Putting Together the Pieces of Her Grandmother’s Mysterious Death

When she was twelve years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material— and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.

“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next forty-eight hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.

***

In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?

That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.

As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.

I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.

Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.

What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?

I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.

A few years ago, when I was working my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.

Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?

Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.

The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.

When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?

I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.

You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.

What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.

What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.

What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?

I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.

But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the 70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?

I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.

What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/05/19/putting-together-the-pieces-of-her-grandmothers-mysterious-death/

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