The year I moved to Kuwait I decided to write a book. That idea was always in my mind. Also in my mind was a book title and cover, author photo, blurb and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. What was missing, and remains missing, are all the pages between the front and back cover. But that first year in Kuwait, I had so many promising starts. I just went off the deep end, opening one story something like
You’ve probably heard of my sister. Everyone wants to know did I see it coming?
and then made up a horrifying crime the narrator’s sister committed. This story was started late one night. I remember sitting at the dining table, feeling daring. I was writing about something very bad. And I was making a character interact with this very bad thing to see how she might respond, if she was able to see her sister as her sister was before the very bad thing.
I know why I was writing that story. Every year or two I returned to the story of my own grandmother. Shirley was already a story to me before she was murdered. She was not a kind mother to my father. While she was good to many people in her community, she was controlling and manipulative within her home and I believe she broke her children. I believe her husband suffered at her presence. I doubt anyone knowing the dynamics of that home with its presentable front was surprised when one day the daughter killed the mother.
The sorrow is not for what I had. By the time my aunt murdered my grandmother, I hadn’t spoken with either in years. But I was sad for my dad because now there was no chance to mend, no hope to restore a relationship broken even before his birth.
Not long after Shirley died, my family was camping and I joined them for the day. I was in my early twenties and terrified because I shared blood with this woman. While my parents shielded me and my siblings from so much of their fractured relationship with Shirley, I had an early sense something was off and by the time I was in high school, my phone calls from Wisconsin to North Carolina were short and stilted. On summers home during college I worked with Dad in Madison and he talked a little about his growing up on our commute. Really, so much is not mine. But the vignettes he shared filled in this picture of a boy before and a man after – of his siblings, Dad was the only one to defy his mother by leaving home, moving far away from her sway. I already understood not everything is determined by lineage but still I was afraid because Shirley was a monster in my mind. That afternoon at the campground Dad caught up to me on a path from the lake. We stopped so he could look at me when he said he didn’t want me to be afraid of being like his mother.
I must have said something to him or to Mom about this fear. Maybe he remembers more of the conversation. I remember he told the story of how he thought his mother broke, a single event that cut her heart deep. I wonder how people choose to live or die each day in what they say and do.
Sometimes I go back to Shirley, to my aunt murdering her. There are details that stick. There are parts of the story that may be just that, story. So many of my unfinished pieces are like bush burning. Just roaring through first thoughts. Licking dry tinder. One day I want to write a story about Shirley which will be about her, but about more too. I have kept myself from writing much about her, except in my notebook every year or two, except by proxy of fiction starts.
That dangerous story I started at the dining table did not get finished. My daughter was one year old. The fear I let go years before would return with the birth of my son. I have been angry at Shirley. I have also had compassion for her. She was terrible. She was sad. She was angry. When I write those traits, I see my heart too, the deep cuts I’ve made, my own sorrow and anger, and while I believe I do not need to be afraid of becoming Shirley, I know my heart is unmoved by flesh. I am alive by grace. I am alive in the Spirit. I am loved to love.
Shirley was murdered on a hot August day. She might have lived a little while. She might have thought for moment of each of us, or she might only have seen her world go dark.