By Carole Bass
Frank hid in the garage for hours, smoking cigarettes and waiting.
Three weeks earlier — just after the divorce, which he did not contest — Frank Akerman had returned to the Pittsburgh area from his self-imposed exile in Detroit. He had tracked down his ex-wife, Tookie, and her boyfriend, Jake, at the bar where she worked as a waitress. The two men had gotten into an argument, and Frank had stabbed Jake in the back, seriously wounding him.
Now, in the middle of the night on October 27, 1935, Jake was just out of the hospital and reunited with Tookie. Cautiously, he approached her parents’ house, where she was living. He even circled the block a couple of times. Seeing no sign of danger, he pulled up.
This time, Frank had a gun.
He burst out of his hiding place and fired eight shots, hitting both Jake and Tookie in the head. Amazingly, Jake managed to drive away, straight to Braddock General Hospital, where the doctors told him he would survive this second attack by Frank. But Tookie’s prognosis was dire.
Frank went to the hospital, too, and asked about Tookie’s condition. The doctors expected her to die. Despairing — or maybe thinking his work was done — he went into an alley behind the hospital and fired one last .32-caliber bullet, into his own skull.
A firefighter found him there at 7 o’clock in the morning, face-down against a retaining wall. Frank’s father — my great-grandfather — went down to the morgue to identify the body.
I try to picture the scene when the police came to the door that morning.
The Akerman family home was a three-story dwelling in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, the grimy and inaptly named factory town outside Pittsburgh where my parents grew up.
My great-grandparents, Bernard and Pauline Akerman, owned the house. My grandmother — their daughter — and grandpa couldn’t afford their own place, so they were raising their boys there, my father among them. Lately Frank, my grandmother’s brother, had been staying there, too.
What did my grandmother do when the police arrived with the news that her baby brother, her only sibling, had killed himself? Did she shriek and wail? Huddle in silence? Did she already know that before shooting himself, Frank had also shot Tookie and Jake?
And what about my father?
Four years old and big for his age, he served as a playmate to his invalid grandmother, who had taught him pinochle and 500. In photos he was a solemn little blond boy, dressed up for Easter in knickers and a double-breasted jacket, or standing wistfully next to his father and his mischievously grinning older brother.
Did Dad remember anything about that awful morning? What did Dad’s parents and grandparents tell him about his Uncle Frank and Tookie?
I never heard my father mention them. Not even once.
I learned the outlines of this family secret almost by accident, in my early teens. No one ever spoke of it again. Over the years I thought about it from time to time, but never asked for more information.
After my father died, however, my curiosity about Frank and Tookie became intense. The long-ago episode seemed to hold the promise of answers about Dad’s life — answers to questions I never thought to ask while he was alive.
The questions themselves held a mysterious power over me, as though they contained hidden clues to the meaning of my own life.
As I dug into the story, what I learned raised new questions. Questions about how people lie to themselves and their families. About how we process pain. About violence against women and the way people make excuses for it, or erase it altogether. About coming to grips with wrongdoing by people we love, without losing sight of why we love them.
When I was a kid, I knew that my father’s mother had just one sibling, a brother, who was dead. I didn’t know when or how he died, whether he was older or younger than Grandma, or even his name.
Then one day while we were visiting, Grandma turned to my mother and said: “I went Upstreet the other day, and guess who I saw? Tookie.”
We weren’t visiting the big house where my father grew up. This was the yellow-brick duplex that I knew as my grandparents’ home in the 1970s — where Grandpa burned the rubbish in a wire basket; where my cousins and I played stickball in the little backyard and tried not to trample Grandpa’s roses and vegetables; where their tenants, mysterious people we never saw, lived upstairs.
After my grandfather died, Grandma was lonely, and when we visited, she would confide in my mother. I was a literal-minded kid, with my father’s obliviousness to subtle social cues. But from the way she told my mother about seeing Tookie, even I could tell this was big news. As soon as Grandma left the room, I asked my mother, “Who’s Tookie?!”
Matter-of-factly, Mom told me that Tookie had been married to Grandma’s brother, Frank. When Frank discovered that Tookie was having an affair, he ambushed her and the boyfriend, shot them both, then killed himself. Tookie and the boyfriend survived; she was blinded for life.
Mom went on to explain that the Catholic Church had refused to bury Frank in a Catholic cemetery — not because he tried to murder two people, but because he committed suicide. My grandmother campaigned for years, finally winning permission to move Frank’s remains to All Saints Cemetery in Braddock where, by then, their mother was buried. But that victory didn’t soothe my grandmother: the Church insisted on exhuming Frank’s body in the middle of the night. No one was allowed to attend; no ceremony was permitted. My grandmother carried the pain with her to her own grave.
I never heard Frank mentioned again. But the story stayed with me over the decades.
When did it happen? A sensational crime like that must have made headlines.
“JEALOUS MAN WOUNDS EX-WIFE, RIVAL, KILLS SELF!” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph screamed. In the competing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the shootings were front-page news.
The articles filled in crucial facts that had been stripped from the sanitized family version: the divorce. The stabbing. The fact that Frank had been living in Detroit. The detectives who said he returned to Pittsburgh in order to kill Tookie, Jake, and himself.
Inside the Post-Gazette, under the headline “Father Dead; Mother Blinded,” were three blurry photos. There was Frank in a white shirt and tie, puffily overweight but otherwise looking like his sister, my grandmother. There was Tookie in a stylish hat. And there was a solemn little blond boy, hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward: their four-year-old son, Ronnie.
They had a kid.
He was the same age as my father. First cousins, both living in their grandparents’ homes, just two miles apart. I studied the newspaper photos of Ronnie, held them side by side with family pictures of my dad around the same age. Two little blond boys dressed in 1930s clothing, with a genuine family resemblance. They could have been brothers. In fact, Dad at that age looked more like Ronnie than like his own brother, Charlie.
I ran through the story in my mind.
The family narrative portrayed Tookie as an adulterer. But in fact, she and Frank were newly divorced.
Frank had been living in Detroit, another omission from the three-sentence account I had heard. Did he abandon his family? Was the marriage already troubled before he left, or did it fall apart because he was away? It was the Depression; people went wherever they could find work.
Still, my grandfather didn’t leave his family. Like his brother-in-law Frank, he was married with young sons. Grandpa was out of work for more than two years. But he didn’t leave.
Well, okay, I thought. Those are tough choices. Don’t judge.
I tried to construct the most sympathetic possible scenario for Frank. I pictured him off in Detroit working long hours, living a lonely bachelor’s life in a grim rooming house, sending his paycheck home to his wife and son. Somehow, he heard that Tookie had taken up with another man. Heartbroken and crazed with jealousy, he snapped.
Nothing could justify Frank’s attacks on Jake and Tookie. I wasn’t trying to justify them. What I was trying to justify, I guess, was the way my family whitewashed it.
I know that families make excuses for their loved ones; they minimize the wrongdoing and blame the victims. When I told my mother about the newspaper articles, she was surprised to hear about the divorce and the stabbing. When I asked whether Dad and Ronnie grew up together, she said no: my grandmother didn’t want anything to do with “that woman,” whom she considered responsible for the death of her brother.
My mouth fell open. “I think Frank was responsible for his death,” I ventured. After all, he put a bullet through his head.
Mom replied that Grandma didn’t see it that way. Before they got married, Tookie’s own father warned Frank not to marry her. She’s a slut, the father supposedly said. She’ll run around on you; she’ll break your heart.
Then I wrote away for the divorce records.
Tookie filed the petition in May 1935. Frank was apparently living in the Pittsburgh area; the deputy sheriff couldn’t find a home address for him, but delivered a subpoena to Frank at a local steel plant where he worked, ordering him to appear in court in July.
He didn’t show up.
By August, when it came time to notify Frank of the upcoming court hearing, he couldn’t be found. They tracked him down in River Rouge, Michigan, and sent a registered letter, to which he never responded.
So much for supporting his family. Frank skipped town after Tookie filed for divorce. Did he think the divorce couldn’t go through if they couldn’t find him? Was he trying to escape his financial obligations to his wife and son? Was he afraid he would kill her, and so he moved away to avoid becoming a murderer? I’ll never know.
As I continued to read the divorce file, the story grew worse.
The marriage was all right for the first three years, Tookie testified at the hearing (where, once again, Frank was a no-show). Then Frank started to nag at her “because I would not go to his family’s and do what his people wanted me to do.” He called Tookie “a son-of-a-bitch” and “a snot.” He said her father was a drunk and her family’s home was “a whorehouse,” unfit for their child.
And apparently Frank was not the only one in his family who insulted Tookie. When she went to his mother’s house — which was also my grandmother’s house, my father’s home — Frank told her she should “overlook things they do and said to me,” she testified, adding: “I felt as if I shouldn’t.”
One night in October 1934, Frank demanded that she go out with his family. Tookie refused, and Frank went by himself. “The next morning he started to fight with me and he beat me, packed up his clothes and went,” she testified.
Two or three days later — Tookie was still black-and-blue from the beating — Frank came by to see their son. As he was leaving, “he started to carry on,” she told the judge.
His mother was a sick woman, Frank said. “If this affected her so that she would die, he had a gun and would shoot me and the baby and get us out of the world,” Tookie recalled.
So much for the heartbroken husband, unable to live with his beloved wife’s choice of another man. Frank left Tookie, not the other way around. If he hadn’t, would she have left him? If he said he was sorry after beating her up and threatening to kill her and their child, would she have taken him back?
As I struggled to absorb this new information, I wondered whether Tookie was telling the truth. Divorce laws were tough in those days. Maybe verbal abuse wasn’t enough to win a judge’s sympathy; maybe you needed a tale of fists and death threats. Maybe Tookie embellished so the court would grant the divorce.
Then I reminded myself: the proof was in the shooting. A week after the divorce became final, Frank attacked Jake with a knife. Almost exactly one year after threatening to shoot Tookie, he did — again and again and again. She wasn’t making it up.
A few days later, I read the transcript again. The first time through, I focused on Frank’s violence, and the fact that he left town after Tookie served him with divorce papers. On second reading, what struck me was the dynamic between the two families.
When Tookie’s mother took the witness stand and corroborated Tookie’s testimony about the death threat, she quoted Frank: “you make my life miserable for me and my people.”
The story of Frank and Tookie was not just the story of an abusive husband, a possibly unfaithful wife, a marriage that ended in bloodshed. It was also a story of bad blood between Tookie’s people and Frank’s people — my people. My grandmother, for instance.
Grandma painted her kitchen yellow. Even under the sooty Pittsburgh skies, the room looked bright and cheerful when the morning sun mingled with the smells of coffee, cigarettes, and whatever Grandma had baked most recently. My favorite was her poppy seed roll — a hefty loaf, with sweet dough rolled up in swirls around the dark, moist filling.
Grandma was a tough old woman. At age 12, she left school rather than knuckle under to an unreasonable teacher. In her 70s, she could plunge her bare hands into a scalding bucket of soapy water that was too hot for my cousin Tom, despite the calluses from his after-school landscaping job.
But tough was not enough when an aneurysm felled my cheerful grandpa in February 1972: he left for the hardware store and never came home. After that, whenever we visited, tears would fill Grandma’s beautiful blue eyes and her voice would break as she said, “I miss my bedmate.”
My father had the same blue eyes, but I never saw tears in them.
When Dad came home from work that dreary February day, I followed him upstairs, glad to see him. I detected nothing in my father’s manner to signal that his own father was suddenly gone forever.
On the 300-mile drive from Delaware to Swissvale, I lay on my belly in the back of the station wagon, fighting car sickness and heartsickness. I was ten years old, and it was my first experience with death.
The next morning we got dressed up and went to Nied’s, Swissvale’s Catholic funeral home, for the viewing. Inside the red brick building, my cousins pulled us kids aside. Come look over here, they said. There lay a small coffin holding a six-year-old boy who had been run over by a truck while sledding. They pointed out the shortness of his body beneath the cloth that covered him: most of his legs were gone, they said.
Shocking as that was, I remember what came afterward even more vividly.
We went into the room where my grandfather’s body was laid out. Some people remarked on how “natural” he looked. To me, nothing could have been weirder than looking at his lifeless body, dressed up in a suit, makeup on his pale cheeks. Or weirder than my grandmother, also dressed up and made up, sobbing for her dead husband. She called his name, went over to the casket, kissed him, weeping loudly the whole time. I don’t think I’d ever seen an adult cry, certainly not with such abandon.
My father stood impassively at her side, one hand on her shoulder. Was he moved by her display of emotion? Did he wish he could wail for his father? Was he worried about how his grief might affect his mother, his brothers, his children? Did the tears refuse to come? Is it possible that he simply didn’t need to cry?
Six years later, in the middle of a September night, I woke to the sound of a ringing telephone. Lying in bed, I heard my father walk down the hall and pick up the receiver. “Hello,” he said. Then, in the same tone of voice: “Oh, my.”
That was all. His mother had died. “Oh, my.”
After I grew up, I used to tell people that my father was the calmest man on earth. Sometimes I thought of it as a title, with capital letters. I was proud of his ability to keep his cool and take things in stride. When I managed to do the same, I was proud of myself, proud to deserve the title of Ray Smith’s Daughter.
But I wondered about his calmness in the face of his parents’ death. When Grandpa died, maybe Dad remained strong and calm for Grandma. When Grandma died, for whom was he staying strong?
And when Dad dropped dead one August night in 2012 — he said good night, went into the bedroom, and then collapsed, still fully dressed — I struggled even more with that part of his legacy.
Grandma showed me a dramatic face of grief, one that I found overwhelming and frightening. My father showed me another, one that I couldn’t understand at all.
How do I grieve for a parent who never showed grief? How do I weep and wail for the Calmest Man On Earth?
It’s not that Dad was a robot. He was loving and warm, caring and compassionate, with a gentle, wise-guy sense of humor.
But sadness? Anger? Fear? He must have felt them, but it never showed.
Maybe that’s why, in the year or two after Dad’s death, I couldn’t stop thinking about his Uncle Frank.
For many years, I thought of the drama of Frank and Tookie as a lovers’ triangle. I was intrigued but not troubled by the knowledge that the attempted murderer was my relative, my great uncle. There will always be people who do terrible things, and they have to land in somebody’s family. Frank happened to land in mine — or, rather, I landed in his. I felt no responsibility for events that took place long before I was born.
I was disturbed when I learned that the supposedly cheating wife was, in fact, no longer Frank’s wife; that he had already attacked the boyfriend once before; and that he reportedly told the police he’d made a special trip home from Detroit to kill them all.
If he really said that, why did they let him out of jail? If the cops knew about this threat, didn’t Frank’s family — my family — also know? He was staying with them. Why didn’t they try to restrain his murderous rage? Who bailed him out of jail, anyhow? If they didn’t think he was dangerous before he stabbed Jake, surely that opened their eyes.
But in another way, I found the story strangely reassuring. Despite a loving and happy childhood, I somehow emerged from adolescence with the sense that in my family, you really weren’t supposed to have any problems. If you did, you should just clean them up quietly, without dragging anybody else into your mess. Dry eyes, calm demeanor, strength in the face of tragedy: these were the expectations I felt for myself. Paint the kitchen yellow and pretend the sun is shining.
Digging into Frank’s woes, at a time when I was struggling to accept my own (much smaller) emotional turmoil as normal, brought some comfort. I was far from the nuttiest member of my family tree.
The comfort evaporated when I got the divorce records. Reading Tookie’s description of how Frank’s family treated her, and reflecting on the way the story came down to me in that very same family, I started to feel implicated. How could my grandmother, whom I loved, excuse her brother’s violence and blame the victim? Did my own father participate in the cover-up, or was he fed the same distorted version that my mother and I were?
My father’s middle name was Francis, presumably in honor of his Uncle Frank. My middle name is Johanna, in honor of my grandmother Johanna Akerman Smith. The names bind us through the generations. From Grandma I also inherited my blue eyes and, perhaps, some of my emotional nature. How she could be so tough and yet so broken? How could she be so forgiving of Frank and so harsh about Tookie?
A couple of years before Dad died, my sister started a family tree on Ancestry.com. She came upon a years-old posting on a genealogy message board that briefly outlined Frank and Tookie’s story. Startled, she called our father: was this really his uncle? Was the story true?
“Oh, yeah — you never heard about that?” Dad replied. He didn’t know that she didn’t know. And I didn’t know that she didn’t know. And I didn’t know until years later that she talked to Dad about it.
After finding the newspaper articles, I asked my mother: did Dad ever talk about it?
No, she said. Never.
There are so many questions I wish I could ask him. Did he remember the incident? How did he feel? How did his mother react? His grandparents? Did he ever hear about it growing up? What did he remember about Frank? Did he ever meet Tookie? What about his cousin Ronnie?
When Dad was alive, I assumed the subject was taboo. Then again, I didn’t have the same burning interest that I did later. Like a lot of my questions about Dad’s life, it took on greater importance when his life ended.
In the 40 years since I left my parents’ home, I’ve traveled some distance from my family of origin, psychologically and culturally. I chose a non-corporate career path, became a vegetarian, converted to Judaism.
After Dad died, and especially since my mother’s death five years later, I am circling back and reconnecting. I’m listening to Irish music, locating Hungarian villages, hunting down death certificates and baptism records, quizzing my elder relations about their elder relations, getting DNA tests. Like everyone else who’s fascinated by their own family histories, I’m not just trying to piece together who my ancestors were and where they came from. I’m trying to understand who I am, where I come from, how I fit into this group of loved ones with whom I share so much, but from whom I sometimes feel so different.
Somehow, uncovering Great-Uncle Frank’s story was part of that search. Everyone who knew what happened is gone. All that’s left is the family myth of poor Frank, driven to suicide by a faithless hussy.
It seems that those who lived through the saga of Frank and Tookie needed to tear it out of the family history. To mend that tear, and to mend myself, I have written it back in. ♦︎