Mom’s only sister owned a farm about an hour’s drive from the city. As children, we visited every weekend, holiday and during the summer break. There were six of us plus mom cramped into old jalopies barely able to make the drives.
Our Aunty was afraid of the city and never came in to see us. Aunty had five children; four from her first marriage.
Her first husband was an unstable alcoholic who threatened to kill her if she left with the kids, so she fled without them one night after a terrible fight, to our apartment in the city. It was the late 1960s, and our mother had just left our abusive father. Neither had any money and a dozen kids between them.
Aunty stayed with us until her husband fatally shot himself in their living room. It was a big scandal in their small town, when divorce was still taboo and domestic abuse went unreported. Because of the incident, my aunt was notorious in their small town for many years. She was often shunned and the topic of great gossip.
Eventually she wed her second husband, a younger man. He was a mechanic and she always had the coolest cars. She had cows, pigs, goats, rabbits, hunting dogs, and even pet raccoons. In the center of the yard there was a huge crabeapple tree that we climbed, and swung from a tire swing. She made lemon meringue and apple pies and grew a large garden which she canned every fall.
The farm was nice back then, well kept. But it degraded slowly along with their marriage. No one knew how bad it had gotten until just before she died.
Our mother had moved away to Florida several years before and not visited. It was 2009 and I was in graduate school, married and raising two kids at the time and had not visited Aunty in a few years. All the other kids were trying to make a living or raise their own families.
My mother had told me Aunty was sick but no one ever said what it was; we later found out that she was often prevented from going to the doctor because her husband did not want to pay the bill. I also think he did not want the doctor to see her bruises and abrasions.
When mom finally came to visit, we took a ride out to see Aunty and we could see that something was wrong. We had all gathered at my cousin’s big farm in the back fields where they camped. The kids loved to ride the ATVs and see their cousins. We had tents and campers and campfires. There were cows and barns and lots of land, trails and fields.
As the night grew later, Aunty seemed more and more uncomfortable. She had sat all day under the shade and her husband was reluctant to leave. My mom tearfully intervened and her husband took her home, but he seemed annoyed. Aunty could hardly walk and he was unwilling to help her to the vehicle. This was a juxtaposition as he usually seemed cheerful and often played silly games with the children. Over the years there had been cracks in his temperament that seemed sudden, even shocking or unbelievable, but nonetheless turned out to be true.
Finally they left the campground, but the glimpse of Aunty’s face in the truck was pale and upsetting. I thought she was just really tired.
Mom was going back to Florida in a few days so we visited Aunty’s farm. Aunty’s shirt sleeve had pulled up while we were sitting at her kitchen table talking. I asked her why her arms were so bruised. She always wore long sleeves and pants even in the hottest weather. My Aunty is a very private person, stoic, so it wasn’t unusual for her to say nothing. Her grandchildren were also visiting and running around so we did not have a private place to talk. I asked what happened to her arms and she gave a lame excuse. I pushed further and asked if she had seen a doctor? Did she want me to take her to the doctor? Did she need help? She was evasive. I asked her if she wanted my mother to take her out of there and she was teary eyed. I asked if she wanted me to take her.
At that moment her husband came in from the garage and looked at us uneasily. The room went awkwardly quiet. He walked in the other room and stood near the doorway listening to us talk. Sometimes he would monitor her phone calls from the garage, but we weren’t able to put those pieces of the story together until afterward.
Later we learned that he often threatened to kill her. He told her she wouldn’t be missed, she was a burden and unwanted. He called her vile names and abused her in many ways. He told her he would get away with it because he knew all the town officials and the state troopers. He would just have her cremated right away, he said.
Unknowingly, our offer to take her away put her in greater danger. She mustered the strength to talk about the abuse to a family member. It may have escalated his violence.
We think he wanted her farm for their only son to inherit. She wanted both her sons to split it. This was not a great estate; a small farmhouse from the 1800s, a barn and 30 acres. Uncle had already inherited another large piece of land on the big farm where we camped, from his father. I think he may have been in debt as well. He did not have a large income from his garage. He said he had earned it (her land) by having to live with her and raise her kids all those years. However, the farm was in her name only, as she had bought it with her first husband. This seemed to be a point of contention between them. I am unsure if the matter was resolved as I haven’t been to the farm since her death.
Aunty was adamant that she never say a bad word to her youngest son about his father. She felt she was protecting her son even though he was older now; he loved his father and looked up to him. She was afraid it would break up the family, and only cause more pain.
At her kitchen table we asked about her leaving. Did she want me to contact anyone? Did she need a lawyer? Did she need a place to stay? She was uneasy and did not know what to do.
My mother was going back to Florida in a few days, so I asked Aunty to think it over about coming home with me, or going somewhere else. She was concerned because she had no money but we assured her it would be okay. I was so uneasy about leaving her that day but I did not have the hindsight at the time.
It was afternoon when my mother called me from Florida. I was getting ready for my graduate class that evening. She said she wanted me to go out to the farm; she said she talked to my Aunty and it sounded like something was wrong. I told her to call her back and see what was going on, and then call me before I left for class.
What I didn’t know was that my mom and Aunty were talking on the phone when her husband came in; Aunty’s tone of voice had changed and she hung up. This is what worried my mother.
Later that day in September 2009, mom received a call from my cousin saying that Aunty was dead.
My cousin said a state trooper was at the house asking questions but she didn’t know his name. She said he had left a card with my uncle.
Uncle had told the state trooper that he was in the garage all day and came in later and found her dead. This was a false statement because we know he came into the house when mom and Aunty were talking on the phone. He later changed his statement when we pointed this out to him. There are other discrepancies as well.
My Aunty had finally cracked the silent barrier that separated her from the world for so long. She talked about the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
She laid dead in the living room much of that day because he didn’t want to pay for the ambulance to take her to the morgue. Citing the costs, he had refused to have an autopsy and wanted her to be cremated right away.
Even though there where doubts (but no proof) none of her kids called the coroner or troopers. We have no way of knowing what truly happened.
Our inaction has haunted us ever since; Aunty was adamant that nothing be done to break up her family. It has taken time to gather these facts and opinions and so this may all be pure speculation. Today I am lending Aunty a voice and a chance to be heard; she visits my dreams, perhaps as a way of reaching out.