Murky family lore had it that my maternal grandfather killed himself after a tuberculosis diagnosis in the early 1950s. That was it, except for one other morsel concerning a family friend who claimed to have bumped into my grandfather in a West Coast bar in the mid-to-late 1940s. Apparently she spoke his name and he pretended not to know her.
From these sketchy details, I imagined a bitter, perhaps alcoholic drifter with shifty eyes whose life dead-ended in a golden land where so many had sought their fortune. Beyond that, I gave little thought to my grandfather; much less imagined that one day his pathetic leavings would help to explain the pattern underlying my mother’s sad life and why I, too, often struggled to grasp the value of familial love and loyalty.
That was before I stumbled upon a modest trove of family records in my mother’s condo after her death in 2008. I nearly tossed the records, stored in a leather box, which I first mistook for an old, musty book. They could have been just another of my mother’s flea market finds. By the time I found the box, my sister and I had been clearing my mother’s condo of 20 years of impulse shopping, I was ready to chuck everything. Fortunately, I opened the lid first.
Inside were a death certificate, a ring, watch fob, and ephemera including a brief item from The Los Angeles Times employee newsletter about my aunt’s tour of the plant escorted by my grandfather. From this item, I concluded that his elder daughter — my aunt — had tracked him down years after his disappearance. She later sent his effects to my mother, who never showed them to my brother, sister and me.
Piecing together the box’s contents, a more complete picture of my grandfather, a chauffeur named Ernest W.A. Seidemann, emerged: Some time in the 1930s, Seidemann left his wife and two daughters in Atlantic City, N.J., changed his name to Henry Carl Fisher and settled in Southern California. There, he worked in the mailroom of The Los Angeles Times until becoming ill. On Oct. 26, 1954, in a hotel room, he shot himself in the head. He was 58. I was 10 months old.
The box also contained Ernest’s farewell: a terse, typewritten note on old-school newspaper copy paper addressed to a colleague named Jack. “I have been informed that I have T.B.,” the note began. “That means I would have to go to a hospital for a year or two and then maybe not be cured. I couldn’t stand that with my hemroids, (sic). They have been killing me.” He was buried in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, later the resting place of Gorgeous George, Oliver Hardy and one of the Three Stooges.
Not only did Ernest’s wretched end shed light on my family’s affinity for the absurd, it also clarified my own persistent impulses. I could no longer ignore that I hail from a clan of escape artists who favored the unknown to the demands of stability.
I hadn’t run away from Baltimore, where my husband and I reared two beautiful boys, now young adults. Yet I had harbored doubts about my place in this domestic setting, and never felt entirely comfortable with the attendant responsibilities, whether building block towers on the floor, preparing healthy school lunches or finessing that working-mom thing. Some inarticulate force was always pulling me away, telling me this wasn’t where I belonged, even though my mother’s life exemplified the toll of not belonging.
Now I saw how my grandfather’s tragicomic demise foreshadowed my mother’s constant disappearing act. At 16, she made her first getaway, dropping out of school in Atlantic City and leaving home. Via Washington D.C., she found her way to New Brunswick, N.J., where she met my father, a young reporter at The Daily Home News. It didn’t take long for them to marry and make the pilgrimage to the suburbs, two kids in tow and one on the way.
But even then, my mother resisted the role she had signed on for, shrugging off the era’s spic-and-span expectations for running a household. Nor did the banality of suburban life in the 1950s, with its mountains of unfolded laundry and bland prescriptions for motherhood, do much for her morale. She once flew to Miami for two weeks on account of her “nerves” and then refused to come back. I remember my father arguing with her on the phone. Eventually, she returned, tan and more restless than ever.
Evasion became another means of escape. To mask constant discomfort with herself and her predicament, my mother never gave a straight answer to a question. “I’m all right, the world’s wrong,” she’d say repeatedly. Sometimes, though, she’d make a good case for this aphorism. She introduced our subdivision of ranch and split-level homes to an interior design style that she dubbed “Early Halloween.” With a penchant for transforming found objects into objets d’art, such as massive bouquets of dried flowers spray-painted gold and rustic mobiles made of shriveled orange peels, my mother was an early adapter whose DIY projects prefigured shabby chic and Martha Stewart.
My mother savored beauty and fun and the give and take of flea markets, grocery stores and car dealerships. She was also a card-carrying member of the Hemlock Society, and she often took to her bed for days. For me and my siblings, these mood swings were by turn exhilarating and devastating. By the time we moved to Princeton and I was in high school, my mother’s exit strategy had become a continuous cocktail of (mostly) prescription drugs and alcohol.
She also went missing from time to time. While half-heartedly maintaining the appearance of a middle-class matron by day, my mother transformed into a gangster groupie by night, frequenting a Trenton bar known as Vietnam and partying with drug dealers and their associates. On the night of my high school graduation, she tried an even more daring escape by downing a bottle of pills. She had second thoughts and one of those associates rushed her to the hospital.
When I was grown and had my own kids, my mother bolted again. This time, she blamed her exit on the IRS, to which she owed back taxes on alimony. Her rationale had been that her ex-husband had already paid taxes on that money, so why should she? She had a point, albeit a delusional one.
For reasons that owed nothing to integrity, she turned herself in and sold the family home to pay her debt. Although well under 65, she bought a condo in a Pembroke Pines, FL, retirement village where at the time a statue of Red Buttons stood vigilant at the entrance. There, she lived in a self-medicated haze of declining mental health, befriending strangers she met at gem shows and flea markets and even those encountered after dialing a wrong number.
My mother thwarted all efforts to help her, ultimately erecting an impenetrable barrier that no one could ever scale. In her willful isolation, I had learned from the box of family records, she was not unlike her father.
Suffering from T.B., not to mention those hemorrhoids, Ernest refused to seek medical care or the assistance of those closest to him. “It is a rather unpleasant pill to realize that you might have been able to help a friend, but were thwarted by his pride and secrecy from doing so,” a colleague of Ernest’s wrote in a condolence note addressed to my aunt that was also preserved in the box.
Fifty-four years after Ernest killed himself, I finally knew enough to question if he ever knew that I existed — or even cared. And then I contemplated what it meant for my mother to have to live knowing that he had run away, and that she — and her firstborn — meant nothing to him.
I have stayed with my own nuclear family, defying the ancestral tendency to hit and run. But I often wonder why I didn’t make good on hereditary expectations and screw up or run away at many points in my life. Instead of bolting, like my grandfather and my mother, I’ve learned to accept help with personal difficulties. And unlike them, as well, I am not a risk taker who prefers to plunge into the wilderness rather than cope with the familiar and frequent challenges of domesticity.
But my ability to break the mold can’t just be explained by presence of mind, or a beautiful family — something my mother had as well. The answer may lie in an instinctual preference for fight rather than flight. Having made an enormous emotional investment in my family, I would hate to relinquish what I know is hard-earned and mine. Still, that explanation barely begins to explain why I, too, didn’t head for the hills. Perhaps another dusty old box yet to be found holds more clues to that nagging puzzle.
Stephanie Shapiro wrote feature stories for The Baltimore Sun from 1985 until 2008. Currently, she’s a senior writer at the Johns Hopkins Health System and an affiliate instructor at Loyola University Maryland.