The Apple & the Tree
White supremacists have gleefully co-opted the most innocuous of things over the past couple of years. A cartoon frog. The “ok” sign. Genealogy, mostly a harmless hobby, has been turned into an excuse to prove how much more of a “real American” you are than other people. 23 and Me has made a killing on revealing information about people’s genetic backgrounds that they probably already knew, while Ancestry has increasingly expensive subscription services that allow you to trace and organize your family tree, occasionally locating some gossamer connection to a famous person, but also allowing you to feel superior to someone whose family has been in the United States for slightly less time than yours, as if it makes any bit of difference at all.
All that aside, it is very easy to fall into an Ancestry rabbit hole and see how far you can go before hitting a wall. I was surprised to discover that parts of my family on both of my parents’ sides have been in the United States before there even was a United States, settling in what would eventually become Virginia and Pennsylvania. One ancestor was killed while fighting for the Union in the Civil War, while another, much earlier ancestor was nicknamed “the Fox” after escaping capture from British soldiers when their boat crashed off the shores of Scotland.
But mostly, I’m interested in Myra.
Myra Davis Flaville, my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side. I didn’t know about her, but I didn’t know anything about that side of my family. My grandfather died when I was very young, and my grandmother just simply didn’t talk about her relatives. Her mother died at just 38 of a stroke, her father remarried, and that was the end of that. Though she had aunts and uncles and presumably cousins all around the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area, she never saw or spoke about them, not in my lifetime at least.
Myra died young too, at 40. She committed suicide.
Suicide “while temporarily deranged,” according to her death certificate (it also mentioned that the method of death was gas asphyxiation). For reasons I have not been able to determine, Myra’s death made the news. An inquest was held, and her suicide note was made a matter of public record. SUICIDE LEAVES PATHETIC LETTER, read the headline, while underneath “Mother of Twelve Asks Husband to Look After Their Children.” The article doesn’t mention that four of those children died during the seven years prior to Myra’s death (a fifth child, her oldest and named for her, died more than twenty years earlier). They are left out of Myra’s suicide note, which gently reminds her husband, Claude, that “William must have medicine,” he should “tell Sue to go on with her wedding preparations,” and that once in a while he should give them “a little milk cocoa.” Her most poignant instruction to Claude is to tell Kenneth, all of 13 at the time, that “I wasn’t displeased with him. He is mother’s dear good boy. What would I have done without him.”
There’s a haunting familiarity in the words Myra uses in her letter. “I’m out of the way now.” “Maybe things will be better.” At the inquest, Claude testified that she had been in poor health, and “worried unnecessarily over the family matters.” Describing her as “temporarily deranged” seems a bit inaccurate, considering that Myra sent two of her children away from the house so that she would be alone when she ended her life. I understand why they used that phrase, though. The name for what was really wrong with Myra wasn’t in wide use in 1911. The closest was melancholy. Depression wouldn’t fully enter the vernacular until a few years later. Major depressive disorder, which most people who attempt suicide are diagnosed with, wasn’t even entered into the DSM-III until 1980. By then, they figured out that people who want to end their lives aren’t usually deranged, temporarily or otherwise. If anything, they’re more clear-headed than they’ve been in a long time.
I feel a strange combination of sorrow and relief when I think of Myra. Sorrow because who wouldn’t feel sorrow over a 40 year-old woman killing herself and leaving eight children behind? Relief because…it’s in my blood. It’s not poor choices I’ve made, or bad luck, that sometimes makes getting out of bed in the morning a monumental task, it’s my genes. Granted, it’s not terribly surprising, when you consider the evidence: my grandmother drank (heavily), my father drank and used drugs (heavily), and my aunt, the only other immediate member of my family who is still alive, has struggled her entire adult life with untreated depression and anxiety, to the point where I can’t bear to be around her, because it feels like a glimpse into my future if I don’t get this shit together. It’s in our genes, the chemical imbalance, the synapses not firing correctly. It probably didn’t start with Myra either. Who knows how far back it goes? How many generations have felt that weight of living, that constant sense that you’re failing everyone in your life, in one way or another?
One could say that this is evidence that every generation is weaker than the last, that people used to struggle with “feeling down” in silence, because to speak of it would seem selfish and ungrateful. Clearly, what Myra did was so startling that it warranted two articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Ancestry only tells me so much, so I don’t know if Claude, her widower, suffered shame from his neighbors and family over the event, or if his children were mocked about it in school. Her oldest daughter, Sue, married a few months later. Her oldest son, William, married, and three years later his wife gave birth to a daughter, Dorothy, named for one of his lost siblings. Dorothy was my grandmother.
Life went on for the Flavilles, a normal family upon which mental illness brought a thick, gray cloud, a cloud that stretches into the present, over me. I hope that time, and the ability to be open about how badly we feel sometimes, is punching holes in that cloud, enough that it drifts apart, never to be seen again. I want it to end with me, I want to take Myra’s burden, and my grandmother’s, and my father’s, and lift it up, acknowledge their pain, and let it go. It has a name, I know its name. It’s not “temporarily deranged.” It’s “depression.” It’s an illness, a chemical imbalance. If that had been acknowledged sooner, if it had been known that while it can’t be cured, it can be treated, maybe Myra would have seen her daughter, all of her children, get married. She would have been alive to to see my grandmother born. She wouldn’t have been around to see me born, but maybe my father would have known her, and could have told me about her.
I wish I knew more than her name, and how she died. I wish I knew what she looked like.