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While his mother disappeared, his mother, my aunt was murdered.
While his mother disappeared, his mother, my aunt was murdered.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forty-one years ago my mother’s younger sister was murdered by her next door neighbor. Today, I allow myself to feel what I couldn’t then. Watching as my mother fell down in a public telephone booth after she received a telegram from Manville to call Joseph, it was an emergency. In my room I am now 30 years past the age my aunt was when she died. It happened. We buried her. Then we stopped talking. We roamed like Pegasus into New Jersey that from now on my mother will call the “murderous state.” We were fleas on the wings of the great horse. My father kept the roof of the convertible up. Mascara ran down my mother’s face and I learned to remain silent.

We are expressionless. Death enters our faces from the side. Our noses and mouths, our eyes have left us behind. I am abandoned by my face. It does things that I am not familiar with. My mother’s face is gone. She lost it in the phone booth when her back slid down the wall and she cried out. I waited in the Rexall drug store watching the woman lose her color, take off her features and peel into new ones that would now become her new face forever.

This family no longer harbors mid-life anger. My teenage resentment of parental hatred fly’s into my nostrils when the wind from the open car window comes in without a voice. There are legs and feet; my brother’s knees look long. My mother’s head curls in auburn sweetness. Her Irish skin tones flavor backward into raw feelings of infancy. My father disappears. The car drives it’s self. Words stop in mid-air.

When you live in Manville, your life is determined by the summer and winter. The in-between seasons are gifts of peaceful days that Manville folks get to either 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.

Cousin Cindy recognizes me from 2 years ago. Her tiny cheeks stick out of her bathing suit. Her eyes are stuck on me. The memory she has and the glory she created about me is in her stare. At 10 years old, Cindy is removed from her awareness of herself. She is getting ready to get on the ferris wheel. It’s not moving yet. The lights are on, the colors are in carnival delight, the music in far away mood where the mountains behind the hills echo with somewhere over the rainbow. She plays it over and over. Judy Garland in a scratchy needle memory and Cindy runs and slides on the wet grassy spots dramatizing her form making her entrance over the dandelion she slides; luckily most of the flowery weeds have folded in for the night. Buttercups sleep deeply in Manville in Renee’s yard where Joseph cries and talks. He keeps on a white shirt. He is done for the day at work. But in work pants and no shave he cries.

Joseph watches his son run from one woman to another. He speaks. His mouth moves constantly. He jolts in tears and there is no coordination in his heart beat. He desires his wife and the beauty of her heart.

“Why did she go there?” I hear him ask. “She went for soda, she only wanted to get soda, I didn’t need it, but she said she would get it anyway. I ate … she didn’t come back.” He had fallen asleep in the well-lit room and at 2 am he woke up and she wasn’t back. The Volkswagen wasn’t in the driveway, the garbage was in the house-and Renee’s absence was noticeable and seen by what she left behind. Unfinished corners of stillness. He called the police.

The pool water lies still during the first evening after she is gone. The front of her house is 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 has features of laughing square eyed children. The rectangular door opens like the screaming mouths of crying adults.

July is true to itself in Manville. It is so hot life seems to darken. A minute breeze and I look into a stranger’s eye. Two years earlier mom and I took a trip to see Renee.

We drove from Long Island to see her. She smiled a lot. She was thin like a fine string on a violin bow. Smoked, curled her home-dyed hair with clips and cried when her mother told her what to do. My mother got older and more commanding in this mix. I sat listening to the stories and about my grandfather, Jack, and his mother, my grandmother’s sister, Rene who died of a broken heart at 21…”like to kill that son of a bitch…” my mother’s mother said….and stories about how my mother ran away from home at 15 and worked in Woolworths. “Nana was so thin when she found me in that furnished room…” Then the pictures came down from the top of Renee’s closet: The ones taken on an Astoria rooftop of the women in this room 25 years ago. Before the Brownie and the Polaroid cameras that we pressed out a photo, counted to 60, and peeled off the top layer to see the beauties below.

The kids ran into the house – the baby, Brian, was up and down his mother’s lap in the vision of her hazel eyes. Forcing smiles in the corners our mouths. She blew smoke in the direction behind her away from his face; his constant grin; his belly blooming out above his trunks. He held dandelions in his hand that he had ripped out of the ground in his firm fingers…”Buttercup, buttercup…” he held the yellow flower under Renee’s chin.“…take me away...” she tickled him till he fell onto the floor by her feet after kissing and bouncing him on her boney knees. Lipstick crossed over the lines on her mouth and colored her teeth. Brian slipped off her lap again.

The front yard is worn out. The dirt dominates the playing field. Some grassy spots toward the street and closer to the porch purple flowers, then the strong dandelion weeds grow in clusters.

Uncle Joseph can’t stop crying. His kids are in bathing suits. Tiny young people graze around looking for their mother. She has been gone now for 2 days. Brian needs a lap to curl into. He lost his mother at 3 years old and would have little memory of her. People I don’t know are around the house trampling into Renee’s private place. They look at the house that is old. It needs work; broken planks creek on the front porch. I find a chair to sit on and invite my tiny cousin to come to me. My body is new and at seventeen years old I have little understanding of children – I can’t feel but only the numbness of my face. I want to dissolve into my mother’s heart to re pump the day and start it differently.

The grassy borders around the pool grow 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 Renee’s face wanted to resemble her sister’s, my mother, who was beautiful by any standard.

Joseph thought about Renee even when he wasn’t supposed to. Her lungs would keep him awake in the nights when the evening bugs rose from the sidewalks. Whistling songs pushed out while she slept on her back. He liked her in that doll-like state with her eyes closed. Renee rose from their bed after Brian had climbed in between them.

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 like my mother’s. 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. Her bowels were cut out of her and she held on to her organs even while he cut her fingers off. She had no defense. On Long Island while she was held in a trailer with her murderer and as he contemplated killing her for over 11-hours, I watched “Laugh-In,” and listened to TV commercials for Tang, and Bryl-Cream.

My grandmother sits in the front row. Lines are all over the place – her hair falls down into her face. Curls are limp in the heat. Renee’s eyes are shut. Mine are open and darting between the smell of dead flowers and salt from tears of the wanderers. “Why did he have to kill her?” Joseph rocks her body out of the pink cushion. Grand mother would blame him for the rest of her life for Renee’s death…”his cheapness killed her…she went to that neighbor because she needed money for the kids to buy them clothes and sneakers…”

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, cooked food on the stove, wash 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 and a cup of coffee that contained a granite of sugar on the bottom: Her orange lips imprinted on the side.

My father drives home to our middle class life on Long Island and into the house where we run in-between three floors and we push it away. I am 17 years old, and a stranger steps into the lobby of my family and robs each one of us. I enter my senior year in high school I as a thin girl from constant dieting and feelings of accomplishment. I have learned to drive a car, and to feel the deep love of a man. I also feel the new power of making decisions. But then the stranger walks in through the door. He walks in and looks around then jumps on the weakest prey in the kinship log. He breaks down the least resistant.

My family drove away from the cemetery and into a new life of avoidance. We didn’t deny that Renee was murdered – we would mention it here and there and then stop talking about it. Why would we keep visiting the horror? The recurring thoughts of her being held for hours while her killer told her he was going to do it – a knife held out in front of him while he jabbed her and plunged it into her small body. If we would have had more time we could have met on common ground as women. Who did she really love? What other men were on her radar? She seemed to be an ordinary woman in life. I didn’t know if she had interests in art or science. Her style was always stunning as she was really slim like Audrey Hepburn and her narrow face made her nose seem long and elegant.

Manville changed everything. The town where dandelions dream of pools of rain water and wasps in chains – where one stood tall since the month of May, like a skyscraper: The dandelions that Renee would watch while smoking on the steps of the house. “…don’t mow that one…” she would yell over the lawn mower to Joseph. Every year there seemed to be one dandelion that stood taller than the rest. Even after the kids played tag across it 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.

I bloomed in the shadows of my house. When the doors were half-open behind them where it would always feel the same. I trusted the place behind the doors. One room in the house we lived in for 6-years on Lea Ann Terrace had a walk-in closet. The doors to both the room and closet opened into each other-a wondrous shadow was there all the time. For long minutes I would stay there.

When the Western Union telegram came, I was in the light part of the house. I should have been in the shadow. In the sharp yellow of day, the front door swung open to let the message in. Go to the next place after you roll the dice, pick your card and do what it says to…”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 – mother’s screams were tremors: Her soul was birthing a new life like a twin life to the one she had. 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 face on his face was the one he had when I was hit by a car when I was 3-years-old. Flat. There was affect of deep sadness. When that showed up in his life he wouldn’t look into my face. He couldn’t. I found that face on me at times in my life. Then, remembering his feelings by his features. His sense of justice was without words. He looked straight ahead. He looked past my eyes.

I long for a tempered morning of a blueberry sky with clouds that glide their eyes over our house: Days when all the pieces were in their posts on the colorless checkerboard. As food was wasted by my demanding and ungrateful family, I, a key player in the mist of speed and lawn chairs in the backyard. Grabbing each other in sentences - words flew and bounced and ran into the house to fight over the TV channel. I was a lover in the making. We were losers in motion. The death of a 28-year-old woman who led the simplest sweetest life possible pushed us deeper into new cars and fur hats.

I had visions of my 2-baby cousins lining up together in a row looking outward in our direction. They were thinking ‘why don’t you come and get us? Where are you? Why did you leave us?’ We were emotional aliens. Blank bullets were shot into the air directly above our heads – we had no idea of where to go or what to do. We didn’t notice that their was anything wrong with us. We couldn’t find a direction because we didn’t know that we had a choice.

Within the next few months, we grew as a unit. In pain we walked along in a march on suburban sidewalks. The leadership was shared. Sometimes, one of the kids led and directed the family-ship. Mostly, my mother was the main person, the leader, the boss. She did whatever she wanted to do. She dressed with juice and wasn’t afraid to be beautiful and took the liberty of exploring her desirability to men. It was her power. But in the crossfire of sex and glamour she exchanged her intelligence. Not always understanding the parts of an issue then expressing her view with incomplete information. Her confidence in her knowledge could convince the listener that she knew what she was talking about. And she did! She had the courage to paint on canvas and art was her identity to that of a “beat” participant. Honestly, I loved it.

Then the memory of her baby sister would come around her face. The wicked storm could cloud around all of us and we would talk about it. The story of Aunt Renee would go backwards like the story of my grandmother’s sister with the same name. Death becomes a story like buying a can of peas off the store shelf. The beautiful small featured, yet exotic face would become selfless: Unaware of her look. She became more beautiful in the memory of her grief. In this story, she had the facts or she would say that she just didn’t know. Renee’s life expanded the family on all sides.

Within’ a few months after Renee’s death, we lost our big house through an eviction, my parents separated officially in their marriage, and my father’s oldest sister died from ovarian cancer. Renee was gone and we needed her. I could have gone to her to help with her kids during the summer. I learned to paddle across to the top layers of meaning. Fix the top of things. Keep the face up high. Walk like you know where you are going. Slip into the pockets of men and search on the train rides to the city in the music I sang for my glamour.

We were the recipients of a ghoul who came into our house and transformed a family. He sucked Renee out of this world and decided that we would die as well. A piece of us went into the underworld where it is dark: Where worms eat their way into our sense of protection. The unseen aura of self-protection, phobias, additions, sexual and bonding issues, alienation of trust with others, letting go of our children and perhaps learning how to die ourselves.

Mother discusses Renee’s murderer…”he watched her...she would say that he was looking at her from his yard when she hung the wash out. Joseph would say that you always think someone is looking at you…but she was afraid of him…” and in her glazed look of powerlessness the story would be told the same way for years and years.

Did Joseph grab his hands into the air when remembering his wife’s words? We no longer had to think about who to trust. It became a genetic cliché’. Built into us was a basic mistrust men and we picked out men who really were untrustworthy. In Renee’s genetic make up, in the beginning of the mistrust film that played in her life as a real life story, Renee was the family princess of victimization. She reached the jackpot of cellular learning: The cave woman who followed a man into the darkest corner trusting his leadership, when she needed to trust her own. The terrain of Manville holds hills and valleys with the bonds of immigrants. Churches and districts of houses of worship corner the streets: 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 long haired 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 her 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 hasn’t called me in four decades can I begin to feel the tragedy.

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