When I was sixteen years old, one of my best friends killed himself. Every August 14 for fifty years, I lit a candle to remember Rusty’s life and death. He had red hair, millions of freckles, and a blue Dodge where
for a few stolen hours he would tell me that secret sorrow s of his life. I still have a few notes he wrote me, exchanged in secret in the hall of the high school. We were so innocent, he never kissed me, and we went on only one date. My grandmother had a penchant for creating confusion about men and boys—if I liked a boy, I couldn’t date him. If I didn’t like someone, it was okay—I spent a lifetime trying to uncurl that confusion!

My connection with Rusty was of two unhappy souls, though I kept my secrets about my abusive grandmother to myself until I wrote my memoir. I don’t know if our small town was unusual or not, but there were several suicides in a brief period of time: three sensitive young men in such despair despite families who loved and valued them, killed themselves. This death at the young age of sixteen changed the outlook for me and my friends who knew and cared about Rusty and the other boys. Some of my friends had known him since
grade school, but I met him on a spring day in May just before the annual music festival and carnival in the square—his blue eyes shining at me, bowing as he guided me for a ride in his car. I knew him for twelve weeks, and most of the time we had a few minutes, maybe an hour here or there stolen moment when we talked—I had long ceased telling my grandmother the truth about my life. During that time I discovered his unhappiness, I found out about his inner guilt and conflicts. I listened as the green leaves of the graceful trees caressed the window of the car as we sat apart, not even touching.

I was out of town when I found out he had died. For a long time after that, I sensed a torn curtain in my life, tattered and shredded, my grief for his lost life overwhelming. I prayed, I lit candles, I talked to my friends.
Together we wondered as the Great Plains wind pressed against us that winter where he had gone, why he had to do this. We found out that he had tried before, we found out that his family hoped that he was all right. This was a world before anti-depressants were advertised on TV.

On that August night, he went out to a wheat field, attached a vacuum cleaner hose to the car exhaust, and went to sleep forever. Years later, I wrote this poem, one of the first memoir poems that began to assemble my life in poetry form, before I began writing prose, about that day.


August 14, 1961 

The day he died, I washed and

my great grandmother’s fine
hair over my fingers,

reading her skull like a

feeling deep indentations,

Fluffed out ringlets haloed
over her pink scalp,

bony occiput skimmed above
her brain which flowed

in and out of liquid memory.
I called her Grandma.

My first boyfriend Rusty was sixteen,

  then, and always–

the red dirt road, the hose, the plains night,

  his blue Dodge I knew so well:

a place for talking about things that mattered

by the mirrored lake–glistening dragonflies,

  irridescent honey of summer sun, singing
green leaves,

home of wise birds–mockingbird, whipoorwill

 calling out our future—if only

we could understand.

Her black granny shoes
stomped across buckled linoleum,

sharp knuckles curled around
an enamel teakettle,

she slammed it onto her wood

(hated new-fangled gas)
feeding it wood

chopped and stacked into
cords by three sons.

She pumped the engine in that

pounding out pie crust ripe
with white lard.

I peeled buckets of tiny
green apples with brown holes,

bruises, imperfect apples
perfect for compost,

and our pie.

Her thick virtuoso fingers

wedged the rich crust high
around the rim

so apple juices wouldn’t
spill onto the floor of her ebony

Even when you’re young you come to count on the

  moon ripening into its fullness,

cycling through years that peel off like skins.

That lost boy, his green eyes forever empty,

  sleeps in deadly gases flooding the

fine bones of his face, entering molecule

  by molecule his blood and his heart.

He can not count on anything now

  but this death by drowning in the wide

plains night, caressed by the

 silent, hot wind.

Black coffee percolated in
her dented aluminum pot,

striking the glass top with
its burned beak.

Iowa summer sucked lace
curtains in and out,

in and out above our feather

Grandma’s heavy heels ground
into the floor,

but outside cumulus clouds
danced for afternoon rain.

The letter came while the
fire burned its hottest,

while Grandma prodded the oak
and the pine,

shouting for it to burn,
insisting, demanding the heat

for the pie’s ascension to a
zenith of perfection

apple molecules bursting
through afternoon somnalence.


The letter said he had passed into some unknown place,

  his father begged him to come back. He
to the coffin that day in the sun in Enid,

  scent of roses cluttering the air,

wind ripping petals.

Grandma labored like a
midwife, brown eyes furrowed,

flesh of her arms swinging,
her man’s hands conmingling

the elements–apple and lard,
flour and salt and cinnamon,

her magic transforming into
pie in the dark caldron,

oxygen and heat and its gases

an alchemy,

 a god.

She cut the crisp crust,
apple and cinnamon singing out, juices scalding, so much life,

burning like lightning, like


I crumbled to the floor, hot oven baking my back,

  needing the heat to strip me as she asked how
old he was,

  did I love him.


I think of this event as I prepare to speak with Eleanor
Vincent and Madeline Sharples at the National Association of Memoir Writers Roundtable Discussion on September 8—a FREE event
. I know this conversation will be meaningful and helpful to anyone who has lost a loved one. They live on in our hearts, they live on in our memory. One of the best ways to honor and preserve the life they lived is to write about them, to share them with others so we can know them too.