One morning forty years ago today, a woman got up, got in her car with her young son, and drove a few hundred yards down the road through light snow to pick up first the kids of two relatives, then a neighbor woman. They were planning on going Christmas shopping in a town about ten miles away. The snow had started overnight, but people in that part of western New York are a hardy sort, and school of course had gone on as usual. Both women had children in school that day. After they'd been packed onto Bus 19, they were going to go shopping.
The snow got rapidly heavier around 10 that morning, and after picking up the second woman, they headed west on a local road called Randall Road, which was straight and mostly flat across open country. Not many houses had been built on that road by 1968, so it was mostly fields full of brown cornstalks left over after the field corn had been picked. Now there was snow on the fields, and across the road.
At Randall Road and West Bergen Road, there used to be a yield sign. In a very local whiteout, the woman driving car drove past the yield. In the intersection, the car struck a big Buick driven by a woman from Bergen, spinning it around and sending the first car into a utility pole across the intersection. Both women in the car died instantly. The three kids in the back were uninjured. No one was wearing a seatbelt, which wasn't uncommon in 1968.
Linda Crocker was the mother of several friends of mine. Nancy Ellen Wenzel was my mother. She was 26 years old.
My father said that when he got a call, half an hour later, saying that my mother had been in an accident, he thought it was a minor fender-bender. He had to drive down from Brockport, New York, about 20 miles north, to the site. When he got there he learned his wife was dead.
Within the hour, relatives of Linda Crocker had come to school to retrieve all the kids, including us. I remember being called out of first grade, going down to the school office, where Lou Crocker, Linda's brother-in-law, was waiting, in his big old hat and flannel coat. He said my father had asked him to bring us home, and that another brother of his had picked up my brother and sister. No one said anything about why. We rode down North Street in Lou's little Buick Skylark. I remember it was green with a white hardtop, and I guess it was a '63. He'd had it a while. Linda herself had just a year or so earlier gotten a big blue 1966 Oldsmobile, having given up a black 1964 Studebaker Lark that I'd liked a lot more.
Lou dropped me off at home, and my brother and sister were there.
And my father. I couldn't figure out why he wasn't at work, and we didn't know where Mom was.
My father was matter-of-fact, in a way that I've learned to be.
"Mommy died today."
We asked him questions about how, and when, and what we'd do next, but really, we didn't know.
Over the next few days, hushed neighbors and relatives dropped off casseroles. I remember the casseroles. Endless casseroles and sympathy. My father went to the funeral, we did not. And when he came home, the dark days settled over our house. They didn't abate for many years.
My father died in the summer of 2007, at age 71. There wasn't a day in the intervening years he didn't think about her. Knowing that must have been difficult for my stepmother, who had been married to him for 37 years. He thought of her, but after a few months never really talked about her, and if we asked questions, he gave us minimal answers and changed the subject. All of my mother's things were put away somewhere and her presence in our house gradually blew away.
I've only recently understood this whole parallel-universe thing. The idea that everything that can possibly happen, is happening, all at once. The real meaning of "infinite."
But the me I know is right here in this one, here, writing this, and thinking of what might have been. I'll never know. If Linda Crocker had taken four or five more seconds putting her coat on, or if my mother had forgotten her purse and gone back inside to get it, the Buick would have passed the intersection, they'd have made it to Batavia safely, and everything about the last 40 years would have been different. Not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different. When I was in college, I realized that a substantial portion of my reason for being there was wrapped up in the cold-starting characteristics of 1966 Oldsmobiles. That I lived nearly in the shadow of the Olds plant that had made that car 14 years earlier made it all the more ironic. Now, I know there was much more than that.
If only they'd taken five seconds to put on their seat belts.
Forty years later, I'm sitting in a drab office on the outskirts of Baltimore, with tears in my eyes. I don't think I'll ever understand how someone I knew for such a short time so many years ago still has such a powerful hold on me. It's manifested itself in many ways over the years, from the music I listen to, to the history that draws me in, to the stories of old people about the Sixties that I never much knew, to a strange attraction to Mad Men, films like The Apartment and an ability to sing all the songs from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.
It's as if seeing those things, touching those things, hearing those sounds, can take me back to a time when our family was whole, and happy, and normal. Before she died, before he turned cold and a little mean, before we all went our separate ways. Before homelessness, pain, trouble and poverty had places in my life. Before a marriage and divorce, before the loss of friends, relatives, co-workers. Somewhere in a parallel universe, it is December 4, 1968, and there, everything is beautiful and hopeful and bursting with possibility.
Somewhere, it's all OK.
1. Deb01/12/2009 12:50:11 PM
I love this poem by Rumi. Especially the last line.
Thoughts on death
On the day I die, when I'm being
carried toward the grave, don't weep.
Don't say, "He's gone! He's gone!"
Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they're not gone. Death
is a coming together.
The tomb looks like a prison,
but it's really release into union.
The human seed goes down in the ground
like a bucket into the well where Joseph is.
It grows and comes up full
of some unimagined beauty.
Your mouth closes here
and immediately opens
with a shout of joy there.
- Jelaluddin Rumi, written the day before he died.
2. Craig Wiseman12/06/2008 10:25:26 PM
Thanks for sharing this.
The 'what could, really SHOULD have beens' in our lives are the hardest to handle. They are the things our minds get stuck on because there's nothing we can do to make things different or fix them.
No one on earth shares your exact pain, but many of us share similar ones.
You are not alone.
3. Bill12/06/2008 05:35:42 AM
A sort of reverse 'its a wonderful life'. But true of so many other peoples life stories. 'What if'. And loss. And entire lives changing.
Thanks for sharing.
4. Dan Soares12/05/2008 09:03:03 PM
Wow... Thanks for sharing that Scott. You have an amazing gift of storytelling. You should consider writing a book. Reading this account, I felt like I was actually there seeing it all unfold.