Family History

by Luanne Castle

A woman’s slashed neck bleeds in Michigan. Blood spurts as from a spigot until she presses a kitchen towel to the wound as she dials 911.  The assailant sits slumped in the living room, fondling the blade of his hunting knife. I picture the knife—the curved and serrated blade, the hardwood handle.

I know all this because my mother emailed me a news link. One of those modern-day horror stories: the angry and confused teen boy, the weapon, the victims. In this article, the woman’s neck will be bleeding forever.

The day before, I’d cut short a call from my parents, explaining how our business was going through a major transformation. ‘Busy twenty-four seven. Things’ll be better next month.’ I hoped I was right.

When I saw Mom’s email address, I felt a prickle of annoyance at another email added to the growing stack in my mailbox. Noticing it was a news link for a story from southwest Michigan, where I grew up, I skimmed the article, irritated with my curious nature. Violence in a small town. Unfamiliar names. Tragic events for strangers.

Why does my mother want me to read a nasty little local event? She knows I’m busy.  

Before reading this email, my mind seemed focused, on point, but now suddenly veered to a memory long submerged.

I thought back to my grief over my great-grandfather’s death. Mom didn’t think I was old enough for a funeral, and I never saw him frail or failing. For years my thoughts of Great-Grandpa stayed the same, as if all my memories were ongoing events, repeating in an endless loop. When he filled my plastic Yogi Bear bubble pipe with smoke so that I would hate the taste of tobacco. When he drove me to town in his old-fashioned pickup so that the market owner, the barber, and other small-town fixtures could meet his great-granddaughter.

My favorite memory is sitting together in the parlor, steeped in the thick fragrance of the wood stove in the center of the small room and Great-Grandpa’s pipe tobacco. Streaked with cracks and peeling around the edges, the linoleum revealed hints of the original walnut floor. Other than two ladder-back chairs and the small table for Great-Grandpa’s cribbage board, the room was bare-or that’s how I remember it. The others gathered in the big dining room next to us, chattering and laughing, a comfortable backdrop to the story we shared.

At seven, I was too big to sit on my great-grandfather’s lap, but I didn’t mind being babied by him. He was short but strong from farm work. Everything about his head was round—his face framed with close-cropped white hair, his blue eyes, and the plump circles over his cheekbones.

We sat like nested dolls, me between his comfy arms, on the wooden rocker, both of us clutching a book that I read to him. Inside the front cover was an embossed label with his name, Charles Peter Mulder.

The book was part of a 19th century series for young people, preaching the values of Jesus and Horatio Alger.  My great-grandfather’s childhood, ages 5-13, took place in the 1890s, a time bookended between the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 and the Spanish-American War in 1898. But the viewpoint held by the books in his library was moral, rather than political. They were housed in an oak bookcase in his bedroom. He let me sneak upstairs to choose books I wanted to take home with me. The other bedroom was still dominated by a big bed where all Charles’ five children had slept-the girls in a row across and the two boys perpendicular at their feet.  

Great-Grandpa didn’t have to correct me very often because I was a good reader, the best in my class. But I stopped often to question him. What’s the cooper? What’s obstinacy? What’s the King of Fire-Water?

‘The man who makes barrels,’ he said. But the others lead to ‘no good end. Drunk and stubborn litters the path to Hell.’ Even then, I knew that you could get to Hell with more than alcohol and a narrow mind.

He stopped my reading with his finger on the page. ‘Depends on what’s in them barrels, though.’ The Dutch accents of my great-grandfather’s parents were faintly stamped on his inflection, although he immigrated with them when he, the first child, was just two and his brother Jan a baby in his mother’s arms.

When I asked him why the boy in the story was trying so hard to earn money for his poor, sick family, my great-grandfather gently closed the book and turned my chin so that I faced him. ‘You’re the first great-grandchild.’ I was impressed by his serious expression, although his deep-set blue eyes still smiled. ‘The next generation starts with you. Family is our responsibility.’ Even then, I chafed at the limitation.

Moments later, my two young cousins ran into the room, clutching sharp-edged boy toys and making rat-a-tat noises. They were not twins, but so close in age and size that they might as well have been. And they were wild. Everyone said so. Great-Grandpa slid me off his lap and grabbed for one of the boys, so I wandered outside to the apple tree swing, dragging my patent leather shoes through the dirt on purpose.

After settling into the swing seat, I kicked off the dusty shoes, glorying in my white socks marked with dirt in square patches through the peek-a-boo windows of my Mary Janes. I didn’t want to be too good, not then.

The news article has sent my mind scurrying down a rabbit hole. Thoughts of work have drifted away. I don’t know why reading this horror story has made me think about the bloom of history upon the present’s surface.

All Charles’ children had to walk miles to school in the snow and ice. My grandmother loved to tell me the stories. In one tale, she and her sisters were sent into town, two hours away, to buy fresh bread for dinner. Famished, they scooped and gobbled the soft hearts of the loaves, leaving only the intact crusts to give their mother. When my great-grandmother, who died two years before I was born, hefted the featherweight loaves in her hands, she immediately knew what her girls had done. She’d laughed at their moxie, but the girls went to bed hungry that night.

When Charles tried to teach my grandmother to drive, she ran his Model A into the creek. That was the only time he ever raised his voice. His kids all had their own stories, their own comforts and difficulties, but they lived by what their father had tried to teach them, staying away from what could come to ‘no good end.’ When Grandma walked me to kindergarten, her thick dry hand wrapped around mine, she reassured me that I was a good girl, and I knew I could remain so as long as I was mirrored in my grandmother’s eyes.

Over the generations, our family increased from Charles’ 5 children to 13 grandchildren to 20 great-grandchildren. I haven’t counted the next generation, the great-great-grandchildren-or the great-great-greats. Each generation has spread the family farther afield in terms of geography and affection.

A few years ago, I discovered a family history site online and began to construct a family tree. I’m a visual learner and seeing my relatives clinging to branches off a strong trunk appealed to me. I studied the old photographs that I, the oldest great-grandchild, had collected, integrating the photos and the new data I was accumulating with the family stories I remembered.

First, I went backwards in time and discovered that Charles’ ancestors were merchants and shoemakers and tailors. The storefront where the Mulder brothers sold ‘colonial goods’ might still stand in Goes, a city in Zeeland, near the North Sea. Great Grandpa pronounced Goes like the first syllable of hoosegow, slang for jail. The earliest ancestor I could find, also named Karel Mulder, my great-grandfather’s name at birth, had been a jailer’s hand, working at the city jail in Goes.

Then I searched forward to discover all the generations born since my great-grandfather. All five of Charles’ children married for life. A year ago, the last of that generation passed away. I’ve been living two thousand miles away from home for decades. I missed seeing the great-aunts and great-uncles before they passed away. Mom fills me in on the young people I have never met. Children have been born with names like River, Bryce, and Shelby-not a Karel, not a Charles.

Family members occasionally send me photographs and old letters or newspaper clippings. In one package, I discovered my great-grandfather’s wooden gavel. The lightweight mallet felt balanced, even, in my hand. Indentations from repeated striking on a sounding block scarred the pounding surface on each side of the mallet head.

I didn’t understand why a farmer would need a gavel. After more research, I found that Charles Mulder had been township supervisor and used the gavel to bring the meetings to order. I imagine him calling our family to order if he were still here. How he would have loved to have hosted another family reunion for us all at the farm.

The email. The name Susan.

Then, as my stomach seems to freefall, I realize that when I saw the name Susan in the article, it wasn’t just a memory trigger. Our own Susan, my mother’s youngest cousin, is in the hospital, seriously injured. She is the woman holding a towel to her bleeding neck when the police arrived. She persuaded the assailant to let her call 911 as he sat stunned on the couch.

The police discovered him on the roof, trying to stab himself with the bloody knife. Police ordered him to come down, but he refused, then slid off the roof accidentally, and took off running.

I imagine Susan in her blonde wig, her sweet face, the blood leaking through the saturated towel to her hand. She talks to the police officer as if she isn’t in shock, as if this is one more burden to endure.

Later, I will read a news article in which a friend describes the family as sweet. ‘’You couldn’t help but fall in love with Susan. She was so kind.’‘

Susan is only eight years older than I am. She’s the youngest of her generation, as I am the oldest of mine. She’s been a kindergarten teacher, a drum majorette, and a seller of Christmas trees. Sweetness runs through Charles’ family like a silver thread: my great-grandfather himself; my grandmother; and of my mother’s generation, Susan carries the purest version of the sweetness gene.

I always imagine Susan in her white gown in the basement of the church, being fed cake by her new husband. The sort of man people call ‘a really nice guy.’  Their first house filled with family and friends and anticipation. On the family tree I was creating, I entered the data for the births of her daughter, her son, who shares my birthday, and their children.

And then I had to enter the date of her son’s death. He shot himself, leaving behind an unborn son. I’d been so close to doing something like that myself when I was fifteen. But sleeping pills take time to digest, and that allowed me to change my mind. They say that women are more apt to attempt suicide as a call for help. Men are more likely to kill themselves on the first try.

Susan’s husband, the nice guy, died of cancer. Maybe his son’s suicide had something to do with it. Why does the mind insist upon making connections? Two years later, Susan’s mother, a schoolteacher, died alone in a house trailer fire.

Susan’s been recovering once again from cancer. She’s the youngest grandchild of my great-grandfather; Mom is the oldest. Most of that generation developed cancer-maybe a gene they inherited from my great-grandmother who passed away from cancer the year my parents married. Every time my mother visits her cousin, she says, ‘Susan has gone through so much,’ as if she is stunned anew at Susan’s hardships.

Susan reminds me of my grandmother who also was diagnosed over and over with cancer.  Although Grandma lived until she was 88, the cancer never entirely left her body. My grandmother wore her wig until she slept in a nursing home bed, the wispy tufts of white hair poking up mischievously from her shiny scalp. Even when she lay dying, prepared to leave us, her eyes twinkled helplessly.

Susan survived the attack and was discharged from the hospital a few days after surgery. Somebody ripped out the blood-stained white carpeting before she came home. When my parents visited her, she still didn’t know where her granddaughter’s body had been found.

In the basement, that’s where the police discovered Susan’s 21-year-old granddaughter Kylie, dead from a slashed throat.  She couldn’t get outside, to the pool, to the lake beyond. She stumbled away as best she could, but he’d chased her. Or so I imagine. It’s not a detail my mother could ask Susan. And how can I-who lived away from the family for twenty years-ask about such matters? Only one generation away from my mother, and yet I feel as if I don’t belong.

Kylie was a college student, president of the Tech Club, a girl who should have been reading Great-Grandpa a book inspired by Jesus and Horatio Alger.  She had made some mistakes when she was younger, but had taken charge of her future. She was planning her wedding to her fiancé, and they were an adoring couple. You only had to look at their engagement photos, courtesy of Facebook, to know how adoring.

When the police discovered him, Kylie’s toddler son River was, mercifully, still asleep in his bed. River, who is now an orphan, would turn 3 two weeks after his mother’s death. He will remember his mother by the videos she took documenting her son’s first years. In them, little River vacuums and learns to snowboard. He will hear Kylie’s encouraging voice in the background, happy and loving.

The police tasered the attacker, then took him off to jail. The first reports didn’t mention his name. But then the rumors of his identity were quickly confirmed: Susan’s 15-year-old grandson, Sean. Kylie’s first cousin. Only an entry in my family tree until now, Sean was the son of Susan’s son who committed suicide, marking his baby son with abandonment and tragedy. I’d been gone from Michigan for almost ten years when the father died, when the son was born. Now, as I sit in front of my computer screen, reading the articles, I try to absorb my family’s story. The facts all swirl in my head, then they settle into a pattern, as water stilling settles floating leaves. The son of the son killed the daughter of the daughter.

The word is that Sean went off his meds a few days before the knife spree. That he had a prescription means adults knew he needed mediation between his confused thoughts and the outside world.

My cousin, one of the wild boys who had disrupted my special time with my great-grandfather, bounced between his meds and alcohol until he died at age 55—ostensibly of alcoholism, but that is too pat an answer to the lingering unspoken questions.

I missed my cousin’s funeral, but worse yet, I missed his life.

Sean, too, must have needed his pills. I wonder if someone was monitoring his usage. Perhaps a doctor out there feels guilt. And many others. I feel guilt.

Guilt that my mother believed she had to email instead of call me scratches me with its ragged claws. My mind feels crowded, and my thoughts persistent-perhaps obsessive. I Google my relatives, the murdered and the murderer. The only image for an article about the need for a psychiatric evaluation for Sean is a polished wood gavel, a symbol of the justice system. That the origins of the word gavel can be found in the Old English tribute is bitter irony.

The ache in my chest isn’t only for Kylie and Sean and Susan and River and their immediate loved ones, but for my long-dead great-grandfather.

I want to share my great-grandfather’s sweetness with the young people.

But I am far away.

Too far to attend the funeral of a young woman I never met. Although my thoughts cluster like flowers in a bouquet-some small and ordered and others spiky and overwhelming-I have little to offer in the face of these events. Like the flower petals known as sweets thrown by Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, upon Ophelia’s grave, these thoughts are my only offerings.

At Kylie’s funeral, with every seat filled in the small-town church sanctuary, the rest of the large crowd sat in the gymnasium and watched the proceedings on the screen. My parents were there among them. What they chose to tell me was that they heard his grandmother and great aunts murmur what a sweet boy Sean had always been. The rumor was that Susan had whispered to the 911 operator while Sean sat calmly in the living room, holding his knife. She wanted it known that Sean was wonderful. Maybe he had a bad dream.

But other people hint that there was an assault. More than an assault. Sean raped Kylie before he killed her. My thoughts close upon themselves.

Three weeks after Sean is charged as an adult with murder, sexual assault, and assault with intent to murder, Susan passes away. The coroner documents the cause of death as cancer, but we all know better. My family is left with its collective grief and guilt. What remains with me are the memories I lived and those I inherit.  

            • Names of the assailant and the victims have been changed.

Luanne Castle’s chapbook Kin Types was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award.  Her first collection of poetry, Doll God, was winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Poetry. Her Pushcart and Best of the Net-nominated writing has appeared in Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Saranac Review, and other journals.