He wrote me a letter that he wanted to visit me, my long lost Uncle Ken. He arrived when he said he would so he could tell me the true story of what happened to my mother. I was three years old when she passed away at age 27 from an apparent suicide, but while we are quick to assign labels to events and people, Uncle Ken taught me that what may seem apparent is not what it seems. Now it's your turn to decide if this is true...
Uncle Ken's Visit
Uncle Ken’s Visit
He came to visit me when I was living in Gilbert, Arizona. Long retired, Uncle Ken was eighty something years old and spent his time traveling across the country. He had two sons, Bobby and David and a daughter Nancy, all grown and married with children, living in Cortland County, New York.. Uncle Ken had married my father’s oldest sister, Aunt Ruth who had passed away a few years ago after a long bout with Alzheimer's. He had a quiet, gentle manner, but he also had come to the treatment facility where Aunt Ruth was being cared for every morning to prepare and have breakfast with her even though she no longer recognized him. He also boarded a couple of Chinese college students who were attending local colleges in the area. I never did find out what his children thought of this, but it added an interesting facet to his legacy if nothing else
I did not really know him well. Until talking to him, I never knew he had retired from Singer Sewing Company. When I was younger, I visited him and Aunt Ruth. They lived on an acre in a single story ranch house in the middle of massive dairy farms. I had always thought he was a farmer like his neighbors. He also told me that after he retired, he got a motorhome so he and Ruth could travel. They spent some time in the motorhome parks in Apache Junction and had a working knowledge of Maricopa County.
To be quite honest, I had little contact with him or any of his children. His sons were older, but his daughter was about my age. It seemed as we had grown older, I did not have much in common with them. We had gone our separate ways.
Looking at him, it seemed he hadn’t changed a bit since I last saw him at Carole Ann Bent-Frost, my step mother’s funeral at Christmas time in 2003.
“Good to see you, Frosty.” He greeted me as he stepped inside. Frosty was my nickname used since I was George Jr. in order to save any confusion about which George was which.
Your mother Mary Alice committed suicide, dad would tell me whenever I asked. I could not fathom what had depressed her so much that she would take her own life.
Inviting him in, Uncle Ken sat at our kitchen table. His tone became serious as he said, “I think I should tell you about how your mother died.” What he told me would change the perspective of my life. It amazes me how such a humble beginning could have such a powerful impact on my life.
My mother was Mary Alice True. She was only twenty-seven when she passed away. Having come from a family of privilege, her father, William True was a well-respected lawyer who had received a gift from one of the Vanderbilt's whom he had defended in court. I was quite taken with the decanter set. It had three different colored glass bottles. Carole, my stepmother wound up with it and had stashed it in her storage room. When she passed away three days after Christmas in 2003, she made sure I got the decanter set which now proudly sits on my wine rack.
Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother and when I got my job at the country club in 1976, she told me that her and grandpa William used to have parties out there with the mayor and a lot of other prominent people in Syracuse. As a boy, before she got sick, she would take me to some old friends’ homes. Her friends lived in domiciles that seemed like mansions to me. Her friends also addressed her as “Bill.” When I asked her about her strange and odd nickname, she told me that’s how they remember her from her late husband. She was quite alright with her gender twisted name, however.
Of all the things I remember about her, it was her laugh which came from her fun-loving nature. She would pick me up in her 1957 rag-top baby-blue Chevy complete with a ton of chrome and distinctive fins. We’d go on these adventures where she would tell me, “If we stop at a red light, I am going to give you a pinch.” Good to her warning, she would pinch me when we stopped at a red light. To this day, I still feel a pinch whenever I stop at a red light.
Her real tragedy was when her husband died a year short of receiving his pension. Having never worked a day in her life and without Grandpa William’s pension, she went from a privilege to a life of poverty. Moving into a small efficiency apartment with her older sister Helen, she lived on a very modest monthly social security check. I never knew any of this until she had passed away in 1976.
Mary Alice lost her cousin, Suzie to cancer, her father William, and her mother-in-law Gertrude Frost, my father’s mother, whom she had become close with over their short time together. As a result, she collapsed emotionally, unable to cope with these people who had left her...and she had just given birth to a son...me.
My father, George Sr., came from a blue collar family that had felt the pains of the Great Depression. Grandpa Ralph and his wife Gertrude had five children, Ruth, Beverly, George (dad), Allan and Barbara who was the baby, nearly ten years younger than dad. While Grandpa Ralph had gone to Europe as a Doughboy to fight in the Great War, dad had gone to Korea during the war. When he came home, he took advantage of the GI Bill. Having put a lot of ex-military into college, my dad was admitted to Syracuse University. He graduated valedictorian receiving his accounting degree.
For all the great things he did, his relationship with his first wife was not one of them.
I heard a noise. I had been left in the crib all day...again. Over the lowered side and onto the floor.
“Uncle Ken, dad told me she committed suicide.” I told him. Her suicide had been rough on dad. He became so distraught, he did not get her a proper headstone feeling she took her own life, she did not deserve one. Hearing this, I resented him for this, but then Carole told me some of the family pitched in to make sure her grave was appropriately marked.
“She did not. She was a confused young lady who did the wrong thing at the wrong time.” His voice was steady as he ended the lie I had lived with all my life.
“Do you mean her death was an accident?” I asked cautiously
“Accident may not be the correct word, but she did not intend to commit suicide as George told you, Frosty.” He crossed his arms across his chest.
I sat there for a moment feeling as if Mike Tyson had hit me with an uppercut. I was flabbergasted.
I heard them downstairs...there was some shouting...that woke me up...but now someone was crying and I had to go see what happened…
After telling me his version of the story, Ken drank some of his water that he had requested. Taking the conversation off the somber subject of my mother’s death, he talked about all the happenings from back home in New York including taking on his Chinese students. My wife and I raptly listened to his tales since we had adopted my daughter from an orphanage in China back in 2001.
“We made sure your mother got her headstone.” He said after a brief pause.
I did not like talking about my biological mother, because dad told me about her struggle with her mental health. It hurt me to know she had decided to commit suicide when she was only twenty-seven.
She met dad when she was attending Syracuse University and had gotten her diploma before becoming a fourth grade teacher. Since it had taken a lot of effort to get my certificate, I wondered why she would take her own life.
Was I the reason?
How many times had I asked myself if that was true.
Her mother would never answer the question since I was too young to know the truth. Dad wished to protect me since the truth was disturbing to know.
I snuck down the stairs while they were arguing and went to the kitchen. In the cabinets were some pots and pans. I would remove them and make them my own orchestra...a true cacophony of sound...but then suddenly all was quiet out there...I would change that quickly.
A scream? Had I heard a scream? I did not wish to stop my performance, but I had to see what was happening.
“Frosty, you need to know the truth about your mother. She was a wonderful person. I thought you should know that.” He said, taking another sip of his water. “Your father wanted to protect you. So he never quite got around to telling you what really happened.”
I had asked Carole once what the truth was and she got angry, “I thought your father had told you.” He did not and she did not want to tell me what happened. She married my father in 1961, a wedding I attended immortalized by a photograph of her kissing me as I squeezed one of the frosted ornaments on their wedding cake. For their honeymoon, dad took her to South Bend, Indiana to see the Syracuse Orangemen take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame with the Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame University. Facing the wind, Carole nearly froze to death as Syracuse lost in the final seconds on a blocked kick. I got to stay with Grandma True, but my stay was ruined when I got buried by a tea kettle, leaving a scar I have to this day. A few weeks later, they took me to the courthouse in Syracuse where Carole legally adopted me as her son. Dad could not bear the thought that if something were to happen to him, I would be left an orphan. When I delivered the eulogy at her funeral, I said, “She always treated me like I was her son and never let me doubt for one minute that this was so.”
Dad wanted to make sure I was protected, insulated from the truth.
Protect me? What from? I was there. I was only three years old at the time, but I was there. I heard and saw things that will be in my memory for the rest of my life.
I took a deep breath.
“I felt I should tell you since there is no one left.” Uncle Ken nodded.
I had suspected that dad did not always tell me what really happened. Once I found his old army uniform in a storage closet when I was about nine years old. I was exploring our rather dark and mysterious basement when I happened upon the storage unit. On the left pocket hung two purple hearts. I plucked them off his uniform and shoved them into my pocket.
Later when he was watching the news, I pulled them out and showed them to him.
“What were you doing in the basement?” He was angry.
“I found these.” I confessed.
“You are to leave that closet alone.” He was very firm in his order. I could tell, because his lips were nothing but a straight line across his face.
“What are these?” I asked as he took the purple hearts from my hand.
“Purple hearts. You get them when you are wounded in war. But in Korea they were giving them out like water. Cut your finger opening a can of ration beer and they’d give me a purple heart.” He lay back on the couch, tired from his long day at the office.
“So you were in combat?” I asked.
“No, no.” He said sitting up, once his mouth was in a straight line, “I told you that I didn’t have to do anything to get those.”
He took those things. I had no way of knowing that I would never see them again.
Sensing that he wasn’t being completely honest with me, I decided it was time I told him the truth about what I had seen.
I found my mother lying on the stairs. Her eyes were open. I shook her.
“Mom, it’s me, Frosty. Get up. Come into the kitchen and we can play.”
But there was no response. She just lie there staring blankly at the ceiling.
It was there my memory ended.
“You were only three. No way you can remember that. You were just having a bad dream.” He shook his head.
But then I told him what had happened a few weeks before.
In Manlius, New York where he lived, dad had a friend at a Shell station who fixed the car whenever he was asked. While he was “shooting the breeze” as he called it, I got behind the steering wheel. Back then the Chevy steering wheels were enormous, nearly as big as I was at the time. Here I was, driving the car just like dad when I reached the gear shifter. Since the driveway to the gas station was on an incline, when I moved the handle, unknowing I had put the car into drive. Slowly the car with me at the steering wheel began to roll toward the road where there was moving traffic. Both my dad and his friend ran to get me before the car rolled into the road. One of them reached to the gear shifter, managing to prevent the car from reaching the road.
Once again he sat up, but this time he did not say anything. He just sat there with a stunned expression on his face.
Nobody was as honest as my dad when he was doing taxes and would not even let his brother or his sisters get away with an exemption that did not have coming to them. His honesty became a family legend, but there were secrets he held in his hand like an ace of diamonds.
They might call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD for short. Back then it was called “Shell Shock”and a lot of servicemen came home with a mental illness the V.A. would not admit to until the Gulf War. It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? Shell shock? Don’t be a sissy. You’re supposed to get “over it.” Those nightmares of watching your buddy disappear in a cloud filled with shrapnel only to be lying there disemboweled trying to shove his own insides back to where they had come from. So much damage. So much damage that would take more than a medic to repair.
And what happens when an undiagnosed illness goes untreated and you marry a woman who suffers from postpartum depression? We cannot forgive what has not been forgiven in us. Rage rises from instability when all you ever longed for was stability. In her own depression, she could not see the suffering of those around her. She could not see the needs of her toddler and was not capable of caring for him.
At the beginning of my day, she would put me in my crib and leave me there for the rest of the day while she slept in her bed…
One time, I remember waking up. The window had been left open and it was a cold New York autumn day. When I looked up, I saw a flock of birds perched on the rail of my crib looking down at me. When I reached up, one of the birds clamped onto my finger. I screamed because of the pain and blood that was running down my finger. The birds made a quick exit as I bawled...I don’t remember anyone coming in to see how I was…
I found that Uncle Ken was not much of a talker. He had always been a quiet man who let his wife Ruth do most of the vocalization, but he had done what he came for. In some deep place, I truly believe he had feelings for the poor rich girl who married my father. In looking at their wedding photographs, I saw that Uncle Ken was one of my father’s ushers at the wedding. He looked so young in that picture.
“She was a confused young lady who suddenly had a child in the middle of her struggles.” He concluded.
While I had it figured out in my head when I started going to college after my discharge from the United States Air Force. My literature teacher did a unit on Silvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. In 1963, suffering from depression, Sylvia committed suicide by placing her head in a gas oven. As I read the interview done with Ted after her death, I could almost hear my father saying the same things to me. Reading some of Plath’s poetry, I kept thinking of the last time I saw my mother lying with her eyes open on the stairs, realizing Sylvia Plath’s pain had also been my mother’s pain.
Uncle Ken finished his water and told me he had to be moving on. He told me about his life after Ruth passed away and how they would come to Apache Junction (where I would teach for eight years) in their trailer, enduring the anti-tourist attitude from the locals that I would come to know so well over my tenure.
As he made his way to the door, I hugged him, thanking him for finally telling me the truth about my mother. Someone had sent me a picture of her tombstone: Mary Alice True-Frost (1930-1957). She had one son who was grateful that I finally got to know her through the eyes of someone who was there and remembered.
During the holidays, I sent Uncle Ken a card, thanking him for telling me the truth at last. A week after Christmas, Nancy sent me a short letter explaining that he had passed away from a massive heart attack while watching television. In the envelope was a thick packet of pictures that he had kept. I got a picture of my father with his dog while he was in uniform while serving in Korea in 1951 at the base in Pusan. There was an obituary of both Mary Alice and my father George, Sr. Uncle Ken told me that as he got near the end, he could barely cross Salina Street to get to his office in Syracuse. In July 1978, he would pass away at age 47 from congenital heart failure.
I was notified of his death while I was living with my first wife in Concord, North Carolina several hours after he had passed away. He probably told Carole, my stepmother, not to bother me with his hospitalization the day before he passed away in order to protect me. I would go back to Syracuse for his funeral where nearly two hundred people he had an association with came to pay their respects. One of them, Terry, who was the foreman of the docks when dad got me a summer job. Terry told me that dad was one of the finest men he had ever worked for. I would never argue that...not one little bit.