When Barbara Jean Was Missing

By

“You are the closest thing I have to a mother,” she said. My mother said this to me, her oldest daughter,
me, the only one of her four children unlikely to give her grandchildren. I am forty. I am single. I never wanted to be anyone’s mother. She said this to me with no emotion, no yearning or surprise. It is just fact. I am my mother’s mother and all I’ve ever wanted to be was a daughter.

When Mom said, “You are the closest thing,” I knew I had to find Barbara Jean. My mother is turning 60 in a few weeks and her mother has been lost to us for 53 years. In 1958 she shot herself in the head with a .22 rifle. In the forced silence and palpable disapproval Barbara Jean had ceased to exist, stopped being anyone’s mother. We had always talked like Barbara Jean had made her choice. Now I wonder how many choices were made for her.

Where do you start when someone has been missing a half a century, when all the major players have taken their certainties to the grave? I suppose that question answers itself, you start with a headstone. If my mother ever visited Barbara Jean’s grave, she doesn’t quite remember it. She found a story she wrote in high school for English class in 1969. She thinks it is meant to be a short story, but it rings true with the awkward beauty of teenage prose. She and her father walk for what seems for miles until Roger finally halts, lost things found.  “Neglected, the grave looked lonely. The grass had grown around it covering the face.”

In the essay my mother and grandfather rip at the overgrown grass, tidying the grave with reverence. The seventeen year-old girl, seeing her mother’s headstone for the first time, seeing her mother for first time since she was six years-old needed to do something more. She thought she should find something lovely to leave, but wrote “I could find nothing but a torn broken dandelion.” So she placed it on the headstone.

“I don’t think it happened, Becky,” my mother says. “At least, I don’t think it happened like that.”

“I don’t care,” I tell her. I don’t care. When you begin to gather stories, you start realizing that what happened is not nearly as important as what is truth.

 ***

We found where Barbara Jean was buried on the Internet. She lies in Tigard, Oregon at Crescent Grove Cemetery and I wondered if it was a family plot. I wonder if it was her family’s plot, because Roger had run away with her girls to Southern California, leaving the grave untended. Short story or true story, Roger did not seem to recall exactly where she was buried. With no family left in Oregon, it was hard to know who was connected to the graveyard where she was buried. I wrote the cemetery and asked if she was there to be sure. Then I asked for a map. I had made up my mind to go, but I had to have a map.

Nearly twenty years ago I walked through Riverside National Cemetery with an arm full of carnations and baby’s breath on Christmas Day. My boyfriend was driving and I stepped from the passenger side of my Pontiac sunbird with a bravado that was broken by the long stretch of the cemetery’s perfect symmetry and well-groomed lines. I was looking for my other grandmother, Mary Evelyn who I had lived with from the time I was four until I went to college. She died when I was 21 years-old. I was looking for the mother who raised me, but I could not find her.

We walked for a half an hour, looking at the multitude of tiny plaques until it was unarguable that I was lost, that I would not find her on her birthday, on Christmas. My boyfriend coaxed me back into the car and I cried into the flowers in my lap for 100 miles. When we got to San Diego and I gave them to my boyfriend’s mother.

I don’t ever want to be an orphan in a cemetery again. I have never gone back to pay respects to Mary Evelyn. This time I have a map, but I still keep postponing the trip to see Barbara Jean. I think I am afraid I won’t find her.

My grandparents, Mary Evelyn and Howdy took me to the cemetery on relative’s birthdays and holidays. I am not sure who we left flowers for, but this was something that you did. You never forgot. So this year on Christmas I wanted to see Barbara Jean. Mary Evelyn and Howdy are buried side by side now, they are not alone. But no one was bringing lilies, glancing at the sky, holding hands above Barbara Jean. I wanted to go, but I didn’t.

Instead, I called my mother on the phone and read her the number of Barbara Jean’s plot from the papers I had just gotten in the mail. We imagined things lost and found. I promised I would go and take photographs of everything. We giggled like little girls who had just whispered of forbidden things, who had the audacity to speak of Barbara Jean on Christmas. Then I saw two familiar names in the list.

“Mom,” I said. “William and Rhoda are there too.”

William Everett Cates and Rhoda Duckett Cates were buried just a few plots over; Barbara Jean rested close to her parents. It was their family cemetery, their plots. I knew that Rhoda had died in the 1970s, more than ten years after her daughter, but ultimately were still near her. Barbara Jean had three brothers and a sister, but she was the only sibling buried near her parents.

“They said Rhoda was crazy,” my mom said. I knew that. It was why my mother and her sisters were never allowed to see her. Rhoda was disturbed. They said Mary Evelyn was crazy too. In fact, they committed her twice.

When I was eight years-old, when my mother was gone and I had only been living with my grandparents for a few years, Mary Evelyn disappeared. I don’t know what happened exactly. What I remember is later being told that she was staring at the canned goods in the grocery store, unresponsive, that she wasn’t right. What I remember with a clarity born of unease is waving beneath her third story window in Loma Linda Psychiatric Hospital, where I was too young to visit. I was told later that she thought I had been kidnapped. She was certain that she had lost me. I had to stand before her window and wave because she was crazy.

Still, no one took me away. They only whispered about Mary Evelyn being unbalanced. She returned home, growing heavy and angry over the years, molding her body and mind into the recliner in the living room from which she rarely rose. My family only whispered about her changing, about her pupation into state that as a teenager I was too self-absorbed to consider. I cried myself to sleep most nights, but I couldn’t see that my grandmother was probably more depressed than me.

They told me that if I went away to college that Mary Evelyn would probably die. She had three sons, but the family thought I was keeping her focused and alive. I didn’t understand that what they really meant was that she would lose her grip once she lost me as an anchor, once the world kidnapped me. I chose to go to school 500 miles away from home. I refused to be anyone’s reason for living. That was how I looked at it, but I spent my first three years of school working in a convalescent hospital as a nurse’s assistant, tending other people’s forgotten grandparents as if it were a penance.

When I called home one night and my grandmother could not remember who I was, I did not think she was having a breakdown. I listened carefully and believed that she was sick. I thought it was maybe an electrolyte imbalance. This was like when one of my charges, Jack Schiele, who was normally witty and wicked with humor, had become confused and frightened during one of my shifts. “Potassium,” the nurse had told me. “Mental confusion is often a sign of an imbalance.”

I drove home and my grandmother was worse when I got there. She was catatonic, sitting on the toilet, half dressed. I had to stand her up and dress her mechanically. I dressed her as if she were someone else’s grandparent, like it was any other day at work.

I demanded that she be taken to the hospital. My demands were met, but once at the hospital the doctor read her file, ran a few tests and then he transferred her into the psychiatric unit.  It took weeks for someone to ask the right questions and discover that her kidneys were failing, that her kidneys had been failing for some time.

 ***

I remember being twelve years-old, my father and my uncle wrestling my grandmother to the green Impala while she cried, “No. No. No.” She sounded terrified and defeated while her sons insisted she go and then forced her to go to the hospital. She had to have been in tremendous pain, her appendix had already burst, but she was desperate not to go. I could not understand her fear of being fixed. I thought it was just one of her foibles, but I understand now. If you let them know you are hurt, they might decide you are crazy.

***

Mary Evelyn wasn’t crazy, but after regular dialysis, her system cleaned of toxins, she was a woman I had never met. She was a grandmother who called me honey and bought me presents. When we spoke on the phone there was a warm depth in her voice that made me imagine a dark-haired slender woman with a knowing smile. When she told me that she loved me, I couldn’t remember if she had ever said it before. She sounded so alive, but she only stayed with us for a few months. She died of heart failure so I never got to see her again, but I am so glad I got to experience her whole. They were wrong about her and I am glad for that as well, or maybe it is more that I am relieved.

They say that Barbara Jean’s brother Armil, told Roger not to marry her. Armil took her fiancé aside and said, “Don’t do it, man. Babs is not right. She’s not right.”

She must have been crazy to shoot herself in head with a .22 rifle, right? She must have been clinically depressed, unhinged. In those rare moments when someone mentioned Barbara Jean, that is what they said.

***

Women suffer from depression at a much higher rate than men, but I am not convinced that depression is such a straight road to suicide. Women lead men in suicide attempts at a two-to-one ratio, but most psychologists are quick to point out that a suicide attempt is usually something very different than suicide. About 95 percent of suicide attempts are meant to be a solution in itself, a way to jar loose the problem for everyone else to see clearly and to assist. I understand this. When I was 20 years-old I gobbled a bottle of sleeping pills and later that year I slit my wrists. Yet, had there been a rifle in my closet I wouldn’t have used it. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be reborn.

Women are only 25% of all suicides. Modern psychologists like George E. Murphy speculate that a woman is less likely to commit suicide because “She’ll consider not just her feelings but also the feelings of others — her family, the children, even acquaintances and how those people will be affected by a decision like suicide.” The idea of women taking their own lives has been considered so incompatible that there is very little historical research on the subject. A woman committing suicide was considered an anomaly not worth studying. In 1883 a writer in London’s Contemporary Review wrote, that ‘three-fourths of the cases [of suicides] are males, which shows that if the female intellect be less powerful than man’s it is at the same better balanced, or at least more capable of standing against reverses of fortune, and facing the battle of life.” It was even suggested that women who committed suicide were suffering from the effects of trying to be a man.

In 2006 a study examining three years of suicides in Riverside County, California showed that women were 73% less likely to use firearms than men. It isn’t the method of choice and more than that a rifle is not an attempt. If Barbara Jean pulled the trigger herself, she meant it. If she had other suicide attempts they would have been listed in her mythology, the hindsight of what was always coming. But there are none. We talk about how she locked herself in her room. We think that she was sad. Maybe Barbara Jean was even clinically depressed. This does not explain why she shot herself in the head. They say that she was always not quite right as if it explains it all.

I keep telling myself this is just a trip to the cemetery, but I had three beers before I finally bought the plane ticket and I still hesitated before I clicked “purchase”. I tell myself that I am afraid I won’t find her, that there will be nothing left to find, but that isn’t it. I believe that the older the secrets the harder the truth, but that isn’t it either. I worry what any answer might do to my family, but none of this is quite what is bringing me to my knees. The thing is that I want to be a daughter, but I am afraid of what that means.

 ***

On the plane to Portland, nursing a Bloody Mary, I stared at my wrist. I try, but cannot remember what it feels like to be that alone, even for the moment it takes to make a hesitant cut. I can’t remember, but I cannot quite forget either; I wear the proof.

When my mom told her sister Leslie that I was looking for Barbara Jean, Leslie fretted, repeating the story of her mother like a mantra, that story that must be protected. Leslie said that Barbara Jean was depressed. She was unwell. She was lost to us. “You don’t, remember, Shelley,” she said. “You were too young.” Leslie remembers Barbara Jean locked in her room, always locked in her room. She remembers her sisters being hungry and that is was her who eased their pangs, who fed them spoonfuls of sugar. She remembers being alone, but she was only seven, that age when moments alone are eternities.

“What if she was in her room writing her novel,” my mom asked her sister, thinking of the novel my grandfather burned when Barbara Jean died. Then my mother asked, “And where was our dad?”

 ***

I pulled down my sleeve to cover my wrist when I heard the shift of the plane engine and felt the dipping of our pitch, descending into Portland. The plane eased into that space of white nothing between open sky and obvious ground and I thought about how Barbara Jean wrote a novel. My grandmother was a writer. I know what they say about writers.

***

The night of my twentieth birthday my boyfriend, Pat told me to meet him at our apartment later in the evening. Although my name was on the lease, I had moved out and given back my keys to prove I meant it. Even though I didn’t mean it. Our relationship was on and off and punctuated by brutal fights in between. We were trying to make up again and he offered to buy wine coolers and make me smile. He was having beers at The Graduate where we worked and I wasn’t old enough to join him so would just have to wait, but it would be worth it, he promised.

The apartment was dark when I arrived at ten o’clock and when it began to rain, it felt inevitable. I checked at The Graduate, but he wasn’t there either. The bartender, Mike looked perplexed, “Pat? He left a while ago with,” then he stopped. “Never mind.”  I couldn’t get him to explain what “never mind” meant, but I thought I knew. Mike’s expression had changed from confusion to pity. So when I returned to the apartment and pounded on the door, I wasn’t surprised to hear a female voice. I thought she was asking Pat, “Who is that?”

I walked over to the bedroom window, moving into the rain, trying to hear. I still couldn’t make out what they were saying. I banged on the window and Pat shouted at me to go the fuck away.

“It’s my birthday, damn you,” I yelled, marking the beat of my words with fist on glass. “My. Birth. Day!” And the window gave way, rendered into shards and a cracking that overpowered the muting fall of the storm.

A man from the apartment above sing-songed, “I’m calling the police.”

My hand stung and I held it up to see blood dripping off my knuckles, mixing with the rainwater that drizzled from the bangs of my hair. For a moment everything hushed as if in that pause before your ears begin to ring.

Then I heard Pat say to the woman in our bed, “See. I told you she was crazy.”

 ***

I was expecting to find my grandmother’s grave, rest my palm on the stone and solemnly swear that Barbara Jean and all of her blood were of sound mind, that there was more to the story and vow to find it. As the road wended past historic three-story homes, their porches peeking above tangled landscape, I adjusted to the Pacific Northwest, its somber sky and dense undergrowth. What I had come to do was important, a poem to be carefully composed for generations. I thought that whatever I would discover would be hidden and historic, like those homes hinting at a past in quick glimpses though their untamed plots.

The cemetery was nothing like I expected. I made a sharp turn off a busy road with the lime green Ford Fiesta that had been assigned as my rental car and began to troll the North road. I was looking for the 920 marker on the curb. After following these instructions, North and 920, I gave myself a few moments come to terms with the incongruity of my view. I had imagined a vast cemetery, ancestors hidden in a forever grid of stone and grass. I had imagined lush pines weeping with a Pacific Northwest storm. This was not what I imagined. I laughed and cracked open a microbrew stout from the six pack I had brought with me. I wiped away a few tears, but they were equal parts sorrow and hilarity. “I can see JC Penny’s from here,” I said out loud.

I could have been in someone’s backyard, a house once rural now butted up against a towering shopping mall on three sides of its reluctant property. The sounds of car alarms were as prominent as the quarreling gulls and preoccupied clucks of the cemetery geese. The place made me imagine an 80 year-old woman swinging on her porch, wearing a wry grin and swigging from a mystery coffee mug. Crescent Grove Cemetery was grand and wise and stubbornly pretending there were no damn kids on its lawn.

From the 920 marker there was a twelve-grave walk to get to Barbara Jean and she was hardly hiding. “There you are,” I said. And to stop myself from crying, I looked around for witnesses. Then I knelt down next to her grave and I poured the opened beer I had carried for her into the ground. I poured it too fast and when it a bit of it frothed onto the headstone, I laughed and apologized, rubbing it clean with my sleeve. There was no one looking. And when I was sure of this, I walked back to my Ford Fiesta and opened my own beer. I placed yellow lilies on the grave and I drank a beer with my grandmother.

Rhoda and William were a row above her and two graves over. William had died in 1960, only two years after Barbara Jean. I wondered how Rhoda managed while I counted her extra 14 years. I looked up and spun around to keep my view close, taking in the stretching trees and the soft paint of the moss. I marveled that somehow this was home, a story that was mine.

When it was time to take the car back and catch my plane, I wasn’t sure how to say “goodbye”. How do you farewell someone you have never met? Who is even listening? The rich beer and the dichotomy of the landscape made me brave though. I closed my eyes, pretended I could hear and asked.

Barbara Jean said that she loved Shelley, my mother because she was a pain in the ass and for her daydreaming questions. Barbara Jean had a mouth like a sailor. I blushed and delighted. Then I begged her to tell me what happened to her. I asked for the answers now, not later, to just tell me. She said that what happened wasn’t nearly as important as what we decided had happened. Then I had flashes of what it would have been like to have Barbara Jean as a grandmother. There were burnt cookies, crooked Band-Aids, unfortunate hair braiding and an indifference that was dwarfed by a brilliant smile for the stories I wrote for her, for the stories I am writing her now.

I soaked my knees in the Oregon grass, cooled my forehead against her headstone and sobbed until there were no tears. Maybe Barbara Jean had nothing to say. Maybe the dead cannot speak. I could have been talking to myself, but I like to think that your blood sings. If the dead speak through our blood, this is what I said to myself. I believe what I heard.

It was hard to leave. I wanted to keep listening, but more than that wanted to get home, to call my mother and tell her what Barbara Jean said.

 ***

They said that Barbara Jean was crazy. They said that her mother Rhoda was crazy too. We said these things because it is what we were told. Whether we believed did not matter. These are the things that were said. Now we are saying, “I wonder.”

I wonder, was she? Were they? Am I?

Here is where we start again. Here is where we find you, somewhere between stone markings and shared blood. I was. I am. Your daughter. I will be your mother for a little while, for as long as you need me to be, Barbara Jean. Grandma. Here is where your story begins again and becomes ours.


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 →