June, this year has been rainy and unsettling for me here in the condo. June 2nd, I signed the closing mortgage refinance papers into my name here on my dining room table, and I have dwelled for ten days surrounded by The Three Rivers Arts Festival. Living in the midst of the Arts Festival sometimes feels like being assaulted by a gang of jewelry makers, hot sausage sandwich cooks, and amped-up bass players. Most of my building’s residents leave for their out of town vacations during these ten days. I should, too, but I feel leaving home for a vacation is even more stressful than living with the festival that at least closes promptly at 9:00 p.m. Besides, I’m poet. I’m in favor of public art.
June, I think, is a dangerous month: school lets out for summer vacation which gives everyone either too much free time and/or ruins family and work schedules. Things happen. Garden weeds are at their worst. People move. Marry. Divorce. Babies get left in hot cars to die. Air conditioners give out. We remember all those U.S. World War II boys who died on Normandy’s beaches. And, if some hapless, vacationing American is shopping in Paris, the French clerks still will ignore us if we can’t speak French. June yearly reminds me life is not fair.
June 20, 1959, I was taking a Pre-Session Phonetics class for my Speech minor at what was then called Clarion State Teachers’ College. That evening, in my second floor dorm room I was reading my homework assignment when my Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha knocked on my door. I was amazed and puzzled. Why were they visiting me at that hour all way from Mill Village in Erie County, a two hour drive away? Why were they allowed upstairs to knock on my door? Why weren’t they smiling?
I don’t remember their exact words, but what they quickly told me was that my brother, Joel, who was 17 months younger than I, had died earlier that day. My brother, who only a few months before had surprised me with a larky, two hour visit while I was working in CSTC’s dining hall scraping garbage off lunch plates, would never again kid around with me.
Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha were vague concerning why or how Joel had died. All they would tell me was that Joel had died in Erie behind the store on the west side that our third cousin, Dick, worked. They were there to take me home for Joel’s funeral. I packed my suitcase for a three day stay, because I knew that I would have to come back quickly to Clarion to finish my class.
What did I, an eighteen-year-old college English major, know?
Well after 10:00 p.m. that night I carried my small suitcase into my family’s red wallpapered kitchen so big it even held a stone fireplace. My weeping mother was just starting to remove Joel’s supper from the oven where she had been keeping it warm for him. She scraped his plate into the garbage. Then, she emptied our pale blue everyday teapot down the sink drain. She barely noticed my arrival, except to tell me that Joel’s long time girl friend would be sleeping with me in my room. Uncle Russell went directly to see Dad in the living room.
Except for my five year old brother, Jerry, I doubt there was any sleeping in that house that night. Certainly, Joel’s girlfriend, whom I discovered had just days before accepted a diamond ring from him, never slept. Neither was there any information given about how or why Joel died. What I did find out the next morning, much to my horror, was that Joel in his casket was delivered by the undertaker to our living room, directly beneath my upstairs bedroom, where it remained for the three days before his church funeral. Hundreds of relatives, friends, neighbors, and the curious trooped up our front walk for the viewing, held every day from nine in the morning until nine each night. Laden with casseroles and desserts, others came in through the back door into our kitchen. Nobody knocked.
Meanwhile, Dad took up a position at the head of Joel’s metal casket where he carefully drew everyone to view what he continually explained was “the most natural view of my big bull calf.” Mom pretty much stayed as a greeter in the dining room, except that after everyone left each night she sat crying alone in the living room with the casket until morning. Dad slept in their downstairs bedroom. As usual, I could hear his snoring that filled the entire house.
Somehow after the funeral, I found a ride back to Clarion and was allowed to take the Phonetics class final exam. I’m sure, given that I missed so many classes, that I failed it, though I was given a C for the class. A gift. Clarion had a rule at that time that students were not allowed to stay in the dorms between semesters or between summer sessions, so I reluctantly had to return home the weekend after my final exam. The house was back in order, our home was silent. Joel’s pickup truck had been sold. I suppose to pay for his funeral. However, Dick, our third cousin, who had spent several years in Western Penitentiary for theft, lived across our street. He was sitting on his front porch, so I walked over to find out why or how Joel died.
Because of Dick’s recently deepened black sheep status, he was relieved to be able to talk to anyone who wasn’t connected with the Coroner’s Office about Joel’s death behind his Erie store. Dick told me Joel had arrived jubilant at his store the morning of June 20th. That morning Joel had given Dad the last payment for his truck, and he was there to celebrate because he knew Dick would understand how good it felt to no longer be in debt. Then, to further celebrate his independence from Dad—a loud, rigid fundamentalist, tee totaling Christian—Joel strolled to the local State Store and bought a bottle of vodka. When he returned, he offered a drink to everyone in the store, then according to Dick, Joel chugged the rest of the vodka. Soon, Joel said he felt tired and went out back to lay down for a nap in the back of his very own pickup truck. A few hours later, Dick went out back to check on him and discovered Joel wasn’t breathing. Dick called for an ambulance, but by the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late. The police and coroner were called, and Joel’s death was declared an accident.
However, although Dick identified the body, no one wanted to inform our parents of Joel’s death, especially because of how he died. Finally, very late in the afternoon, the coroner who knew our family drove to Mill Village and told my Uncle Russell who lived just four houses down the street from our home. First, Uncle Russell made the arrangements with the undertaker to pick up Joel’s body. Then, the coroner and Uncle Russell drove up the street to tell Mom and Dad. According to Dick, Uncle Russell talked the Erie newspapers into leaving out Joel’s cause of death.
As far as I know, neither of my parents ever revealed to anyone the real cause of Joel’s death, except to vaguely mention a heart problem, which I suppose is a version of their truth. But, even I, a mere 18-year-old English major, could feel their shame, a shame I did not and still do not share. I also do not share their penchant for fending off the truth with silence.
A few days after Joel’s funeral on my 19th birthday, I had surgery for appendicitis. Early that fall, my Mom’s mother and stepfather were instantly killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver. That Thanksgiving, when I came home from Clarion, Dad told me that the reason Mom was in bed was that two weeks earlier she had suffered a major heart attack and that I was going to have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 21 members of our family who were always invited to our home for that meal. So, I did. I knew there was no further discussion wanted or allowed.
That was then, but I, the eternal English Major, am still reading, considering Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, especially section 6 where he writes:
And now [grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass.
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
Yes, if my family had been able or willing or permitted to share the truths of our grief over Joel’s death, we would have known Joel and ourselves better. Perhaps, we would have known how to love each other better. However, if all that had happened, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a poet/writer, who like Whitman says a few lines later:
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out
of their laps.
And maybe, June 2, 2014, I wouldn’t have had needed to sign those mortgage papers on my black, dining room table here in what now legally has become my condo.