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This Portion of my Memoir Is Dedicated to my Sister Alexandra

It was a spectacular suicide in 1906, newsworthy, uncalled for, selfish, wrong, vengeful, wanton, and brutish. It still resonates. I struggle with it.

I imagine her last morning alive: after breakfast she says good-bye to her husband distractedly as he leaves for work; she walks to the bedroom telling herself that her two daughters are safe and sound at school; she gets the gun out; she feels anguish; she reminds herself that she has made a decision to get rid of the pain; slowly and quietly she allows the darkness to own her, and she shoots herself in the chest before noon. Servants frantically rush to alert her husband and the doctor. The ending is always the same: the doctor can't save her.

Minerva Primm McNair's suicide is still mentioned in historic and architectural journals, although rarely. Her husband, Lilburn Gazzam McNair, a grandson of Missouri's first governor, was a developer who built the first suburban homes west of St. Louis.

‘Despondent over the death of her father,’ a contemporary source claimed. Not so, according to my mother, her niece and namesake. Through my mother I am her namesake also. Minerva had pleaded with her older brother Alex to help her divorce Lilburn and finance a move to New York where she could easily have found a new rich husband.

In her early forties, she was the Midwestern women's golf champion; she set the styles for dress and entertainment in St. Louis; and it was said of her that a hush came over any social gathering when she entered a room, so stunningly beautiful and charismatic was she.

‘I would rather see you dead than divorced,’ was her brother's answer.

Many years later, when my mother and father were unhappy with each other, Alex insisted that they divorce. One evening my father brought home Charlotte, whose husband, Dick, my father's friend and co-worker, had kicked her out of their home because she and my father were fooling around. My father and Dick sometimes drank together after work and picked up women in bars. In Dick's mind, his fooling around with strangers didn't justify his wife's disloyalty.

I presume that my mother was shocked and angry about Charlotte's intrusion, but that she played out the events of the evening by ear, realizing that the situation was already beyond her control and that there was nothing left to save in her marriage.

(Mother had recently met an older, married Russian emigré count during intermission at a Friday afternoon performance of the St. Louis Symphony. The Friday symphonies were a weekly event that attracted the most cultivated citizens of St. Louis, many of whom were interested in meeting artistic people like themselves. Count Niki was an engineer, cellist and painter, in that order. A practicing Roman Catholic, Mother resisted submitting to an adulterous love affair with him despite his warning that his potency was waning. “Before it’s too late,” he continually pleaded with her. Their intimate friendship, based on their shared elitist cultural and social ideals, lasted many years.)

Perhaps all three adults, my mother, my father, and Charlotte felt so trapped and miserable that they contemplated and perhaps very briefly tried to form a menage a trois.

Charlotte, blonde and fragile, wore a soft rose-lavender sweater that became her. She pushed the sleeves up beyond her elbows as she gave my sisters and me a bath. The three of us sat back to front, sorted by size and age, in the same manner that my Irish grandmother had bathed us in her house a year earlier when Mother had been in the hospital. But where Gramma Wharton had used only two inches of luke-warm water in her tub, Charlotte generously filled our tub nearly to the top with warm water and she used lots of soap. Even as a three-year-old I could feel Charlotte's sensuality. I didn't like her. To this day I dislike the rose-lavender color that I remember her sweater to have been.

My sister Alexandra had a peculiar habit of wearing a small beanie hat night and day. Charlotte grabbed the beanie off of Alexandra's head and wouldn't give it back to her. “If you wear this hat you will go bald and lose all of your hair,” she claimed, “like baseball players.”

Fearful that she might go bald, Alexandra crumbled and allowed Charlotte to take away her beanie. It was just the first of many losses that followed Charlotte’s arrival in our father’s life.

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After my father died in 1984, an archivist sorted through all of his papers looking for every document and letter that related to his involvement with the publication of The Anvil, a 1930’s literary review founded by Jack Conroy as a platform for the voices of worker-writers.

In the stack of papers rejected by the archivist I found a small hand-written note from Gramma Wharton to my father. I burst into tears as soon as I read it and sobbed convulsively for five minutes. I still start to sob whenever I think of Gramma’s note, and if I am at home alone I cry as much as I want to.

Gramma’s note to her son:

“Why have you left your family for that wicked woman? She is a sinful hussy. I love those little girls, and now I will never see them again because of you. I hope that the government drafts you and you die in the war.”

Our father wasn’t drafted and never fought in any war. He outlived almost all of his friends, as well as five doctors who warned him that he would die within two weeks from alcohol consumption, and four of his five women.

Charlotte, his third woman, died young, not yet 40 years old, in bed next to him in the middle of the night, emitting a death rattle that he slept through, he said, her body stone cold when he woke up. Her death certificate reports that she died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital from a mixture of sleeping pills and alcohol. Maybe he dreamed the sound of the death rattle and was inexact in checking her temperature.

Gramma did see us again on many Sundays for many years. After Mass Mother would sometimes take us by bus to Gramma’s small house in South Saint Louis. We never had a car. The bus trip took at least an hour.

Mother was a good seamstress but Gramma Wharton was better. Before Christmas and Easter Mother chose fabric and patterns that we took to Gramma’s, and she sewed outfits for us, She fitted us and pinned our skirts for hemming in front of her full-length mirror.

I like to remember Mother sitting with us three girls on the bus on our way to dispel Gramma’s fear that she might never see us again. The trips were, in my opinion, the most selfless, generous and noble acts that my mother ever performed. Traveling into the heart of working-class German neighborhoods was not her idea of living well. Moreover, Mother always behaved herself around Gramma. With her own family at her own mother’s big house on Cabanne Place, she invariably got into screaming fights with her sister while we children whimpered.

Just last night my sister Alexandra and I argued about the bus route to Gramma’s. She remembers changing buses at the Delmar Loop. No, I said, the Delmar-Forsyth bus route went from Forsyth to Big Bend to Delmar, then all the way east on Delmar almost to the river, and we transferred to a southbound bus at Kingshighway, halfway between our home and the river.

Obviously, that wasn’t all that Alexandra and I argued about last night, or I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to dedicate this portion of my memoir to her and to send it out tonight.

copyright © 2015 Minerva Durham