What We Lost When We Lost Barbara Jean

By

This is the truth.

Around noon I gulped a shot of tequila and then placed a chair in my closet, sat down, shut the door and put my .22 rifle in my mouth. It didn’t fit well. The scope got in the way of positioning the barrel for a shot through my brain. It was unwieldy and the cold metal after the warm liquor made me gag. My whole body vibrated with my heartbeat and I hurriedly decided that the best way, perhaps the only way to do this well and correctly was to balance my forehead against the barrel and pull the trigger. Not entirely satisfied, but too terrified to continue on with the deliberation, I resolved that this must have been the way my grandmother died. I kicked open the door and tumbled out of my closet.

I knew that my rifle was unloaded. I had pulled down the lever pretending to chamber a cartridge, but I could not pull the trigger. The rifle was new, the factory tag still attached, the gun never fired after nearly a year of meaning to take it to the range and transform its heft into a comfortable friend. Still I couldn’t pull the trigger and therefore couldn’t entirely imagine.

If my grandmother had tried first with the gun in her mouth, hers would have tasted differently, used. Her closet would not have smelled like the cinnamon air freshener in mine. And unlike her dark night, my day was bright and noisy with English sparrows, busy pets and the determined churning of my washing machine. And unlike her, I was content, but all the same, thinking of Barbara Jean and her rifle.

***

This is mostly the truth.

It was 1958 and Barbara Jean was 27 years-old. In Seattle, just before midnight she had a fight with my grandfather after returning from a summer party. Her three daughters all less than 8 years-old, were in bed when she retreated into the closet and as my copy of her death certificate simply states, “shot self in head with .22 rifle.”  The girls heard nothing and for a while did not know their mother was dead, only that their world changed when they moved in with Barbara Jean’s brother. Their aunt and uncle said very little about the whereabouts of their father, except to say that he would be coming for them soon.

I don’t know much more about my grandmother other than the story of her death. I don’t know what the fight was about, if it was one in thousand or the devastating first. I don’t know where she learned to use a .22 or if she had climbed high into the closet to find the ammunition with which to load it. I know she was an artist and a writer. She was a little volatile, very emotional, likely depressed, because all artists are supposed to be this way. And the novel she had written, the one copy of the manuscript tucked away in a drawer was burned by my grandfather upon her death. Like the rifle barrel scratching my palate, the idea of her novel itches in my mind and I find myself reaching for her words.

***

This is fiction.

Chapter One

She wouldn’t admit it, not even to her childhood girlfriend Michelle, but she daydreamed about her husband dying. She imagined it being fast and painless, a death she could be proud of and a story with which to comfort her girls.

She would say, “Your father died when the plant caught fire,” or  “He was crushed in a collapse, trying to save the president of the company,” or “ You father was hit by car alongside of the road while helping an elderly widow change out her tire.” However it happened, she would be able to say, “ Your father is gone, but he was a hero.”

She daydreamed of his death because she wanted to love him. She wanted to remember him as the man who smiled at her from across the USO dance and then approached with a swagger that swayed the room. He used to tell her stories and dare her to believe. She wanted the mystery back, this man who did not know his real parents and embellished the past. She wanted memories. She wanted imaginings. She wanted anyone other than the man who spooned dinner into his mouth, speaking only to remark disappointedly on his girls and then wandered off to the bar, returning when his household was asleep.

His death was nothing like she had imagined…

 ***

This is the truth.

When my grandfather returned to claim his daughters it was without any fanfare.  He arrived with a fiancée who had a daughter of her own. When they married, days later, my mother had one more sister and what seemed like a brand new family.  Kathy was her mother now, an anorexic woman who always kept a cigarette lit and believed in thin beautiful women who married well. They weren’t allowed to speak of their mother, so the sisters tried to stay in their step-mother’s good graces even though her approval was elusive. They all tussled for their father’s attention and sometimes believed they had it, but really they couldn’t compete with the gin or break past the malaise that followed. No one asked where he had been for the year he was gone or where he found a new wife willing to raise three discarded girls.

The sisters would grow up, continue to compete for the love and approval of the only parent left and no one would win. My mother would lose the most, my mother the artist whose first child, a girl, would be a writer. All the sisters would feel the absence of Barbara Jean in ways that cut differently, but gazing back more than fifty years, I am certain my mother’s greatest loss was in a confidant and in not having Barbara Jean long enough to feel this void and mourn it.

 ***

This is mostly the truth.

My mother left me when I was four to ease a difficult divorce. She was only gone for five years, but I lived with my father’s parents for the rest of my childhood. In those years of her absence when my playground chums asked in that cutting way which only children can, “Where is your mommy?” I told them she was dead.

When the pain of missing me didn’t go away my mother came back for visits, but puzzled over people’s disapproval. Then she read “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman and her vision sharpened with terrifying clarity. The idea of me doing what she had done, what her mother had done to her, the thought of leaving a legacy of disappearing mothers devastated her and she offered to help me break the cycle any way she could. It wasn’t an offer she needed to make to my sisters. At least, I hadn’t thought it was.

I have two half-sisters, my mother like her father returning with another family in tow, a family I never lived with and was never quite allowed into. My sisters had their mother their whole life, but I think losing Barbara Jean ripples through their lives as well. My sisters and I are not close; we don’t talk, so I cannot be sure. I think though, that had Barbara Jean been alive, a shared grandmother would have been enough to bring us together. Grandma B. would have had no favorites, would have not been besmirched by the soot of our teenage years and she would have been a haven and the focal point of a favorite shared conversation. We would have celebrated her landmark moments together, crossed paths on other holidays and perhaps cried in each other’s arms at her funeral. Maybe we would have even found ourselves written into her stories and teased each other about the caricatures we became in our grandmother’s narratives.

 ***

This is fiction

…His death was nothing like she had imagined.

The police didn’t arrive at the door, there was just a phone call and when it came, it came with the expected grief, but not with admiration. There had been an accident at work and they were sorry, but it was after-hours in the parking lot, after a drink and there would be no benefits, not that this was the right time to speak of such a thing. They were sorry, but again, it was an accident. She wondered if there really was such a thing as accidents.

She had said things. She had told him that he was not the man she had thought she married. She told him he was killing her with his absence, even though he was always there. She had not threatened him with divorce, although Anne Marie who lived in the house on the corner had done just that and all the other wives applauded her. She had not threatened to run away and take the children, even though Janice had a friend who had done this and again the wives imagined bliss over their gin and tonics. She had only threatened to never love him again.

If he was punishing her, he should have left a clear message. She wished he had jumped from a bridge, drove over a cliff, done something more decisive than stumble in front of a delivery truck. And although her eulogy at the funeral was articulate and heart-felt, she did this for her girls. She had no idea how she would take care of her family on the small personal life insurance policy. She wished it had been her who had escaped instead.

 ***

This is mostly the truth.

I have heard that my grandfather left his daughters for just over a year because he was on trial. I have heard that there was a civil trial over the murder of my grandmother. I knew Roger, his drinking, his distance. He never seemed available enough to be anything, a father, a grandfather or a murderer. Yet, murder is a slippery thing when you are young enough to ache with every slight. Murder is a word or a motion away when a Gatsby party leaves the tang of gin on your lips and you stumble into a Seattle summer night that is too dark to see through to the next day.

It was 1958 and women rarely committed suicide and almost never did it in a way that was messy. Pills, a bathtub cutting, head in the oven, but always in private and with little clean up. A .22 is unlikely to make a big mess, but a woman in the 1950s was unlikely to have known this. I tried to kill myself three times in my early twenties and I never considered a gun. I also didn’t have three girls and I wasn’t serious enough to remove the hope of being saved.

Remembering back to wishing I was dead terrifies me. Thinking of Barbara Jean makes it worse, because inside the murky closet of my imaginings, in my inherited artist’s heart, I don’t believe my grandmother pulled the trigger. I believe she sat in a closet like me and shook with the weight of the possibilities. Someone else told her to or forced her to pull the trigger. Or maybe someone put the gun to her head and she pulled the trigger, calling a bluff that turned out to be loaded. I believe that Barbara Jean was murdered and it changed everyone, even the daughters who had yet to be born. I wonder if it was my grandfather.

 ***

This is the truth.

They say Barbara Jean wrote a novel. I wonder what this did to her. It was a memoir that reshaped my world. The writing of it was the most jarring. Writing is like magic because you cannot see the simple psychology you are weaving, the questions you are asking, the way you are reshaping how you interact with your world. What you see is the world changing around you. I was writing about my mother, defining forgiveness, redefining love and suddenly she was living with me. We staggered down this new path as best we could, discovering how to be a mother, how to be a daughter and how to do it together. It was a few more steps into the journey my mother wanted so badly for me, the work that ends all the motherless daughters.

The memoir was published, the reviews were lovely and although it didn’t change my lifestyle, the book did change my life. Three years later it continues to change my life. After the unsettling contention of my childhood and after over 20 years, I stood for the first time with both my parents in the same room together. They talked about the one thing they still shared, their childhood. My family, at last, was as whole as it could ever be. And yet Barbara Jean ghosted through the conversation, the one thing my parents couldn’t reconcile.

My dad had forgotten her. My mother couldn’t see her childhood without her mother’s shadow. And I thought about family mythology, family truths and how both are correct and blatant lies. Relationships begin and end and begin again transformed. There is no escaping them. My parents stood together in the same room because of a book I had written and had come to read to the audience. This new beginning, a gentle truce of time was my reluctant orchestration and I found myself wondering what even now, I could do for Barbara Jean, for her story.  I wondered if writing a book could kill you.

 ***

This is fiction.

What she didn’t expect was the exact way she would miss him as year after year passed. She could see his expressions in her daughters at unexpected moments. The youngest would gaze out the window oblivious of a question asked three times and when finally turning, she would see his dreams in her eyes. The eldest would put on high heels swiped from her mother’s closet and stride across the living room in nothing remotely like a swagger, but still in a way that made the world sway and bow. She had thought these moments would be scoured of the bitterness he had eventually brought to her life. She had thought death brought forgiveness, but she lived with both her anger and lost love. And for long uncomfortable moments she hated her daughters for being him.

***

This is the truth.

In my grandmother’s novel the protagonist would be a thinly veiled version of herself. And after she comes to terms with the burden of being a daydreaming woman in the 1950s, she finds love again and does right by her daughters. Then again, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe there isn’t any way out, not even in narrative imagined. Maybe all you can do is keep writing. If my grandmother truly did write a novel, murderer or widower, my grandfather would have burned it. How could he not?

They tore down the house where Barbara Jean died, built another in its place. I can’t help but wonder how haunted it must have been. All those stories untold. Someone should find them and tell them. Maybe it should be me.

I never had daughters. I didn’t even try. Perhaps I am too afraid of leaving them. I broke the cycle, but maybe not in the right way. So I have to bring Barbara Jean back for my sisters, for my niece, my cousins, for me. Maybe not all is lost when the truth can still be found. Did she? Did he? Perhaps I can’t know, but I can decide. That is truth enough.

I’ll let you know what I decide.


Rebecca K. O’Connor is the author of the award-winning falconry memoir Lift published by Red Hen Press in 2009. She has published essays in South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine, West, Coachella Review, divide, and has had essays included in New California Writing 2011 and 2012. Her novel, Falcon’s Return was a Holt Medallion Finalist for best first novel and she has published numerous reference books on the natural world. More from this author →