My Grandmother Mamie killed herself when she was 74 years old. She drove my mother’s car onto some railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere out toward Abilene and then set a fire in the trunk before shooting herself in the side of the head.
My father called me on a bright summer day with the news. I stood in my backyard under the big pecan tree, blinking in the hot haze of noon, attempting to absorb his words. I curled my toes around a rotten pecan shell stabbing me on the bottom of my foot. After I hung up the phone, I sat down in the grass and searched the ground until I found an intact pecan. I bashed it on the edge of the cement patio to crack it open, picked out the little bits of meat, and ate them slowly.
My father asked me to ride with him the next day to meet up with the Sheriff of Eastland County, who was in charge of Mamie’s case. The Sheriff mistakenly asked for my mother when he called. He couldn’t know that after my mother died, my father had given her car to Mamie, neglecting to change the name on the title. Because Mamie’s death was a suicide, there were certain formalities required of us. As her next of kin, we needed to identify the body, the car, and its contents, and sign papers claiming possession of the body for disposal.
It took us a little longer than the usual 3 hours to make the trip. I came over from Dallas and we took the back roads from Fort Worth, where my father lived. Instead of the freeway, we designed our meandering route to procrastinate the task in front of us.
When we were young, my brother and I endured many trips out through this country. We’d make them a couple of times a year to visit relatives of varying remove that we neither knew very well nor cared very much about. My brother and I were not in the habit of co-habiting agreeably on these trips. We fought over toys, slights real and imagined, and the real estate of the back seat of our station wagon. My parents endlessly attempted to broker the peace, begging and pleading for us to get along. As a last resort, my father would use the reach that matched his 6’3” frame to swat at our legs; on one occasion, he ripped a toy from our haggling clutches. Without missing a beat, he smoothly swiveled around and tossed it out his window.
In an attempt to staunch the hemorrhaging boredom of flat, featureless West Texas, and wary of losing any more favorite toys, we invented the “Map Game.” It consisted of unfolding a full-sized paper road map of our state across our laps as we sat peaceably together in our back seat. One person picked a destination, and the other had to figure out where it was by the directions they received from the person with the knowledge. The only directions Keeper of the Place could give was “Closer” or “Farther” as the Guesser slowly moved an index finger around the paper as if it were a crinkly Ouija Board.
We pointed to places named Eulogy, Zephyr, Zella, and Juno. The practical Needmore was not far from Nazareth, which was down the road from Earth. There was the stylish Snap, the sparkling Sweetwater, and the zest of Spunky. Flat, Drop, Fink, Wink, Fife, and Dull were sincerely to the point. Dime Box, Fair Play, Paradise, and Uncertain were my favorites. Possum Kingdom, Big Foot, and Nimrod made us giggle loudest.
The car pulled to a stop, interrupting my road trip reverie. “You want something cold to drink?” My father nodded toward the lonely gas station and grocery store in front of us. It took me a moment to re-focus on the present and answer affirmatively. I looked around to get my bearings, unaware of how long I had not been paying attention. “Glen Rose,” my father answered without my having to ask.
I shuffled after my father across a dusty parking area to an old-fashioned metal soda cooler box. He raised the lid, and we looked down to the glass bottles of pop bobbing their brightly colored caps just below the surface of the icy cold water. When my coins fell into place and released the clamp, I pulled out a purple Nehi Grape, hooked the cap on the opener and popped it off, then chugged the icy liquid candy straight down. I immediately got a sugar rush and belched a tiny bit after the last sip. I bought another one for the ride, wishing it were beer, or vodka, or anything but just grape soda. I felt I had a duty, though, to have a clear head for my father on that day.
We had crossed the county line by the time I finished my second Nehi. I spotted the twin white domes of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant a mile to the north. From a distance, they looked like misplaced outer space observatories rather than guardians of radioactive waste containers. This power plant went online in 1974 at the height of the No Nukes movement. Despite Three Mile Island, the Silkwood murder, and Chernobyl, it kept chugging along. The Girl Scout Council of Fort Worth even built an outdoor camp not more than a few miles from it; I attended and played there for several summers. I’d lie awake at night while the other campers slept the sweet sleep of childhood exhaustion, and I would wonder if invisible radiation was seeping into my bones.
I gazed suspiciously on Comanche Peak’s domes of doom until they finally disappeared from view, then turned my thoughts to my grandmother. Mamie lasted one year and six months after my mother, her only child, died. She had always been my mother’s problem to solve. When Mom died, the rest of us had no clue how to handle Mamie. My brother and I had tried to do what we could. A few times, we visited Mamie in her apartment in Denton, a town about an hour up north. Our visits were awkward and forced. We had no practice, really, of being alone with her, and it showed. She chain-smoked Tarleton cigarettes and her house, clothes, and car reeked with the sour odor of tar and ash. Thoroughly occupied trying to manage my way through the sensory assault of the cigarettes, I barely registered anything else. My brother and I left those visits and drove back to Dallas without speaking, though it was clear: the one person in the whole world who wholly understood Mamie had left her behind.
Denton was only the latest in a long line of moves my grandmother had made to be closer to my mother. In fact, she had spent my mother’s entire adult life following her around the state of Texas. My mother’s failed attempts to put some distance between them meant we moved to a new town every few years, and then Mamie inevitably followed.
My mother and Mamie had fraught screaming fights. Then they made up and fought again, always predicated on bouts of what my mother called “Mamie’s spells.” The telltale aftermath of the fights was a constellation of fever blisters around my mother’s mouth or a migraine lockdown in a darkened bedroom.
When I was older, I came to know the spells as episodes of untreated bipolar disorder. No logic to their timing, or how they would manifest, what inexplicable thing would trigger them. My mother once told a friend of mine with an alcoholic mother that she understood what it was like for her to suffer as a daughter. This was because as Mamie’s daughter, she had a similar cross to bear. This was the only actual, real complaint I had ever heard my mother make about Mamie. My lack of any real understanding of their relationship was as big a black hole as my mother’s forbearance.
Once, in the winter, possibly approaching the year anniversary of my mother’s death, Mamie called late on a cold rainy night. She cried and asked to come live with my first husband and me. I had married just a few months after my mother died in an attempt to stave off the demands of my inevitable grief. After three years of living together, it was either break up or commit for good. I did not invite Mamie to the small wedding we had. I wanted to be happy on that day.
A happy wedding isn’t a permanent painkiller, though. It only meant that I had a salve to put on the cuts while picking up the pieces of my shattered world. I had nothing to offer Mamie. This night she came on strong, begging not to be alone. I eventually turned her down after hashing things out with my husband. I couldn’t have her in our house, with her Tarleton habit and her raw unmanageable anguish layered on top of my own open wounds. After we hung up, I called my father and asked him for absolution. He gave it to me. He knew. He knew thirty years of Mamie’s exhausting, ongoing distress.
A few months before she died, Mamie asked me for help moving some pieces of furniture to a new place she had leased out in Mineral Wells. My brother and I drove a rental truck for her and were surprised to find the little cottage she had rented to be a warm and cheerful place. She seemed a little steadier and more resolute about carrying on, if not somewhat more muted. I promised to call her and check on her every so often. Then more time passed, the phone rang, and it was my dad instead.
My father pointed out the windshield to a small road that forked off into the distance. “That’s toward Desdemona, the ghost town.” Unlike me, he was still working on his soda from Glen Rose. He took another sip. “You remember the story?” I pretended I didn’t, but as kids, we heard it every time we drove by on a car trip.
I also knew about the legend of Desdemona from the college boyfriend who broke my heart, the very first guy I fell well and truly in love with. In the year we played out our passionate love affair, he’d drive me on occasion in his old red and white Chevy pickup from Austin to Wichita Falls, his hometown near the Oklahoma border. Our shortcuts to avoid interstate traffic took us through here. On one trip, he filled me in on the more lurid details of Desdemona I never learned as a child. He parked, and we stood in the weeds by the side of the road, our voices a whisper amidst the citizen ghosts still populating the dead town.
Desdemona was a pre-Civil War fort, constructed to protect settlers against Comanche Indian attacks and named after the beautiful daughter of its justice of the peace. The town was a tiny cotton farming community of a few hundred until 1918. That year, Desdemona was transformed into a classic, ill-fated boomtown when oil was discovered. Instantly, the town swelled to almost 20,000 as people rushed to seek their fortune there.
Despite all its newly acquired wealth, the town’s popularity destroyed it. Unregulated petroleum pools overflowed into the streets during big rains. Influenza and typhoid fever reached epidemic proportions, as did gambling and prostitution and the violence that accompanied them. By 1921, the boom was over nearly as quickly as it began, and the town emptied, deserted by a population that went in search of their fortune elsewhere. A bad fire later burned down a good portion of the town that remained. A few abandoned buildings still stand, empty shells keeping vigil for people who will never return.
Concluding my visit with my boyfriend, we tromped for a while around the edges of the ruins. Back at the truck, we lingered in the shadow it threw out on the field in front of us and watched the sun slide down over the horizon. Something about the spooky deserted nature of our surroundings overcame us, and we had sex up against the pale red passenger door. Desdemona had one more spell to cast as the day died around us.
“You know one of Mamie’s oldest brothers was rumored to seek his fortune there. Not sure that was ever confirmed though.” My father wound down his version of Desdemona. We came over a blind rise in the road and he slammed on the brakes to avoid rear-ending a slow-moving, overfilled cotton trailer. Tufts of freshly picked cotton blew off the top of the load and swirled like snow through the air around us. The beginning of the harvest season for Texas cotton comes in the summer, a most unfortunate time of year to do that kind of work. The phrase I had always heard tossed around the most when someone wanted to swear-but-not-swear was cotton-pickin’. Cotton-pickin’, for all the reasons, was the motherfucking of its day. All four of my grandparents had each done their share of actual cotton picking early in their lives and reserved the expletive for special moments of pique. In our family, “cotton-pickin’” was how you knew someone was upset.
A few more miles and we arrived at the county courthouse of Eastland, where the Sheriff’s office was located. Like many local government edifices from a certain era and in vast windswept places like West Texas, the architecture was essential to establish a sense of intransigence. A building’s heft was a paperweight that would keep the town from blowing away. Built in 1928, this one, naturally, was a hulking ode to oil money. Inside were polished granite floors, inlaid marble on the judges’ benches, custom ironwork, and hand-carved wood throughout.
The Sheriff greeted us in his stuffy office. A panting fan on his desk doing no good caused him to raise his voice over it. The Sheriff explained that since suicide is considered an unnatural death, and to make sure it has not been staged to cover up foul play, authorities are obliged to investigate to ascertain the truth. Nothing at all pointed to anything criminal in Mamie’s case, but he would still need to get some statements from us to close out the investigation.
He informed us Mamie had killed herself near a small town about 15 miles away called Rising Star. Rising Star is a collection of about a dozen or so streets, crosshatched in a dusty intersection between two farm-to-market roads. A witness had seen Mamie drive onto the railroad tracks at a single lane crossing where she stopped her car. She got out and alternated staring into each direction of the tracks for a while. When no train came, she moved her car off to the side of the tracks. The witness drove away with nothing more to be concerned about.
It took the conductor of a freight train passing through the intersection a short time later to raise an alarm. He saw the trunk of Mamie’s car on fire with a body lying on the ground next to it and called in a report.
The Sheriff asked us if we knew anything about the gun with which Mamie shot herself. He said they traced it to a purchase she had made several months before from a gun store. We were ignorant of all this. He carefully presented photos of the body the coroner had made so we wouldn’t have to ID it in person. He and my father huddled tightly over them, making sure to block my view.
Then the Sheriff asked us why Mamie would want to kill herself and why Rising Star.
My father and I looked at each other for a beat. My father sighed heavily and re-crossed his legs before explaining my mother’s death from cancer the previous year as well as Mamie’s life-long angry spells. Neither of us could explain the mystery of Rising Star. Perhaps it had a hopeful ring to it or was symbolic to Mamie of her thoughts about her beloved daughter.
The Sheriff shifted his gaze between my father and me and nodded pensively. “I see.” He put all the documents that pertained to Mamie Lois Stokes Seiler into a manila envelope and tapped the edge of it on his desk before holding it out. “Here’s a copy of my report and the official death certificate. There’s only one other thing to do. I’ll bring my car around to where you’re parked, and ya’ll can follow me.”
The Sheriff drove several miles out of town to a tow yard holding Mamie’s car. It was mid-afternoon, and the two-lane road we traveled shimmied in the heat. I could see rumors of the dead car field before we arrived. The sun reflecting off so much metal flashed like intermittent artillery explosions to tip off the location. Row after row of desiccated demolished vehicles in every make, model, and color represented decades in this automobile boneyard.
The Sheriff introduced us to the Bubba working that day’s shift and asked him to show us Mamie’s car. Bubba hitched up his belt and motioned for us to follow him. After twenty yards or so down one row, he turned and headed down another, then stopped suddenly and turned around. “ ’Scuse me.” He took off his grubby baseball cap and scratched his head. “My memory’s so bad I could hide my own Easter eggs.” We wandered around with him a little longer until we found ourselves standing in front of the chocolate brown box of the Dodge Dart that my grandmother had tried to burn.
Materials that should not normally have contact with fire leave behind evidence of their struggle to resist. The acrid smell of burned steel, rubber, and upholstery sears into the olfactory glands and persist as toxic sense memory. I instantly clocked a headache in my temples from the stench. The Sheriff gingerly pried open the trunk lid and gestured for us to have a look. “It wasn’t an explosive fire. It didn’t catch the way she probably wanted it to. Would’ve been a different story, that one.” My father and I leaned forward expectantly, unsure of what we were supposed to see in the shadows of the deep trunk.
What finally took shape was a banal, scorched jumble of random clothing, some shoes, a blanket, and a couple of boxes. When neither my father nor I made a move to touch anything, the Sheriff picked out a vintage, extra-large heart-shaped candy box and said, “This survived in the best condition.” My father took it reluctantly, as if it were Glen Rose radioactive, and opened it. Inside was an assortment of photos of my mother throughout her life: her high school and college graduation, her wedding, and yearly school portraits from her teaching career.
In the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, the star that appeared to the wise men in the East announcing the birth of Christ and which led them to him was called the Rising Star. Mamie made a similarly big flourish with what she did. She wanted to be finished with the pain and join her only child, her one true love, in whatever next dance they were destined to be in together. It was complicated, intricate, and elusive to me, then and still. I couldn’t locate it on my map. Was I “Closer” to or “Further” from understanding?
Sometime later, my father, brother, and I gathered in the lobby of the funeral home to pay our last respects to Mamie. A somber man in a gloomy suit handed over an urn with Mamie’s ashes in them. My father politely took it and promptly handed it to me. It was surprisingly heavy — my first real feel of the weight of a person in ash form.
The automatic doors whooshed open and a blast of hot air warned us of the impending furnace outside. We trooped over to a small rose garden struggling to put on the show expected of it. We stood in silence for a few minutes because I had forgotten the notes at home that I had planned to read. I recited from memory what I could of the Rumi poem I had prepared:
A Stone I Died
A stone I died and rose again a plant;
A plant I died and rose an animal;
An animal I died and was born a man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blessed; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
I removed the lid of the urn and handed it to my father, my hands shaking slightly. The plan was for me to scatter half the ashes and then to give the urn to my brother so he could scatter the other half. I tipped the urn sideways, expecting the ashes to start sliding out in a slow stream. They did not. I tapped on the edge and gave a little shake to it, which had the effect of loosening the contents unevenly. The lopsided weight started an avalanche of ashes that was so fast I couldn’t lift the lip of the urn in time to stop it. Just about all the ashes poured out into a giant heap on the ground at my feet, a good portion on my sandals and bare painted toes.
I was astonished and ashamed; all I could do was stare open-mouthed at the mouth of the urn. My brother rolled his eyes. “Oh, great,” he hissed. “Way to go, Sis.” I bent down and futilely tried to scoop some of the ashes back in with the lip of the urn. “Motherfucking…” I mumbled to myself, suddenly nauseous. Louder, “I’m SORRY, okay?” My brother: “Wow. Just, wow.”
“Cotton-pickin’….” My father grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet, glaring at my brother and me. “Just stop it you two.” Silent, chastened, we stared at one another. I held out the urn to my brother. “There’s some left, at the bottom”. He frowned, took it from me, and slowly shook it sideways so that a spoonful trickled out.
The ashes caught a limp breeze that had stirred temporarily. They floated away across the sizzling roses and settled a few feet from us, dirty snow on heat wilted blossoms. My father handed me his handkerchief to wipe off my feet. We waited a little longer before heading back to the air-conditioning. Some of my grandmother’s ashes — her flesh and blood and bones — still clung to my sweaty toes. The forecast was for 106 degrees that day in Fort Worth.