I don’t know what to call her, this grandmother I never knew. If she had lived, would my sisters and I have used some of the more common names—Grandma, Nana, Gram—or would there have been something more idiosyncratic, something based on her name or her family’s Alsatian roots? Of course, far more important is the answer to the question, who was she? What were her hopes for her only son, my father, for her own life, ended when she was 35 years (and six months and seven days) old. What was it like marrying one man who left her and her son, and then marrying another, the man who became my father’s stepfather, the man I never heard Dad talk about. Ever. Did that silence speak to this second husband’s character, and perhaps explain what happened on April 24, 1932?

And if I had thought to ask my father more about his mother, my grandmother, would he have been able to tell me much? What does a nine-year-old—all right, almost 10—really know about his mother’s wants and fears and character? What does he take away from the fact that she left him, left the world, when he was so young? What did he think and feel in the days and months and years after someone—the never-mentioned stepfather? His grandparents?—told him that his mother was found dead at Indianapolis’s Occidental Hotel, a bottle of carbolic acid by her side?

For some reason, I had always thought she had drowned, Charlotte Waller Burgan Niswanger. I thought my sister, who uncovered much of the little we know about the Wallers and Burgans doing genealogical research, had told me that. Or maybe I imagined it, along with the embellishment that she had thrown herself in a well. I know I searched online for newspaper articles that might spell out the sordid details; I mean, doesn’t drowning in that very deliberate way merit some press? But there was nothing about a young woman killing herself that way. Or poisoning herself in some hotel room. But after all, Indianapolis is a big city, and suicides during the Depression must have been pretty common. What’s another dead mother leaving behind a confused and fatherless, for all intents and purposes, son?

I was 18 when I learned that my grandmother had committed suicide. And it’s not like my father ached to share the information. I was filling out a health form for college, and when it came to the part about family history and mental illness and suicide—well, Dad had to fess up. But there were no details, and not a lot of emotion. Now, my father was not one to shy away from showing emotions of all kinds. But maybe by that time, some 45 years after the fact, he had simply shut off the feelings around her death that were once there.

Carbolic acid, I’ve learned in the short time since my sister shared with me the death certificate she found online, is a potent substance. The sweet-smelling liquid, also called phenol, turns up in many products, from perfumes to dyes, from disinfectants to lubricating oils. It is, as one government web site states, “highly toxic; corrosive to the skin.” You can see that corrosive quality in any number of pictures online that show the aftereffects of people who’ve ingested it (I’ll spare you those images here). In the body, it can create a wealth of problems, including severe stomach pain, bloody stools and vomit, convulsions, and a coma.

charlotteWhen she went into the Occidental Hotel, Charlotte was in good company, as far as committing suicide by carbolic acid goes. Many sites online discuss how it was a preferred poison, especially for women, during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The headline from a 1904 article from the St. Paul Globe put it succinctly: “Carbolic Acid the Favorite Poison of the Despondent Ones.” The article said that part of its appeal was the ease of getting it. But that ease did not mean it led to an easy death. On the contrary. Dr. Arthur Miller, a local coroner, said, “Certainly there is nothing pleasant about the manner in which it sips the vital spark from the human body, for the agonies it inflicts are probably the most acute that can be endured by a human being.” In low doses, in the accidental swallowings that I suppose led to many of the pictures online, it burns the mouth and the throat. In larger doses, taken deliberately by the despondent ones, it shuts down the heart.

I try not to picture Gram Charlotte enduring those agonies in the last minutes of her life. I do wonder, even more than before, what led her to her despondent state.

I’ve speculated about the second husband. More pointedly, since it could have some bearing on me, I wonder if she battled depression or another mental illness. Because while my father never showed any signs of that kind of anguish, I have struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety and fears for my own sanity that may or may not go beyond what most people feel. If Charlotte had an illness, could that tendency have been passed on?


After Charlotte, after the Waddells.

In the years since my father reluctantly told me about the family skeleton, I’ve wondered a lot about Charlotte. About how the almost-ten-year-old Bernie took the news when he heard it that Sunday in April. Or did he get the news the next day, after she died, when he came home from school? I’ve written several plays about this, taking the few facts I knew and extrapolating, trying to understand what he might have felt, as his mother’s death left him with a stepfather who didn’t want him, with grandparents who couldn’t or wouldn’t take him in, sending him into foster homes before he finally found a family that gave him the stability and love he craved.

After my father died, I found a carefully folded piece of paper that he had kept for some 70 years. I don’t know if it was a school assignment or something he had written for himself, typed out in four short paragraphs. The title was, “I Adopt A Family.” The self-described orphan wrote that he could only “sit on the side lines and listen” when other kids talked about their families. Then, he had a realization: If adults could adopt children, why couldn’t he adopt a family? And so he did, spending time with the family of his friend Bill Waddell, whom he had met at camp. At the time, he was staying with some women he didn’t name, but it was clear he preferred his time with the Waddells, and eventually they took him in. All in all, he wrote, the Waddells were a “swell” family. He closed with this line: “I think if more people took more interest in orphans there would be more happy families.” Then, with a closing that makes me laugh through the tears that always come as I reread this, he typed his name as Bernard Bugan (further proof that everyone needs an editor).

I want to write more about Charlotte, even if it’s all from my imagination. I want to understand, in whatever limited way I can, how her death and what followed shaped my father, which in turn shaped me. I already know, or assume, that what he endured led to the love and caring he showed with everyone in our family. I have an idea for a novel that touches on all this. But even if it is never written, the story will always be in my head.

RIP Dad. And Charlotte. Dad’s mother. Grandmother.


~ by mburgan on November 29, 2016.

4 Responses to “Grandmother”

  1. Awesome writing, Michael.

  2. Thanks, Colleen. It helps makes sense of all the stuff sometimes…

  3. I’m torn between which I enjoyed the most; the story itself or the writing. All wonderful !!

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