The Murder That Shaped Our Family

By

My grandfather was murdered in Las Vegas in 1955.

This was many years before I was born.

My grandmother never talked about it. She was a lively, bohemian soul who drank blended rum daiquiris and let my sister and me run through her giant clouds of cigarette smoke. When we spent the night at her house, she slept between us under an electric blanket and told us stories about growing up on a Wisconsin farm. There was the boy she loved with one leg, the brother who died young, the horses, giant trees, and dances all over the county that she drove to with friends. Later, there was her first car, a Model T she named Fidelia, which she drove across the country alone to reach a teaching job in Montana.

My mother didn’t talk about the murder either. Or she did sometimes, but only in small snippets, and with reluctance.

My grandfather, Malcolm, was an Episcopal priest and he was murdered in a car. Or just outside of the car. He was driving. My grandmother, Elizabeth, sat in the middle, and one of Malcolm’s parishioners, a man named Ray Smith, sat on the passenger side. Some accounts I’ve read say there were two people in the back seat as well, but I only ever heard about the three in front.

Ray had been drinking and was cursing and Malcolm pulled into Sills Drive-In to buy him a cup of coffee. As he was stepping out of the car, Ray reached across my grandmother’s lap, gun in hand, and shot her husband in the back.

I always try to imagine my grandmother in that five-second interval. The gun would have been a surprise. The reaching across her lap odd. When did she even notice what Ray held in his hand? She must’ve gone over this moment a million times, picturing how she could have stopped him. The front seat of a car is a small landscape and if she had pushed his arm just six inches to the right perhaps everything would have turned out differently.

The bullet had pierced Malcolm’s heart and he died at the scene.

This is where my mother enters the story. Imagine a fifteen-year-old girl sound asleep in her twin bed. Picture her being woken up after midnight to learn about the death of her father. The shock that certainly must have followed. I don’t think there would’ve been tears, not at first, just a cold spreading darkness in her chest. An unreal, broken quality to the night around her.

malcolm-elizabeth-and-my-mother-juliet

Malcolm, Elizabeth, and my mother, Juliet

Later, the grief will come, of course it will, quick and blunt, an unseen force of such power she will simply try and step out of its way, avoid its weight and move forward. She will see a therapist but will eventually quit because all she can manage to do in every session is cry. No one will find this disturbing, at least not as disturbing as I find it, especially now that I am also a mother.

But this is the 1950s and they don’t have the pills for sadness that we have today. They don’t tolerate constant crying. They learn to press grief aside and carry on.

And this works, for the most part. My grandmother lived a long life filled with many hours and days of great joy, even though she never remarried and her menstrual cycle stopped abruptly the night of the murder, never to return.

My own mother also passes through the phase of crying and makes herself a life. She is proposed to at least three times, but runs away, usually after accepting. When I ask her why she ran, she recalls only that she was scared by so much emotion. I think now I finally understand why she ran: she feared love.

She does eventually marry, someone safe and kind who loves her very much, but I’m never quite sure whether or not she loves him in return. She has two daughters. I am the oldest one and she loves me like a force of nature—a hurricane with all of its attendant wind and worry, the sunshine burning through afterwards like a drug. Her kindness and beauty shine through my life, make me into the type of woman who can carry love with ease, who isn’t scared by it at all.

A murder. A teenage girl who eventually becomes my mother. When I ask her about her childhood, she draws a blank. There is only blackness to her past, her entire early life erased by the trauma of that night. But she laughs it off and says, “I have such a bad memory.”

This is really not my story to tell and I feel guilty guessing at my mother’s heart, but isn’t that what daughters eventually do? Wonder at the lives of their mothers? Wonder how they lived and understood the world so that we can move our own children through it with more ease?

my-mom-and-me-1969

My mom and me

Malcolm’s ashes are entombed beneath the altar of an Episcopal Church in Las Vegas, the one he was helping to build when he died. I was married in that church. I stood above his ashes and promised to love my husband until death.

We named our first child Malcolm, not ever wondering if it was too heavy a name for him to bear. We simply handed it over, marked him with it forever.

And he wears the name lightly, not understanding its history other than the simple story—it was your grandfather’s name and he was killed.

I’d like to say this name was a gift I wanted to give to my mother, but it wasn’t. To be honest, I just loved its strength and heavy round sounds, the way the “a” and “o” hold down each syllable like weights anchoring a ship at sea.

If my grandfather had lived, I wonder if I would still have a son named after him. I wonder if I would even have the same mother. If he had lived, I can picture her marrying a different kind of man, not better or worse, just different.

At my mother’s fortieth high school reunion, a man approached her and said, “I remember that something terrible happened to you in high school and I never told you I was sorry.”

Later, she described the moment with her old classmate to me, and I couldn’t read her face, couldn’t determine how she felt, how she had absorbed those words from a near stranger.

I am going to imagine that she laughed and shook her head and told him it was fine, that nobody knew what to say to her back then.

To be the girl whose father was murdered—what must that have been like? I can only imagine its heavy loneliness, the way it must’ve pressed down on her for years as she tried to shrug it off.

Sometimes I feel as if I am carrying part of that heaviness for her. How else to explain my own rootless sadness, the way, on certain days, every single thing I see emanates a sepia-tinged pain?

I would describe my mother as a happy person. I don’t think this means she has completely cast away that night in 1955, or that her method of shedding memory’s thin shell has worked. She is simply resilient, just as her own mother was. And she has an uncanny knack for gathering joy and ignoring, as best she can, the hovering sorrow.

A murder. A teenage girl who became my mother. A son named after a grandfather.

When the pain of giving birth to my son bordered on unbearable, I conjured an image of my grandfather for solace, the one I know from a photo I have hanging in my front room. He is in profile, his face solemn but not unhappy. His heavy brow, prominent nose and jaw are clear against the fuzzy backdrop of a field. I don’t know what or who he is gazing at, or if he even knows he is being photographed. I like to think that he is simply staring placidly into the distance, dreaming of the future.

The man who killed my grandfather was deemed insane and unfit to stand trial. He was sent to an asylum in Sparks, Nevada, then later transferred to a prison where he died. My grandfather had been a friend to him for twenty years, helping him with money and counsel. The man was small and unassuming with a round, childish face and high forehead. He didn’t look like a murderer.

My son Malcolm doesn’t look like his grandfather, but I discovered something from old photographs. The two Malcolms are the only ones in our family, as far as I can tell, who have a dimple—one in the left check. I only ever see my son’s when his smile is wide enough to reveal it. I’ve read that dimples are considered genetic defects, yet we covet them. It’s a flaw deemed beautiful. I like to think of the dimple as an inheritance, a small hidden gift that connects my grandfather and my son across the years.

My son is fifteen now, the same age my mother was when her father died. Does he, I wonder, share anything else with my grandfather other than a random dimple and a name? I want to ask my mother, but I don’t. I piece the details together on my own from newspaper clippings and pictures, from letters and other people’s memories. She likely wouldn’t know the answer, and I have no desire to illuminate that blackness of her past. The currents of memory can be strong and I hope to keep her on the bright shore of the present.


Heather Skyler, born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the author of Vegas Girls and The Perfect Age. She has written pieces for the New York Times, Newsweek, GOOD magazine, and other publications. She currently works as the editor for OC Family magazine and as a syndicated columnist for the OC Register. She lives in Long Beach, California. More from this author →