In the summer of 1998, my mother’s sister Ruth was dying of pancreatic cancer. A friend had performed a surgical procedure that granted her two years of life, but now there was no way to stop the disease from spreading. We all knew that she had perhaps six months to live. As a historian and gerontologist, I was well-schooled in catching stories of the dying; I knew that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground. As a nephew, I wanted to know more about my aunt’s life, to preserve her voice and her memories for our family. But I had another motivation—I wanted to ask her about a death in 1954 whose family narrative had never quite satisfied me. I had a hunch that Ruth knew more about it than she had ever let on.
Born in 1932 in New Haven, Ct., Ruth was 7 years younger than my mother Jesse. They were the only two children of Jacob and Helen Breslav, both born near the turn of the century, both children of immigrant Jewish parents. Jacob (who went by Jack) had graduated from Yale and Helen from Mt. Holyoke, setting intimidating expectations of success and assimilation for their daughters. My mother followed her mother and graduated from Mt. Holyoke. As a child, I ate many meals on Mt. Holyoke china plates, whose maroon images and offwhite background left an indelible and dour Holyoke President Mary Lyon imprinted on my memory.
My aunt Ruth was the rebellious child. She stole pennies from her mother’s purse to buy soda at the corner store on her way to grammar school, several blocks from their house on Edgewood Way. As a teenager, Ruth liked to skip school and hang out with a questionable crowd at the downtown New Haven Arena. On weekend nights, she lounged in parked cars on the hill behind my grandparents’ house, necking with her Italian Catholic boyfriends. At Vermont Jr. College and Syracuse, she continued her fun-loving ways.
I always felt a special bond with Aunt Ruth, who was as sweet as the multicolored Lifesavers she always carried and as daffy as her phobias of leaving the house or vomiting. My aunt and her first husband Joel stayed for three or four weeks with me and my younger twin brother and sister in September 1954, when my father died one week after an apparent car accident. My mother sat at his side for a week and then took a cruise with some friends to help assuage her trauma and grief. The official narrative of my father’s death—than his car ran into a bridge abutment while he was trying to light a cigarette—had never quite rung true for me.
As our taped phone conversations moved into Ruth’s young adulthood and her relationship with my parents, we both spoke more hesitantly. I asked about her first husband Joel, who gambled away family money and divorced her after their second child Laura was born. One day, I gathered my courage and said, “Tell me everything you know about my father Burton, no matter what it is.” Ruth began to cry.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she squeezed through the tears.
“It’s okay,” I said. "I want to know everything. Whatever you tell me will be better than being plagued by silences, fantasies, and not knowing.”
“I can’t,” she sobbed. “It will hurt too many people, and your mother will hate me.”
“You have to,” I said. “You owe it to me, to the family, and to yourself. And besides, I already know what you’re going to say.”
Ruth fell silent for a moment. “What am I going to say?”
“You’re going to tell me that my father committed suicide.”