"I make it a point never to look in jars in the Curiosity Shop, I mean, what would you do if you recognized someone?"
You can't imagine how that line of Winnie's jolted me, the memories it triggered, too painful and gruesome to write about. I've had to change the names--I have a large family (mostly cousins--we've become the "older" generation, somehow)and if someone should stumble on this story--well, years ago we made a vow to let it die with us. Why taint the younger generation with a horror that can't be changed?
We always used to have enormous family gatherings with moms and dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, and everyone's best friends. You know, the happy times: birthdays, graduations, summer picnics at lakes with barbecue grills stacked up with sizzling burgers and hotdogs, iced tea and soda transported by the gallon in coolers, my mom's bean salad, Aunt Pat's famous cherry pie, Aunt Lorna's chocolate cake with the double chocolate icing.
I was the oldest of the cousins, fourteen, the year it happened. Just the right age to catch the drift of an adult comment or comprehend the glimpse of Aunt Pat rolling her eyes when Uncle Frankie would pull one of his stunts or say something not meant for young ears.
I often wondered what in the world my beautiful Aunt Lorna saw in him. A boorish, balding, middle-aged man, his humor ran to whoopie cushions and dribble glasses, while his hands reached for the scotch or hovered near any passing female. That summer I'd already sensed the too closeness of those wandering hands when pictures were taken, of a touch that was almost in the wrong place, that lingered just an instant too long, or squeezed my shoulder a bit too tightly.
The day after the event, while my brother Billy giggled at cartoons and Elizabeth took her nap, my mother took me aside and told me the family had made a pact to tell us older children the truth about what had happened if we promised never to speak of it again. I still cringe when I remember the thrill I felt at being allowed into the adult world and the eager way I agreed to keep the secret.
My mother took out her sister's wedding album. To my amazement, the man Aunt Lorna was gazing at so lovingly was actually handsome, with wavy brown hair and startling blue eyes. I watched in disbelief as mom took her sewing shears and began to cut each photograph to shreds. Why would she do this just because the man had died in an automobile accident? Even the children were aware that Uncle Frankie drank too much.
I'll never forget the calm steely strength of my mother's voice as she told me that most of what I'd already heard was true. Uncle Frankie had gone to the hardware store to pick up nails to repair the back deck, she began. He'd already had a few drinks and on the way he bought a six-pack of beer. Coming home, it began to rain and he must have hit a slick spot, lost control and gone off the road. He was dead on impact.
Aunt Lorna collapsed on hearing the news and Aunt Pat had offered to stay the night with her. Around midnight Pat woke up and found that she was alone in the house. Frantic with worry, she searched outside, then called the family and police, but it was too late, by that time Aunt Lorna was dead, too.
While Pat had slept, she'd sneaked out of the darkened house and hurried to the city morgue where Frankie's body lay awaiting release after the autopsy required for accidental deaths. No one was able to fathom how she'd broken in, but when the officer on duty found her she was standing over her husband, a coroner's scalpel in one hand, blood streaming down the front of her white eyelet nightgown. The officer called for back-up, then watched and listened in horror as she held out her other hand and, with a look of serene adoration on her face, explained that all she'd taken were Frankie's eyes.
Perhaps Aunt Lorna would have lived if they hadn't asked her to put them down, but she still had the scalpel and it was an easy matter for her to slit both wrists quickly and deeply and with loving precision. She was buried that way--clutching Uncle Frankie's eyes against her heart.