A Family Secret and a Grief Resolved, Part Two

Read Part One here

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“Oh Tommy,” my Aunt Ruth cried.  “I’m so sorry.  I should have said something many years ago, but I just couldn’t.  I was afraid it would hurt too many people.”

           I tried to console her.  “It’s okay,” I said.  “You’ve held this in for forty-five years and you’ve suffered for it yourself.  I think you’ve been terrified of throwing up because you were afraid that you’d cough up the secret if you vomited.  If the real truth comes out, we all have an opportunity for healing.  Just tell me what you remember.”

           Ruth hesitated again.

           “Just tell me,” I insisted.  “I have to know. And you’ll feel better for getting it out of your system.

For the next hour, Ruth recounted her memories of that week in September 1954,  between the time Burton’s car hit the bridge and he died in the Meriden hospital. 

           My father had been depressed for months – torn between his father and his father-in-law, who both wanted Burton to work in their family businesses.  Several months earlier, Burton had left his father Irving’s blueprint business (“Enterprise Blueprint”)  and gone to work for Jack’s industrial design and manufacturing business (“Mansaver Industries”), which made use of his engineering education at Lehigh University and offered a much more lucrative future.  More recently, Irving—a weak, controlling man—had prevailed on his only child to return to the Enterprise Blueprint.  Ruth remembers the day that both men stood at Burton’s bedside as Irving promised my comotase father Burton that he could go back to work for Jack as soon as he got better. 

           At the time my father died,  my mother must have been in the cafeteria or with her parents.  The attending nurse gave his belongings to Ruth and Joel.  Inside his wallet was a suicide note.  According to Ruth, it  read something like:

           “Honey, I’m sorry.  I just couldn’t go on this way.  My love to you and the kids,  Burt”

When they read the note (why my Aunt and Uncle went  through my father’s belongings instead of giving them to my mother is a mystery to me), they immediately tore up the note and flushed it down the toilet.  They spoke with our rabbi Bob Goldburg, who counseled them never to say a word about it.  Suicide was one of the many taboos of the 1950s.  It would also remove the possibility of a life insurance payout.  And according to tradition, a Jew who commits suicide cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetary.  

After telling me that crucial story, Ruth was worried about who else to tell and how.  I said that I’d tell my brother Peter and my sister Paula, and we’d decide how to talk to my mother about it.

When I called my siblings, neither one of them believed Ruth’s story.  After all,  Ruth was known to be histrionic and daffy.  And even if there was a note, it could have been an apology for something else. 

I was stunned by their reaction, which I thought was clearly the denial of an awful and unacceptable truth.  I called my older cousin Ron—our pediatrician until we went to college—and asked what he thought.  Ron had always believed it was a suicide: He said that the accident took place on a bright, clear morning.  No other vehicles were involved.  And the car struck the cement and stone abutment directly at high speed.  My sister tracked down my aunt's former husband Joel somewhere in Florida.  He confirmed the story.  Paula asked if he thought it was possible that the apology referred to something else, such as Burton’s going back to work for his own father.  Joel said yes, it could possibly have referred to something else.

I wasn’t buying it.  I respected my siblings’ right to their opinion, but why would Burton need a note in his wallet to apologize for working in his father’s business?  Why wouldn’t he just apologize directly?  On reflection, I realized that Peter and Paula already possessed a convincing narrative of Burton’s death, and they clearly preferred it to a story of suicide.

I felt that I had an obligation to let my mother know what Ruth had told me.  On a visit back to New Haven late that summer, I took my mother out to lunch and recounted Ruth’s story.  She was angry and shaken.

“That cannot be true,” she said.  “I would have known if he’d been that unhappy, and he would never have abandoned me with three children under five years old.”  My mother stuck to her own version of Burton’s death—and I was not about to insist that she accept the “real truth” as I saw it.

In spite of this narrative bombshell which clearly enraged her (whether she believed it or not),  my mother and her sister mended their fences and became closer in the last months of Ruth’s life.  Although I was unable to visit her in Florida before she died, my cousin held the phone to her ear one night in March as she was dying.  II said goodbye and told Ruth that I loved her.  Though her eyes were closed and she couldn’t speak, Ruth’s eyebrows scrunched upward in recognition as I spoke to her.  Fifteen minutes later she was dead.