the driver’s side first and she was over in the seat, still holding the wheel. He pulled his mother out onto the pavement and into his lap, where he thinks she died before the ambulance came.
David was alive and talking in the emergency room, and even in his room later that night. “We thought he was out of danger”, Dad would say. Minutes after Dad left his little brother to walk down the hall, around midnight, David died suddenly. He had asked for the 23rd Psalm. Once, when Dad told this story, he mentioned how bad he felt that he had yelled at David days before for spilling some milk.
So, a wreck, like a hundred scenes you have passed on the road in your life. Oh, the other driver…he was an 18 year-old soldier, home on leave, drunk. Somebody guessed he was moving 80 miles an hour at impact. He was decapitated. I don’t remember his name.
The other boy, David’s friend, survived with a fractured femur, and perhaps is playing with his grandchildren tonight as I write this.
The front-seat passenger was my other uncle, young and in the military and strong, which is maybe why he survived, maybe, as he suffered two fractured ankles from bracing against the impact with those young, strong legs. It may have been the day of the viewing when I wandered into his dark back bedroom where he sat alone, in a wheelchair, casts on both legs, staring out the window. He was quiet and gentle with me that day but someone else hustled me out.
You can see that my memory of the two dead in their bright bed is vivid. I see the lights and the bruises, I hear my Dad’s voice, I even taste the fudge laid out in the kitchen for the family as they received a house full of mourners. And, as I say, my father’s bluntness about their deaths didn’t bother me. His manner made it matter-of-fact for me, which is what I think he was trying for.
The memory is vivid, yet painless. Painless? I’ve felt a slight guilt about that. But I’ve explained it to myself: I have no memory of either Granny or David alive, so their death never felt like a loss to me. And that is why I wonder about my need to go over and over the story, to write and re-write it, for decades now. Process trauma, you say? No…the usual tropes about “dealing with the loss” won’t work here. I hesitate to say it, because it seems cold, but they could have been anyone, for me, for all the sorrow I remember ever feeling (can you forgive me for that? I was five). Yet the image of looking down at the twin purple marks of fracture always has felt… untold.
The entire story has also sounded untold as I remember the half-century of talk within the wider family. Those who must have been indeed traumatized were much older than me, of course, and over the decades they moved across the country, raised families and grand-families, died, or are goldening fast. I’ve not been close to them. I’ve heard them talk of The Wreck a little, at reunions, but only in response to my questions, and with no apparent pain. No, this is not what you expect: this is no story of people who careened off into divorces, suicides, or self-medicating. Granny’s husband lived till old age took him. The uncle with the broken ankles served a career in the Army and Dad always said he was a spy, or an accountant, or both, but successful by all accounts. He married, once, and had children, and they grew up, and then he died, old. My Dad is still with us, 80 now. There were other siblings, too: another brother, away at college, and a sister, in high school at the time of the wreck — both still alive. Many versions of the story are untold in them.
It’s been all so normal after that October day, and the normalcy doesn’t seem quite right. I would not have wanted them to be obsessed or maudlin, but I now realize what I wanted was to hear them talk to each other about it. I wanted to feel them feel it alongside each other, like an emotional triangulation that gives bearing to what lies behind. That common feeling and the meaning they made of it are the meaning of the The Wreck, a meaning probably lost. I heard my Father’s account many times, and I heard the old ones try to get this or that detail straightened out, but always arguing, in my family always arguing. I never felt The Wreck built into the family mythos. It would never be but tragedy, sure, but our tragedy, and when a tragedy is not traditionalized it doesn’t go away, but lingers like a poltergeist, troubling the living but not useful. “Traditionalizing the tragic”, I say? Morbid? No, my sense is that the deeper it would have been storied into the family mythos, the more pain and joy it would have yielded. And it deserved that.
But now, a family myth which behaves like a poltergeist. I could have shook its hand and led it to its place in the procession and we would have known it biblically, not as many tragedies are known among the believers, as a fake divine design, ladled on, sauce on sadness, but rather as truth, as the bonds the living made from the amputated threads of their dead. Bonds not of co-sentimentality, but of tradition. Dear ones, what did you do with this absence these 50 long years? I missed your life, not knowing that. I’m sorry I left you alone. I had the same absence, and we were arrogant toward each other not to work around the absence together. The grey matriarch and her youngest child on the edge of puberty, and a son in the strength of manhood. No one, by luck of age, was a safe distance from that death. And it reaches even those who have no mental images of their corpses. David was twelve when he died, the same age as my son Isaac is now. Was he, like my own Isaac, croaking in the voice as boy changes to man, and was there a ritual of laughter that Isaac and I might just don, instead of having to make it from the void ?