Sunday, July 23, 2017


      In 1976 Vonnie returned to Massachusetts, as she did every summer, and rented a small house in Quincy.  Michael, now eleven, had been living with his paternal grandparents since Uncle Ted and Joyce divorced in 1975.  His mother spent as much time with him as possible, meanwhile supporting herself with a trade she had picked up in San Francisco ‑‑ bartending.       
     In mid‑July Vonnie called me late one night, sounding desperate.  She said she had had insomnia for weeks and was exhausted.  "I just can't sleep, Mummy.  It's never been this bad before."  My poor baby.  I knew what it was to spend too many hours staring at an empty ceiling.  I gave her the name and telephone number of my sleeping‑pill doctor and a lot of sympathy.  
     That was all I did.  In hindsight, I asked myself why I didn't go to her and beg her to accept the help we both knew she needed.  Alcohol had disabled Vonnie as surely as the accident had disabled Kathie.  Why didn't I hurry to her side the night her voice reached that desperate pitch, put my arms around her, and promise her we'd beat the demons together?
    Hindsight, like Fate, is irreversible; it only exists to torment you.  The way to deal with hindsight is to accept what can't be changed and forgive yourself for your sins of omission.  But it takes time.  And a lot of staring at empty ceilings. 
July 25, 1976
     I was in the middle of a group tennis lesson at the Cohasset Tennis and Squash Club when I saw Ed and Ted standing at the  window overlooking the courts.  I smiled and waved, pleased to see them but wondering why they were there.  Then I saw they were beckoning me.
      I don't remember whether it was Ed or Ted who told me Vonnie was dead.  Dead?  That was impossible.  How could a mother have been volleying tennis balls without the slightest foreboding  that her daughter . . . dead?    
     Ed said he and Ted were going to South Shore Hospital to identify the body.  "We'll drop you off at Weymouthport on the  way," he said, putting his arm around my shoulders.
     "No, Edward!"  I understood that he wanted to spare me, but  I didn't want to be spared.  "I want to come with you."  I had to be a part of this ritual, no matter how terrible it might be.
     Ed and Ted went into the small, antiseptic hospital room  first.  I lost courage and hung back.  Ed came out a few minutes  later, his face a mask of stoicism.  Ted was gone longer.  When he returned, red‑eyed, he said, "It's okay, Mom.  She looks as if  she had just fallen asleep."
     I approached my lifeless child, her blue, blue eyes closed  forever, her irrepressible spirit stilled.  I bent to kiss her  and whisper in her ear, "I'm sorry, darling, I'm so sorry."  The  nurse by my side wept with me.
     As I left the room, I saw Vonnie's friend Alex running  down the corridor.  "I just heard about the accident!  Is she all right?"
     I told him her car had hit a curbing and turned over.  "They  say she was killed instantly,"  I said, repeating the only words of consolation I could think of.
     Alex swayed and slumped against the wall.  "She'd been  drinking," he moaned.  "She wouldn't let me drive her home.  We'd  had a fight."
     I held out my arms.  "Everyone has fights," I said.
     "But I should have known!  Even the way she crossed the street without looking, as if she didn't care what happened  to her.  I ran after her, yelling that she was crazy, she almost  got hit.  But she still wouldn't let me drive her home."
     "It wasn't your fault.  Accidents happen."  We wept together.  "They just happen."
     The next day a harrowing controversy arose concerning whether Tim should be contacted by ship‑ to‑shore radio.  Ed and  Ted were of the same mind:  news of the tragedy would present Tim  with a heartbreaking dilemma.  "It's not just Tim, Mom," Ted  said.  "He has the entire crew to think about, and the thousands  of dollars they'll lose by turning around.  He'll feel guilty  about that if he comes in, and guilty about missing Vonnie's  funeral if he doesn't.  Let's wait till he gets back, instead of  putting him on the spot."
     Kathie wasn't so sure.  She advised me to seek counsel from  the Unitarian minister who would be officiating over the service.  Reverend Atkinson's gently‑phrased opinion:  "Tim has a right to  know what has happened.  Tell him and let him make the choice."
     While Tim was on his way into port, unhesitatingly supported in his decision by the crew, the family was faced with another quandary.  Ed declared that he would not attend the funeral service.  None of us could persuade him to change his mind. 
     "I'm not going," he insisted, unmoved by our entreaties that we should be together.
     When Tim arrived to be received with tears and embraces, we told him about his father's adamant stand.  "I'll talk to him,"  Tim said.  Taking his father aside, he said he understood how painful the funeral would be, "but Dad, I need you to be there.  We all need you now more than we ever have in our lives."
      His father answered falteringly, "But I'm afraid I'll cry."
     "That's all right, Dad, we'll cry together and comfort each other.  Do you think I want to picture you at home alone instead of beside me at a time like this?  It's okay to cry, Dad."
     The church pews were filled, those in the rear occupied by friends from Vonnie's other world, friends who hung out at the cafes on Quincy Avenue where she bartended and cracked jokes and  played pool.  We didn't know them, but they knew and loved our daughter, as their frequent outbreaks of sobbing attested. 
     During my consultation with Reverend Atkinson, he had asked what Vonnie was like.  I told him she adored her eleven‑year‑old son Michael and her family ‑‑ her brothers, her sister, her parents.   Everyone loved her for her exuberance, buoyancy, and  above all her sense of humor.  She was a clown who loved to make people laugh.  Her favorite attention‑getter was to contort her pretty face into a funny one, with one eye turned inward.       

    When the pastor included these observations in his eulogy, a  fresh outbreak of sobs came from the back of the church.  He  ended the service with a poem of Mother's about her children  departing when they were grown.  Reverend Atkinson altered the  theme slightly by changing "children" to "daughter."

         Breaking upon the shores, the bright waves leap                          
         And play until the ebb tide backward wells,
         Leaving the lonesome sands in silence deep,
         Save for the captured music of the shells.
         So, even so, our daughter came to us,
         And blithely played till, turning to depart,
         She left upon the sands of memory
         Her vanished laughter whispering in our hearts.

                                          Ebb Tide
                                     ‑Ernestine Cobern Beyer‑
     Vonnie had one trait I was unaware of:  extreme reticence about a subject she found too painful to discuss.  None of her other‑life friends had any idea, until they attended the funeral, that her beloved sister Kathie was in a wheelchair.  

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