Archive of Family History | Bette Pesetsky

Archive of Family History | Bette Pesetsky


Before the celebration of her first wedding anniversary Cousin Jay, stretched to an unbelievable physical limit died at age twenty-three. Blessedly taken, the aunts said. Acromegaly, my sister Lurlene said. Jay and the Beanstalk, I said. That sounds cruel, but that year I was only five. I thought that the ground must have trembled when this woman walked. Cousin Ruben, hero of two wars, gave the artifacts of his life to his high school and two years later the building burnt to the ground. That evening with tongs from his barbeque, Cousin Ruben took a molten lump of medals and branded the skin of the arson-minded teenager. No one knows whether that boy’s arm still says United States Navy. Uncle Alexander from Spring Valley won money on the Irish Sweepstakes, and instead of running off with a girl named Amide, he went to Dublin with his wife and two sons and bought a house described in postcards as baronial.

Father married mother when he was twenty-two. His notebooks and black ring binders from college were stacked in the back of the hall closet. Notebooks mostly filled with class notes. Father had a readable handwriting. He wrote personal notes in the margins. He worried about his stomach – his food. He also wrote little memos to himself – boyish exhortations to walk the line. A love note – an oblique appreciation of a girl named Irene. Was she before or during mother’s existence? Father never mentioned me or my sister Lurlene in any note – not even as unknown babies.

When I was fourteen I made a list of secrets. The basic omnibus of family sins –adultery, theft, madness, the hidden marriage, the out of wedlock baby. I suspected that none of these would fill in the gaps in my history, but I asked father. A working man, father said with amusement, has no time for peccadilloes. Afterwards I realized that a working man generally doesn’t say the word peccadillo.

My almost unknown mother on a sunny Saturday morning went into the garage and shot herself. She was called the almost unknown mother because at the time of her death I had just turned seven and my sister Lurlene, thirteen. Lurlene was the smartest student to ever graduate from Joseph P. Hooper High School. The day of her graduation she took me to a corner of the backyard. “Listen,” she said. “You’re going to hear a lot of untrue things. For instance, that mother said one day that she’d do a Hemingway.

Yes, she did say that, but she didn’t mean the gun, she meant she wanted to run with the bulls. That’s what she meant. She shot herself because she had this terrible, terrible disease. And just think about how she did it. On that Saturday you had swimming class and I had that stupid tap and ballet class. What I’m saying is that we were not there and that shows you that she was thinking. She knew that on Saturday our father would come home first and find her. I’m telling you this now, because when I go away to college I won’t be able to explain all the shit you’ll hear.”

At sixteen and a half Lurlene went away to college and did not return. And that is how I became an only child.

Bette Pesetsky is the author of two short story collections: Stories Up to a Point and Confessions of a Bad Girl.  Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Vogue, Ontario Review and other magazines.  Her recent flash fiction pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Oblong, Chicago Literati, The Moth, Vignette Review, and Sleet.