After two decades, the conversation that changed EVERYTHING

My grandparents on their wedding day. 21 years later, I learned about a conversation that changed everything – everything – I thought about what happened on March 8, 1986. Over two decades after that harrowing event, knowing about that conversation has made all the difference.

I’ve written about this March 8 day before, in 2007 in a post “Why International Women’s Day is Hard.”

The kernel of the story is hard: Early that morning, my grandmother woke up. Fell. Pain. Broken hip. (this, some three months after falling and breaking her hip. The first time.) What we know comes from grandpa’s phone call. She fell. Broke her hip. She’s gone and by the time you get here, I’ll be gone, too. Gunshot wounds. Police tape. News stories, and shock.

The new revelation came to me a few months after I wrote the above blog post. I re-read it again, and thought, My perspective on this has completely changed. (If you want to, go read it. I’ll wait.)

Caution Tape

What has not changed:

He came from gun people. In the previous post, I mentioned this photo of him, with his shooting trophy. Here it is.

Grandpa with his rifle and the trophy he just won.

I also mentioned photos of the teenage boys with rifles and their deer. Here is that photo.

Teenage brothers, with their rifles, stand next to the deer that they shot. Sometime in the 1940s.

For good measure, here are some early family photo Christmas cards. In the family of four photo, I think that gun held by my uncle (boy on the right) is the one that Dad described in the interview I held with him right after I wrote the previous March 8 Events Day post. 

Christmas card. I think that my uncle (the boy on the right) is holding the Winchester 22 rifle that my father talked about in his March 2007 oral history interview. When I went to see him in March 2007, we looked through a scrapbook that his Mom kept for him and his childhood events. It included some National Rifle Association Junior Diplomas for marksmanship. Dad described the gun, and its origin—it was Grandma’s gun, and it dates from the time before she came west and met and married my Grandpa.

Dad: We had firearms instruction at a very early age—well, I can recall standing up between my father’s knees, and firing a gun. And, we had a little Winchester 22 that, strangely enough, used to be my mother’s. It had a cut off stock, and it was something that boys could use easily. As a matter of fact, I still have that weapon—

Susan: oh really!

Dad: It’s a single shot 22, and it’s got about an 18 to 20 inch barrel—single shot, and it has a cut off stock. [he gestures with his hands, about 2 feet apart] That’s the length of the barrel—about like that. And the stock is about this much more on the end of it. And it was cut off to be shorter, for people of shorter stature.

The young boys, on a Christmas card Susan: now the stock—that’s the handle part?

Dad: That’s the part that you hold, that you grip. We both learned how to shoot with that. And see, it was—it was my mother’s weapon though. She had that when she went to the Savage School [for Physical Education], wherever that was in New York. [Grandma was at the Savage School for Physical Education in New York City from 1920-1921.]

I said that my Grandpa came from gun people. That hasn’t changed. What’s shifted slightly—and this is not that conversation that changed it all—is that Grandma had her own gun from the time before she met Grandpa. Together they in the American Southwest raised a family of gun people.

My grandparents, on their wedding day.

It happened early on Saturday morning. I didn’t hear about it until late Sunday afternoon, when I returned from a weekend away. A phone message—family emergency. Your father and I are in Tucson—call the phone at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no. (I hate phone messages with the words “family emergency.”)

Then phone call, with the specifics of the news. She fell. Broke her hip. Then Grandpa shot her and then shot himself. Before he did, Grandpa called his son, Dad’s brother (the one holding what I think is the Winchester rifle in the Christmas from the West card). Grandpa told him, She fell. broke her hip. She’s gone. By the time you get there, I’ll be gone, too.

Almost immediately upon hearing the news, and for years after, I wondered, Did Grandma have a say in her own death? The 2007 blog post ends with that question. Was this Grandpa’s unilateral decision? Was it? Was it?!

Snaps of my grandparents at the gathering just after my parents were married.

All of us—my parents, my brothers, my aunts, uncles, cousins—have lived with the impact of that early March 8 morning—each in our own way.

My way includes being there when Grandma fell in December, 3 months before. I was in town for a cousin’s wedding. We were nearly out the door. I watched as Grandma put on her last piece of jewelery (or was it her lipstick?). I turned and stepped toward the door. Ready to leave.

Thump—the sound of something hitting the floor, and I turned back in and saw Grandma, crumpled in the corner. I briefly wondered if the hem of the cloak flared out—as I turned to go out the door—did that throw her off balance? Reader, I was there. I was right there. 

“Aspirin,” she said. She gulped it down, dry. And while she rested on the bed, waiting for the ambulance, she said, “Just wait, this will be my fault.” He sat in the other room, at the table. 21 years have passed since that conversation, enough time that I don’t know if she actually said the word “he” in the “this will be my fault” sentence. But the meaning was clear. Her husband will will consider this her fault.

Pain. Aspirin and recrimination. Dad and I went with her to the hospital in the ambulance.

Three months later, when the news of her second fall, and of the terrible finality of what happened after that, I went back to those moments when I was there when she fell. During that visit (the night before she fell), she confided to me a story or two about her husband. He cut down my trees—my beloved trees out back. For (as far as Grandma could tell) no good reason. Grandpa did stuff that hurt and angered my grandmother. And now, an evening later, she fell, and pointing her finger at me, she told me that this—her fall—would be tallied in some marital conflict spreadsheet as being her fault.

Pain. And silence.

There are things I was too in shock to ask about. I did not learn until after their bodies were underground where the wounds were (chest, not head).

I did not ask my dad or uncles, do you think she had a choice in the matter?

(I remember the sad, dull expression on Dad’s face when I arrived in Tucson. When I hugged him, he didn’t hug back, not much. His closed-off-ness did not invite that deepest, toughest question I had.)

I did not ask. For many reasons, I did not ask. I was there, before; I thought I knew. The attempts to talk about it (they lived and died in conflict) and an uncle’s comment (She said that she’d die by his gun). What’s there to ask? But also because an answer that confirmed that this was Grandpa’s unilateral act would be too painful to consider as words and meanings spoken out loud. It’s one thing to wonder, another thing to hear the words spoken out loud. Too. horrible. for. words.

And so, silence.

Grandpa Kitchens Grandma Kitchens

(If this is the first time you’re read this story, it’s shocking. I know, I know. When I tell this story in person, I’ve long been in the habit of bracing the person for the words that will follow. Because it’s shocking.)

I’ve lived with these events for over a quarter century now, over half my lifetime. The pain and shock has leeched out of it by the passages of time. Even so, over two decades later, I have a different way of looking at it.

In the summer of 2007, J, my Tucson-based cousin visited my parents. I went to the homestead, to see her, to see them.

J told me of conversations she had with our uncle. He told her some about the days between the two falls, early in the year of 1986. Grandma was recovering from the fall and the surgery. She was depressed by the pain and effort of recovery. When Uncle visited Grandma, she lamented the state she was in. How hard this all was.

She said something to this effect:

“This is too much. I don’t know if I can take it. Would you get your gun and shoot me and end it all?”

He replied something like this: “Mom, I can’t do that.”

My cousin J told me this.

Grandma asked. She asked. The question I’ve had, the one I concluded the previous blog post with—“Because the day holds a question I will never know the answer to—was my grandmother’s death of her own choosing?” That question now had an answer. Yes.

Talking with my cousin, 21 years after that day, I felt a deep shifting inside. It was like a late late aftershock to a major earthquake—but a reverse earthquake. Instead of two faults rubbing against each other and rupturing the ground, the ground shifting was like the ground zipped back together. The ground moves, but it heals.

I can imagine it. I picture it differently. Early in the morning of March 8, Grandma fell. Again. Again, dammit. This time she knew—knew—what she was in for. This. This sensation. This pain. I know what this is. I’ve broken my hip. I know this, oh no no no no no, I know what this is.

The sensation of physical pain coupled with the knowledge she’d gained over the last 3 months recovery. I know what the immediate future holds. Pain, immobility, recovery, travail.

So—this time, she asked. Lying on the floor in the hallway. After her husband came over to investigate the dawn disturbance. She asks him the question that she’d previously asked her son. “Oh Kit, I can’t take it any more.”

She makes the request, the awful request.

The cliche, overused, but utterly true: Shoot me and put me out of my misery. Only it’s not just misery for one, for her lying there on the floor, with a second broken hip.  There is the choice for how to respond, and what will happen to him after that.

He—faced with this crisis. The question. The request.

If I agree to her request, I will be a murderer, even though she asked me to do this. Even though this is her wish. If I say yes and go through with it, this must the end for me, too.

A total realignment, that. In my mind. 20 years’ interpretation of a harrowing event: Gone. Changed. The way I saw it all those years was not right.

This new way of seeing the events brings relief. Compassion. Compassion for Grandpa, whom I’ve reviled in my mind. (It took 21 years for me to even look at it from his perspective at all. But I was still in the Before stage.) Yes, the conflict of their marriage is still there. But it accounts for the changes in my Grandma after that moment I witnessed, during a recovery that was hard—so hard to face, and too hard for her to go through a second time.

All this, thanks to my cousin J, who had a conversation with our uncle, who told of a conversation he had with his mother.

Here is a photo of my grandparents, approximately 10 years before they died.

Denouement: More Reverberations

Afterward: How the word reached all of us. Plus, a recording technology rant.

Move forward a couple of years. It’s November, 2009. All the cousins, that is, all Grandma and Grandpa’s grandchildren were gathered in one place. It was the after-party right after my Dad’s memorial. I sat on the couch and talked with my cousin K. I told her about what I’d learned about Grandma and Grandpa. That  conversation, the one that changed everything. I told K. It was news. Her expression changed—this newness sank in. Oh my. I don’t know if she had that same 2-decades-long unanswered question the same as mine— did Grandma have a say in her death?—but word of this “Please Shoot Me” “I can’t do that, Mom” conversation worked an instant and visible effect. Cousin K’s mouth dropped open. The muscles in her face shifted. Relaxed. Her mouth dropped open.

My response to this instant re-orientation? We don’t all know. Yet. And we are all here. Now.

That does it. We gotta get Uncle to tell this story. A quick consultation with his daughter (who, yes, knew of that conversation). Can you ask your dad to tell this story to everyone, since we’re all here now?

A little consultation, a little arranging, a big throat-clearing announcement to the room, and Uncle did. All of the grandchildren heard—and the great-grandchildren.

Everyone heard the essential bit about how she was between the falls. What she asked. Her state of mind. So when she fell again, it was a joint decision. Let the news sink in, cousins. If you’d wondered about that, as I had.

(and now, for the recording technology rant.)

And I—I thought to record this moment. No surprise, there. We were collecting stories about my Dad. I’ll record this. Of course. the best thing ever to do. Let me interrupt this story about knowledge of a conversation changes things to indulge in a rant about how device usability and tired people (er, that would be me) are a bad combination.

I was using the Zoom Handy H2, a compact digital recorder that requires two button presses to begin recording.

The Zoom Handy H2, shown in Record Preview mode. Press once for “Recording standby mode”—the red light blinks to tell you standby! standby! Then press again to initiate the recording. The red light goes solid, and numbers start counting up your elapsed recording time.

Well, as my cousin made the announcement that Uncle would be telling this story, I whipped out the recorder, powered it up, and pressed the red record button. Blinky Blinky! Uncle talked. And I looked down at the recorder, as it blinked red “Hi! I’m here, I’m here!” and I mistakenly believed that I was capturing the story.

We all heard Uncle’s words with our own ears, but the recording? Fail.

I discovered this when I went to stop the recording, saw the light go solid, and realized Oh damn! I didn’t capture any of this. (That was the second recording fail that day. Same thing. Press record button once, and talk. Oops.)

Now, dear reader, was I tired? Yes. (I worked hard to produce the memorial program.) Was I confused because I have multiple recorders, some which work 1-press-to-record and others, like this, that required 2 button presses? Yes, again.

The owners of recorders that require only 1-button-press-to-record get more successful recordings, because the equipment designers took away one possible user-confusion-error. You know Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will. If you take away that possibility for something to go wrong, you increase the chances for things to work right.

From that time on, I have I have insisted that if at all possible, work with a recorder or software that has 1-touch recording. You don’t want to be victim to equipment design usability confusion when you are recording the story of the conversation that changed everything—everything! It’s far too easy in the distraction of the moment, to think you’re doing everything right, and miss the recording because the device wants to you be a little more fiddly than you’d reasonably expect to be.

It’s not just me and my two bouts of brain fade immediately following my father’s memorial. When Zoom re-designed and introduced the upgraded version of the H2—the Zoom H2n Handy,* what did it have? 1-touch recording! When Zoom introduced the Zoom H1 Handy,* what did it have? 1-touch recording. That’s why I was so stoked about it when it was announced, and when I got my own unit, I posted the whole unboxing magilla. Because it’s important that the equipment helps you to actually, you know, get the story.

And in this case, the story about the conversation, the one that changed 20 years-long understanding of my grandparents’ death, was not recorded due to a combination of user mental state and usability design.

The audio engineer in me consoles herself that the knowledge that all the grandchildren were present when Uncle R told us the background of his conversation with his mother between the two falls. Everyone who needed to hear this story heard it.

Here endeth the equipment usability rant. Thanks be to Murphy.

(*Yep. Affiliate links.)


Are there lessons to draw from this? Yes. I’ve mentioned the recording equipment one. I feel torn about totting out a list of “here are things you can learn from this”—lessons about pressing against internal barriers. Barriers where you keep silence, you do not ask questions, or examine your own assumptions. Though I understand the limitations I was operating under, and though at least one person in my family held the the knowledge about that conversation all this time, I wouldn’t ask my younger self to push past all my assumptions (and reasonable conclusions) about these events. I wouldn’t nudge my younger self to ask my uncle for more details. This stuff happens. Essential knowledge is not shared for whatever mysterious reasons. It took over two decades, but eventually that essential kernel was shared. I’m tremendously relieved to have heard it, but I am not going to try to fit it into a pat lessons-learned format.

I do have one small suggestion for what to do in an interview, when you’re talking to someone who recounts a shocking and horrific event. Ask, “How has your understanding of that event changed with time?” or “Do you see it differently at this point in your life than you did at the time?”

Finally, I have a question for you (please share in the comments).

Have you experienced a dramatic change in the way you understand an an event in your family?

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 08, 2013 in • AudioAudio: HardwareInterviewingPersonalPersonal History
5 CommentsPermalink

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Wow, that’s a very sad story. How lucky for you that your cousin had had that conversation.

You asked about our experiences with understanding dramatic events. Mine happened on my grandmother’s death bed. While on morphine, she told me many stories about her life. One thing she shared was how her ‘cousin’ was in reality her half-sister. My great-grandmother had been raped by her stepfather, with the pregnancy as the result.

It took me a while to connect the dots: my grandmother was born just 3 months after the marriage of my great-grandparents. Could my grandmother have been the result of this abuse as well? Suddenly, everything fell into place: why my grandmother had been so unlike her younger siblings, why she had been raised with so little love, why she could not show love to her children.

I looked for records about this stepfather and found that he had been convicted for raping another of his stepdaughters a full 15 years before he raped my great-grandmother. He went to jail for a couple of years. I admire this girl so much, for standing up for herself and testifying against her stepfather, even though her own mother did not kick him out. All in all, I’ve found that three of his stepdaughters had illegitimate children, all with him as the informant on the birth certificate. My grandmother had had two more illegitimate children before the half-sister I knew about, for a total of four children that I suspect are his. The first two died in infancy. It’s hard to fathom how he was able to get away with it for so long. But towards the end of his life, he was living as a vagabond so I think my g-g-grandmother finally kicked him out. Or, more cynically, maybe his stepdaughters got too old for him…

[BTW, I post this anonymously as my grandmother’s siblings are still alive and do not know this story as they do not want to be reminded of their childhoods. ]

Xaph  on 03/08  at  11:42 AM

Xaph, thank you for sharing. What a horrific burden for your g-grandmother, grandmother and her half sister/cousins to live with. I imagine for your grandmother, the release in disclosing her secret was a good and liberating act. To (finally?) speak the truth, to be listened to at the end of life, especially when her life’s beginnings were so awful.

Here’s to her strength and courage to persevere and get through life as best she could when so much was stacked against her. (Am drinking coffee at the moment, but I lift the mug in a toast to her memory.)

Morphine as an end-of-life pain reliever: hm! I remember the discussion with my dad’s hospice staff about the role of morphine (to take away the pain, to ease one’s last days). I’ve thought of pain as physical pain; haven’t considered the way that morphine also acts as a psychic-pain-reliever which enables the final unburdening of deep and painful experiences. Thanks to your description, I’ve got an expanded and more nuanced definition of “pain-relief.” I’m glad it was there to ease the conversation, and, for your grandmother, to help give her a good death.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 03/08  at  12:07 PM

It really felt like the morphine took away grandma’s emotional pain as well as her physical pain. She was not an easy person to live with. This final conversation gave me a lot more perspective on why she was the way she was and allowed me to give a eulogy that was respectful both to her and all the people she had hurt in her life.

Xaph  on 03/08  at  01:15 PM

Thank you so much for sharing this, Susan.  I have nothing so remarkable, but perhaps my little story might be useful…
My mother was a very short very neurotic rageholic to me (middle child, quite tall) for over 12 years - she’d rant screaming literally right into my face in complete ugly sentences about how awful a person I was in every possible way, for over half an hour at a time (my siblings disappeared out the door thinking I probably must have done something wrong - nope). By the time I finished university I still was painfully shy, with virtually no self-esteem… a walking-would-be victim. Emotional abuse is very very nasty - digs holes in one’s psyche.  Years of therapy helped me cope with “that story” to the point that I am quite confident and happy in my older age.  But - most people in the family knew her later on as an energetic sociable intense person - and they liked her a great deal.  When I have shared my early experiences with my cousins and my two siblings, it has been very confusing for them - although several have said it makes sense to them now how she did so little with me or for me in comparison with my other two siblings.  I have talked with my kids about how important it was for me to avoid any version of any abuse… no calling anyone names, no ugly talk, no physical abuse, no shoving/pushing etc. i.e., you can be annoyed or angry without hurting people.  It was hard, but I was absolutely determined to break that abuse cycle (her father was similarly verbally judgmental, critical, nasty but also very physically abusive, hitting/throwing kids in anger).  My kids grew up knowing that physical anger and verbal anger are the same - no different. No secrets in our family about why I tried so hard to be clear, firm, fair. Success! Whew. This was so important to me.  They’re great loving parents with their kids, and I get a kick about hearing a phrase of mine out of their mouths sometimes - “sarcasm is humour with razor blades”  e.g.  Thanks for letting me share on your post.  Big courage on your part to get this out.

Celia Lewis  on 03/10  at  06:17 PM

Celia, I’m glad you felt welcome here to talk about something that’s been a deep part of your psyche from growing up years. I sometimes say that the process of getting people to tell stories ranges from finding out “what happened” to finding out “what the hell happened.”

Not only do we find out, and learn from knowing what happened to someone else, but it makes an internal change in how we view ourselves and the world. In your case, it’s not a different understanding of what happened (um, well, then again, I imagine that therapy helped to change your perspective from “what’s wrong with me?” to “it was something inside of her that caused her to be that way toward me” —a serious change of understanding!) but also a positive boundary, akin to Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad Dum, confronting that destructive behavior and declaring, “You shall not pass!”

Susan A. Kitchens  on 03/11  at  02:47 PM

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