#1 The Ten Commandments: The Movie

My father dropped dead of a heart attack one sunny afternoon in the summer of 1967. He was only fifty-two. I was nineteen. It was a Wednesday, Flag Day. He wasn’t speaking to me that day because I had registered to leave for summer school in Seattle, and he wanted me home. The funeral was Saturday and I left for school on Sunday, Father’s Day. It was the kind of week that changes everything forever.

The night my father died, Alice, my mother, decided it was the perfect moment to tell me that when her father died, her mother hanged herself in their basement. “We found her,” she said to me as I stood just inside our front door that night.

When it happened, I was a year old so never knew her. There was only one photograph of that grandmother, with a stern downright sour look. So the imagined picture I have of her is dangling from a rope wearing a print dress and sensible shoes. But that night, my mother had more to say standing there by the front door.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why we never lived in a house with a basement?”

“No,” was all I could say.

My brother was two and a half years older when she said we discovered our dangling grandmother, so I have no idea what he saw or remembered. But she said that it was something that she and he had always shared.

My father’s friends had just left our house that night, and after she made her announcement all I could think to do was lock the door. Still hovering there she thought it also the perfect moment to tell me that if I ever left her alone, she would do exactly what her mother did. That didn’t fully sink in. I was pretty numb. So numb it was three years before I cried.

I’ve never known if my mother was lying about her mother. My brother and I never spoke about it. Recently I sent for the death certificate, and there it reads, “death by ligature.”

I put in two wasted months at summer school, summoned home every weekend. Then I did in fact move back home when my brother returned to his school. With his departure, and her resulting loneliness, the suicide threats became daily events. I managed to take a few classes at the local college, and went to work at a big store where I had earned money summers and holidays. Friends were away at school. Life was grim.

One day, it may have been a year later, I was at work at that store. I saw a familiar face, a boy, now a young man, who was a year ahead of me in school therefore out of my realm. He was a moderate friend of my brother’s in sports, which was not a fact in my favor. But this boy was always kind at school or church functions, helping me set up chairs or decorate for events. I was continually setting up for events. I was too naïve to guess whether there was more to it than that. I had had a bit of a crush and my shyness and fear was perceived as aloof. He stood in the sports section of the store smoking a pipe, which made him look older and a bit more handsome. He had I think a niece and nephew with him so seemed even more mature. We chatted for a few minutes, more than we ever had. I felt awkward and went back to work. Besides why would he want to talk with me?

Later I trudged home facing another giddy evening of my mother’s hysterical grief or seclusion in her darkened room. When our telephone rang I was stunned because it was the same young man asking me straight out if I would like to see The Ten Commandments, the only movie playing in town. Now, in all of high school and nearly two years of college I could count only four dates, so I wasn’t used to hearing from a boy, much less knowing how to answer. My shyness had developed into glib sarcasm by the fourth grade. So, instead of chirping, “Would I! I’ll be ready in five minutes,” I replied either, “I’ve read them,” which I hope is accurate, or more likely, “I’ve seen it.”

He must not have appreciated the sophistication of either response because all he said was, “Okay, goodbye.” I never heard from him again.

These many decades later, as I made My Stupendously Stupid List, I was startled that I allowed Alice to hold me hostage for two years. I never reached out to one person for help. It was the sixties, it was our family and well, you just didn’t. But the gentler alarm that sounds now is that I didn’t think to look up the boy’s parents number and call him right back, because no one needed an evening out more than I did, ever. Recently when I saw a listing of that movie, I remembered and wanted to tell him the story at my end of the phone. But then I read his obituary. So this will have to do.

2 Comments on “#1 The Ten Commandments: The Movie”

  1. This is such a fabulous essay! Keep them coming I’m already a fan and also stupendously stupid

  2. Sylvia says:

    Wonderful essays ! The visual and emotional details areaccomplished with only a few descriptive words, as Elizabeth weaves these stories . With humanity and humility, Elizabeth accomplishes the daunting task that we all face: owning our actions! Looking forward to many, many more essays – for in each one of yours, I find much of myself and the stupendously stupid mistakes I’ve made – over and over again. Time to reclaim our lives!

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