The author finds her grandmother Regina’s journal 40 years after her suicide when the author was ten.
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The journal describes Regina's tumultuous life—surviving World War I, being orphaned, and subsequent immigrations to Vienna and the United States. Diana draws strength from her grandmother, which sustains her after receiving her own shattering news. A unique braided narrative with Regina’s journal interwoven with Diana's life—a touching portrait of granddaughter and grandmother.
Grandma Takes Her Life
Chapter One from Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal (2007)
I was ten years old the morning I found my grandmother dead. Our neighborhood in Queens was serene while many residents were out of town celebrating the last three-day weekend of the summer. My mother and father weren’t at home, and my grandfather was visiting his sister Rusza in Paris.
I knocked on Grandma’s bedroom door. She didn’t answer. I cracked the door open and got a whiff of her perfume, Soir de Paris (Evening in Paris). Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the sheer white curtains swaying in front of the open window overlooking the street. The air in her room was crisp, and the night’s dampness clung to the wooden floor. Grandma’s bed, one of two single beds pushed close together, was beside the window.
Grandma lay beneath her soft, checkered Scandinavian wool blanket with fringed edges. She called it the warmest blanket in the world. On her headboard rested a Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair, a hairbrush, a box of Kleenex, and an open bottle of prescription pills.
“Grandma,” I called softly from the doorway, “can I go to Cindy’s?”
She didn’t answer. I glanced at my new watch. It was already ten o’clock in the morning. On most days Grandma was the first one into the maroon and pink-tiled bathroom that all five of us shared. I walked inside to see if her toothbrush was wet. It was still dry from the night before, but her towel, slung sideways on the towel rack was damp. The toilet cover was down, just the way she taught me to leave it. I didn’t remember hearing the sound of running water that morning, a sound often heard within the walls of our older house.
In my fluffy blue slippers, I returned to Grandma’s room and tiptoed around Grandpa’s bed toward Grandma’s side. I gently tapped her shoulder.
“Grandma,” I repeated, “can I please go swimming at Cindy’s? I’ll be back by lunchtime. Promise.” Still no answer. Grandma’s face looked pale and her eyes were loosely shut, as if she were almost ready to get up.
I sensed something was seriously wrong. I tiptoed out of the room, glancing over my shoulder in the hope that she’d wake up and answer me. Under the weight of my footsteps, the wooden floor made cracking sounds. Grandma’s closet door was closed and her makeup was spread out on her vanity. I trembled while scurrying toward my parents’ room at the end of the hallway. They also had two single beds pushed together with one headboard and two pale pink electric blankets sprawled out on each bed. The beds were unmade, and on my father’s bedside table was an empty plate with crumbs left from a sandwich he had eaten the night before. The oblong wooden bedside table had a glass covering it with a display of family photographs beneath. One photo caught my eye. My grandmother was leaning against a tree in our backyard. She had a broad smile and seemed playful, the way I will always remember her.
I looked at the pink dial phone, but was afraid to pick it up. I glanced at the phone book beside it, which had my mother’s horse stable’s phone number inside. My mother was careless about many things, but not her telephone book. She had every number imaginable in that book, and when it became illegible, she splurged on a new one and copied all the numbers over. I dialed the stable. That day she’d be riding in the ring, and not in the woods, so the stable boy would certainly pick up the phone. Frantically, I asked to speak to my mother.
“Mom, I think something’s wrong with Grandma,” I blurted quickly. “She’s not answering when I talk to her.”
“What?” My mother said so loudly I had to hold the phone away from my ear.
“Mom. Come home. I’m scared,” I said, bending my knees up and down as if I had to go to the bathroom, even though I had just been.
“I’m on my way.” My mother hung up before I could take my next breath.
For a few moments I stood staring at the phone, and then picked it up again to call my father at work, but he was out of the store on his coffee break. I needed to talk to someone. I was petrified. I wondered what to do. I was afraid to go back into my grandmother’s room. Should I wait in the living room, or the front lawn, or at Grandma’s side? If she had awakened, she would have called me. Finally, I ran downstairs and then ran right back up again, feeling lost in my own home. I ran into my room and grabbed the Tiny Tears doll off my bed and then dashed back downstairs, slipping in haste down the last two steps.
I waited near the living room window, walking in circles like a cat chasing its tail. I hugged Tiny Tears so tightly that she wet her pants. The water I had poured into the hole in her back to make her tears must have leaked out. I didn’t want to go back upstairs for another diaper. I was too scared.
I finally settled on the bay window near the front door. I sat cuddled up on the ledge as I had so many times before, waiting for my parents to drive in at the end of the day. My nose was glued to the cool glass. This time more than ever, I was anxious for an adult to pull up.
Soon an ambulance siren stirred the ordinarily quiet residential neighborhood, and the vehicle pulled up in front of our house facing the wrong way, against traffic. From the other direction came another set of flashing lights and the siren of a police car. The policeman flung his car door open toward the curb and dashed up to the house. Terror grabbed me amidst all the commotion. Three firemen followed the policeman, and before I knew it, strangers were invading our home. My mother came home from the stable, and my father returned from work in his pink Chevrolet, the one that matched the house.
They parked one behind the other in the driveway.
Uniformed paramedics, their blue short-sleeved shirts rolled up to reveal bulging muscles, made their way up the four stairs to our front door. They passed the Japanese cherry tree that my parents had planted on the front lawn the year I was born. It wasn’t in bloom, and its bare branches echoed the coldness I felt inside. The paramedics brushed by the dying rhododendron bushes on either side of the steps and flung open the screen door. They asked flatly where my grandmother was, charging past me as if I were part of the décor. I felt like a stranger in my own home.
“Just stay right there,” said one, as I started to climb the stairwell to see Grandma.
Standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up, I fiddled with my clammy hands and crossed my legs, afraid to run to the bathroom because I might miss something. What were they doing to my beloved grandmother? Were they lifting her up, trying to get her to walk? My mother came in, kissed my forehead, and then took off after the paramedics. The fragrance of her perfume seemed to linger longer than usual. My father, who tended to become queasy in medical situations, stood outside the house speaking with the ambulance driver, looking ashen and nervous while he paced from the house to the street. He must have been too nervous to light up a cigarette, something he would often do when he was under stress.
My eyes remained fixed on the mirror on the linen closet door at the top of the stairs. They would have to pass it before bringing Grandma down. The year before, I had seen ghosts in that mirror. It was the night I drank Coke at bedtime. I woke up in the middle of the night and on the way to the bathroom, passed by the mirror, where I saw something that spooked me, and so I scooted back to bed. After that night, I always made sure my parents left the hall light on. I never wanted to see those ghosts again.
Soon I spotted two paramedics grasping both ends of the stretcher my grandmother was strapped to. With quick and urgent steps, they transported her down the steep stairs leading to the front door. I wondered what would happen if they slipped and Grandma went flying.
As the stretcher approached the bottom of the stairs where I was still standing, I noticed my grandmother’s stiffness and how her eyes were tightly shut. I inched close to her and whispered, “Grandma,” my last hope of ever hearing her voice. I felt the paramedic’s eyes on mine, as he tossed me a sympathetic glance.
My mother followed behind and gave me a rushed hug.
“You stay home with Daddy,” she said. “That’ll be the best.”
“Will Grandma be okay?” I asked, looking for solace in her dark brown eyes, but finding none.
Soon after my grandmother died, my parents had a barbeque with some friends and family. In the corner of our backyard I saw my mother talking with a couple of her friends. They were whispering, so it must have been important. I stood by the backyard window straining to hear what they were saying. It was then that I heard my mother tell her friends that my grandmother had killed herself by taking too many sleeping pills.
Because I was the only one home with my grandmother the day she died, I felt responsible for her death, but my mother assured me that it wasn’t my fault and my grandmother’s death had nothing to do with anything I had done. I really wanted to believe her.