Five generations

The Woman Who Died More Than Once

If my father heard me tell you that his mother died twice, he’d rock back on his heels, dip his chin so the tip of his cotton swab beard glanced off his sternum, and declare that she died all of three times. He would not elaborate. As you can imagine, these stories are not pleasant to recall; he rarely brings his mother up in conversation. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing her name.

Our differing sums can be attributed to absence. I forget about the first time my grandmother died because it happened before I was born. Unfortunately, all of this means you must rely on me to tell you stories of which I only hold shards. I will do my best.

In 1951 my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were sitting or playing or napping in a house across town from the courtroom in which my grandparents slouched. A stoic judge restated the charges of The State of Michigan v. James and Romine, which I imagine includes public nuisance and several counts of child neglect. The case ended with the word guilty and three swift knocks of a gavel. Later in the week, a social worker came to the house, gathered the three children’s belongings, and drove them to three different houses full of strangers, foster families. And on the third or fourth night when my dad was lonely and confused and crying, his foster mother peeked into the room and told him that she was all he had, his mother would not be back. That was her first death.

The other deaths begin with phone calls placed to my father from strangers claiming to be relatives. The first one happened in 1983 and went something like this:

“This is your niece. My name is Karen*.”

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“I thought you should know your mother has cancer. They caught it late. Things aren’t looking too good.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I do not count myself among them. Goodbye.” Dad hung up believing that was that.

The second phone call was less abrupt. It happened in the summer of 1989.

“This is your Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting.

“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Loretta.”

“Yes, well, this is her. Your mother is sick and she’s asking for you. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“You must be mistaken. My mother died years ago.”

“No. She’s had cancer before, a couple of times in fact. But she never let it kill her until now. Will you come?”

“I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake because my mother has never once wanted to see me.”

“There’s nothing I can do to change that, Edmond. But I’m telling you now that your mother is dying and she wants to see you.”

Dad didn’t go.

Two years ago, I connected with Karen’s daughter on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at the wake in 1989. He never told us he’d gone.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. But even if I hadn’t been a self-absorbed teenager I still would not have known of his loss. He kept his family secrets. I resented his attitude then; I always felt like he was withholding himself. Now I understand that it was protection. It was my father’s determination to leave his past behind, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know her name was Mary Louise Romine. She was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She died on November 18, 1989 near Otisville, Michigan. I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress.

She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.

*names of living people are changed

barn through gate


My daughter holds the knife exactly as I taught her—arms straight out, left hand on the grip, right hand on the scabbard. She treads mindfully, keeping the sharp edge of the knife pointing away from the unicorn on her t-shirt. Our footfalls are barely audible because of the farm’s loose soil, and because I’d just told Letty to slow down. Her cadence, her concentration push a fast-forward button in my mind. Her body elongates. The knife blooms into a bouquet of calla lilies, her clothes bleach and stretch into a modest white dress.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I ask. “You don’t have to.”

The collie catches up after sniffing for squirrels along the low slats of the barn and stables. She huffs, kicks up dirt, yips. High-pitched. It’s all playful. She thinks we’re headed to a backfield to play frisbee.

“I can do it. I want to do it.” I check Letty’s face—no fear—but still I’m doubtful. She’d cartwheel through hell itself all day to show up her older brothers, but I’d tuck her in on the closet floor that night. The boys have been killing since they were 8, since the day I saw Porter take a hoe to a garter snake like he was sitting in church. Just like that. A white flutter had followed—the chickens disturbed by his victory howl.

The henhouse is quiet now. I open the latch and let Letty in, latch her in again. As I fill the pot with water and light the fire underneath I hear her inside; her voice is a bee buzzing: “…it’s an honor to be Sunday dinner…you’ve had a good life.” She walks out the shack carrying an inverted hen by the legs. “Easy,” she beams, white kernels of corn.

The double noose hangs from a support beam. It’s too high for her, so I move an egg crate closer. “Legs in the loops while she’s still calm.”

I picture what she’s about to do: the quick sideways slash, the spatter of blood on her jeans, the immersion of the carcass, white feathers floating in the boil. My stomach burbles. Letty’s still messing with the rope.

“Where’d that dog get at? Be right back. Just dip her in the water or plucking will be near impossible.”

“I know, Dad.”

I stop yelling the dog’s name when I get behind the silo.

Aldwych station wikicommons

The Railing

Before the second siren blared, my mother was chastising strangers. She cocked her cane above her small frame at any potential offense. She spat an unusually terse “Rude!” at a soldier who splashed as he ran through puddles. A few minutes later, a woman cut in front of us and caused Mum to stumble. “Cow!” Mum shook her fists. “There’ll be seats for all when we bloody get there. No use knocking old women down.”

Mum believed we were on our way to see a motion picture. I used to correct these confusions of hers until I realized it was like waking a sick child from a pleasant dream. That and I envied her ability to fly off.

My mother’s rancor pulled strangers’ gazes up from the dappled sidewalk and I found myself seeing her through their eyes: the caterwauling, the labored hop-step, the way her black shawl hung below her raised arm, she looked and sounded exactly like a crow. The offending woman ignored the row, but a whiskered face peeked above the line of her shoulder and in seconds Mum went from hurling insults to crooning over a stranger’s pet. Her moods had always zigzagged. The woman gave an alarmed glance over her shoulder; it asked for explanation. I gave none. I just stooped to wrap my arm around Mum’s waist. “No time now,” I said stepping in time to the words. “We’re running late.”

And we were. Flora and her family were awaiting our arrival. While stitching collars at work yesterday Flora asked if Mum and I would consider staying with her in Stratford. I refused at first, wondering how she knew we were without, but then I thought of my frail mother sleeping in a thin sweater on the station platform, of our stay in the shelter during the sortie last Friday, and of opening the door to smoldering rubble that had recently been our block. I thought of Mum’s hexagonal armoire—the only thing standing upright in that chaos, oddly untouched. Its glass door glared at us. Just look at what they’ve done, it said.

Three crackling siren blasts gave testimony to the enemy planes overhead. Everyone on the sidewalk quickened their already-fast pace. Within seconds I saw between a butcher shop and a telegraph office the gaping maw of a tube station.

I placed Mum’s cold hand on the railing that halved the somber stairwell and stepped to the other side. I was happy to have a free hand to keep my skirt in place and a break from stooping to help her at first. I kept encouraging her slow progression downward, but impatience simmered as I watched dozens of people maneuver around her. Hundreds more massed behind us. Some boys wearing dirty knickers pushed past, gliding through like common starlings. Mum stopped mid-stride to raise her cane at them.

“No use, Mum, they’ve gone. Will you please walk faster? People are waiting for you.” Every muscle in me fought the urge to flee, to leave her to her own devices.

Mum held her stance, her eyes on the downward tide before her. “Do we know these people, Melina? Did you invite them along?” She was so far away.

I took her hand again, wishing the railing away so I could pick her up. I was willing despite my shoes sticking to the steps. The rain and cement dust had made a viscous glue. “Again. Step down again. Do you fancy seeing the picture or not?”

“Don’t rush me, child. We have plenty of time.”

A strange eruption above shook the earth, sucked the air from my lungs. After a beat the crowd panicked and surged forward; a smell of sweat blossomed. Instinctively I turned sideways, slipped one leg through the railing, and hugged my mother’s shoulders, steeling myself against the thrust of the crowd and anchoring my mother. I saw a woman grab the crucifix at her neck. Someone else cried out. A large man reeled, then fell forward onto a boy. I shut my eyes, but heard the grotesque slaps and cracks that followed like sides of beef hitting a butcher’s block, then I heard only gasping, moaning.

Mum gently pulled away from me at some point. I opened my eyes to see her scrutinizing my face, memorizing it. Her lips were sputtering words of comfort, and I knew at least in that moment she had landed again in front of me.

This story is based loosely on the Bethnal Green Disaster.

Christiana Chamberlain Court Affidavit and transcript

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Reproduced at the National Archives

(writing here is the original researcher’s notes, Doris Wilson Gibbs)

State of Kansas

Sumner County

On this 17th day of December AD 1888 personally appears before me a County Clerk in and for said County of Sumner Christianna Chamberlin aged . . . years who is a respectable person and entitled to Credit. Who being duly sworn deposes and says that she is well acquainted with Emily C. Wilson wife of Thomas Wilson a pensioner on the Pension Rolls at Washington D.C. No. of claim No. 78617 Deposer further deposes and says that she was present on the 17th day of June AD 1843 at Mascedonia, Ontario Co. State of N.Y. and saw Mr. Thomas Wilson and Emily C. Wilson and heard the marriage ceremony performed as they were then and there pronounced man and wife by a Justice of the Peace. She further deposes and says that she has no interest direct of indirect to any Pension Claim to which this affidavit may refer and is not concerned in the prosecution of any such Claim And that her Post Office address is Wellington, Sumner County, Kansas.

Sworn and subscribed to before me this 17th day of December 1888

Wm. Berry Co. Clk.                                                C Chamberlain