When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s usually bad news. That night in 1976 was no exception. The voice on the other end was my brother––the one who had always been in trouble. For him to be calling me at any time would be unusual, so I knew it was going to be bad.
“Sheila, this is Buck.”
“Connie’s dead.” I came full awake and sat up in bed. “What happened?”
“She shot herself.”
When the initial shock wore off, I have to admit I wasn’t surprised. It seemed my sister’s whole life had been a journey toward self-destruction. She had become increasingly isolated from the rest of the family many of whom had simply had enough of her. She had made one bad decision after another in her life, and too often she had sought out brothers or sisters to cover up for her. Even though we sympathized with her miserable existence, we could not continue to forgive her betrayals. Looking back on it, I know now that the lying was pathological, not mean-spirited––she always depended on others to catch her whenever she fell.
We should have seen it coming. Even before things had gotten so desperate for her in those last years, we should have known.
I was the youngest of nine children and Connie was just barely two years older than I. The old farm house my parents were renting had little in the way of conveniences–even for 1945 when I was not quite two and Connie was somewhat shy of four years old. We had a long-handled pump on the back porch for water and a long, narrow path out through the back yard to the outhouse.
Getting the younger children ready for bed each evening was quite a production. Right after supper, water was pumped into large kettles and put on the cook stove to heat for our baths. When the water was hot enough, one of our big brothers poured it into a large galvanized wash tub and we younger children–five of us, aged nearly two to nearly eight––lined up for the pre-bath inspection. The purpose of this was to determine who was the dirtiest, for that child had to be last into the tub of water. My mother would scrub each of us unmercifully, always reminding us, “Just because we’re piss-poor, it don’t mean we have to be dirty.”
When the baths were finished and we were pajama-clad and ready for bed, we lined up to take our turn on the “pot”––that white porcelain enameled bucket so common in households without plumbing. For those of us with short chubby legs and tiny hind ends, it was a risky endeavor to balance on the edge of the bucket, complete our business and get off without a mishap. On the night that became famous in family history, Connie’s precarious balance on the edge of the bucket failed and her rear end sank into the bucket. While my mother struggled to help her out, the rest of us laughed. It is said, for I really don’t remember it, that she looked up at us, anger and tears flashing in her dark eyes, and said, “Why didn’t you catch me? You knew I was going to fall!”
Again and again, over the years this story would be told on my sister, but I don’t think any of us ever recognized how deeply it defined her. And maybe with all the re-telling, Connie actually came to believe that we were somehow culpable. At any rate, throughout her childhood, she was always blaming others when she got into trouble, and she managed to get into a peck of it most of the time. My mother never thought she did anything right, and it seems to me that she got more than her fair share of beatings—-sometimes vicious beatings, not a few coming on my behalf. At fourteen she ran away from one dysfunctional family only to begin one of her own.
For several years before her death, I had not seen very much of her, choosing not to be involved with her and making it clear that I would not lie for her when she got into trouble. She’d have to face the consequences of her behavior and her decisions herself. One summer day, probably a year before her death, was the last time I ever saw her. I was vacuuming the living room, and I didn’t hear the knock on the back door. She let herself in, and when I looked up and saw her standing in the dining room, for a moment I didn’t recognize the stunningly beautiful woman standing in my house.
She was, in fact, always the prettiest of the five girls in the family, with an ivory complexion framed by shining dark brown hair. During the bad times, she would take on a sallow, sunken expression, and it was this that I remembered. So when I saw her standing there, radiant, I was astonished.
We had a wonderful visit. She seemed good–strong and happy and healthy. I’m glad I can remember her that way and not the way my brother described her on her final day.
On that final day, she was alone in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the tub, and when she put the shotgun into her mouth, there was only the cold porcelain enamel bathtub to catch her.
I still wonder why didn’t we catch her when we knew all along that she was going to fall.