There’s a specific place, on a specific day, with two specific people, that I can’t get out of my head. It’s Mass Ave, in Cambridge, in 1969. April First. My dad recalls it as, “A beautiful day, a really beautiful beginning of spring day… it was really crowded and everyone was having a lot of fun.” Massachusetts Avenue is one of the larger, busier streets that runs through Boston and Cambridge. It’s where Paul Revere rode his horse on his “Midnight Ride.” It’s where Aerosmith rehearsed before they got big. It’s also where my grandfather saw my dad for the last time.
At least, that’s something my dad likes to imagine.
I first talked to him about that day on FaceTime in early spring of 2016. “So it was really weird,” he told me, “Later I heard different stories. Robbie Horton and Rozzie Parks and other people might have seen him.” My dad was on spring break from college, staying with friends in Cambridge. His dad lived just outside of Cambridge. But my dad didn’t tell my grandfather that he’d be in the area. He didn’t tell anyone.
So, on this day in Cambridge, not only were my dad and grandfather in the same city, but they were walking down the same street: Mass Ave. And my dad did not see his father walking. But what if his father saw him? What if, amidst the crowd of people walking down Mass Ave, basking in the first warm spring day, my grandfather watched his son pass right by him, and didn’t say a word? This is the question my dad brings up four or five times in our conversation about his father. And there’s something so beautifully childlike about it, something so tragic, that it’s begun to plague me too.
Because, a few hours after my grandfather had been spotted walking down Mass Ave, he committed suicide.
No one knew where my dad was or how to contact him with the news that his father had died. He didn’t find out until he got back to his school after spring break.
“And they wanted to have the funeral quickly, and since they didn’t know where to find me, they just had it that week without me.”
So my father was left to figure out the puzzle of his father’s death, alone. And as he tried to put the pieces of that day together, like I’m trying to now, a couple of his family friends mentioned that they’d both separately seen his father walking down Mass Ave.
“It struck me that was the same day I was there. I wondered if he saw me, and just hid around the corner, and, probably not, but if he saw me and purposefully missed me, didn’t wanna bother me…” my dad trails off as he describes it. So the question remains: did my grandfather see my father and not say a word?
I ask my dad if he has contact information for either of the people who saw his father on Mass Ave that day, Robbie Horton or Rozzie Parks. He emails Robbie’s sister that night, who replies with his telephone number the next day.
I call Robbie that weekend. Five times. He doesn’t pick up the first time, the next few times I get a busy tone. I wait a half hour to an hour between the phone calls. I’m sitting in a café and I can’t bring myself to get any other work done, despite four hours of just sitting. The fifth time he picks up.
. . .
I know practically nothing about my grandfather. I know he was an artist, a painter. I know I’m his namesake; he was Jack and I’m Jacklyn—specifically spelt that way to reflect his name in my own. And because I’m his namesake, and because he died before I met him, I’ve always been sort of fixated on his life.
Like, once when I was twelve, I snuck into my grandmother’s bedroom and opened all of the drawers in her bedside table, looking for mementos of him. Her bottom right drawer served as a file cabinet, filled with Jack’s personal flight records from when he was a Navy Pilot in World War II. I looked for any hint of personality—a funny note next to a flight duration, or a journal entry hidden between pages of notes; something that could tell me he was depressed. I knew he wouldn’t commit suicide for another twenty-five years. But I kept looking, and I found nothing.
On my grandmother’s desk in our family’s summer home off the coast of Maine sits a card my grandfather wrote her for Valentine’s Day. The front of the card is a drawing he’d done of himself with a beer bottle. It reads, “I know it’s a terrible thought…” with the inside proclaiming, “but I’m all yours! Love, Bongo.”
Bongo was the nickname his art students had given him at Groton, the tiny boy’s boarding school where he taught after he got back from the war. Jack would travel between Groton and Harvard for various projects, and on the way from one to the other, he would stop at his friends, the Hortons, in Concord. That’s how Robbie Horton, the man who saw my grandfather the day he committed suicide, knew him. Robbie was just a kid at the time.
“He’d come in and be like, ‘Jeez is there a beer?’ And I’d get him one and he’d clink on the piano. He was always full of just a lot of fun.” Robbie told me my grandfather taught him to play the guitar. “He was an excellent blues guitar player, and I was just starting to learn how to play guitar… I still just play the blues.” I can’t help but be jealous of Robbie for this. Jealous for myself, because I never got to hear Jack play or play with him. Jealous for my dad, because he doesn’t have any memories like this.
When I ask my dad for a specific memory of his father, he struggles. Instead of a memory, he recalls an occurrence—walking on the quad at Groton with his father as a kid. The students would call out to Jack as they walked by. “They loved him, he was really good with the young boys and they’d call out, ‘Heeeeey Bongo’– I wondered if it was part of a song or something.”
So, I Google it: “Hey Bongo”/ “Hey Bongo Song” / “Hey Bongo Song Lyrics.” Nothing turns up. And Googling the song brings me to Google my grandfather. “Jack Murray/ John “Jack” Murray Painter” / John “Jack” Murray Painter Harvard Groton / John “Jack” Murray Painter Obituary.” The last search leads me to the only thing on the internet that I’ve ever been able to find about my grandfather. It’s someone else’s obituary, a Groton student turned teacher named Frank White. It mentions that his colleague Jack Murray, “encouraged him to spend more time painting.” The only memory of my grandfather in the world’s collective record of memory is in someone else’s obituary.
Maybe that’s because Frank White’s story fit neatly into the pages of the alumni magazine: a happy retirement, a peaceful death. Jack Murray committed suicide, Jack Murray was fired because he had a drinking problem, Jack Murray was complicated and messy.
My grandfather left Groton for a yearlong sabbatical in Spain, painting the coast. While there, he developed a drinking habit, another World War II vet trying to erase his memories of the war. He came back to Groton a year later to find the headmaster who’d been his friend for the past fifteen years had left. The new headmaster asked my grandfather to leave the school and get treatment, promising he could come back to teach afterward. But once he left, they fired him. The drinking got so bad that my grandmother moved out to Riverdale, New York.
“I was upset because I couldn’t figure out why they got separated.” Robbie told me during our phone call. I asked him if he thought of my grandparents as a strong couple.
“Yes, absolutely, Jack and Gina, always Jack and Gina.”
I ask my dad about his parents’ separation.
“Were you surprised?”
“No, but I’d been living with them. I lived with my dad alone for a while, and I had to move out eventually, too.”
. . .
With nothing left, my grandfather moved to a small apartment in Roxbury, a struggling, dangerous neighborhood on the outskirts of Boston. He had a cousin who ran Massachusetts General Hospital. That cousin got my grandfather, a successful graduate of Harvard and decorated World War II veteran, a job as a receptionist at a hospital associated with Mass Gen.
One day at the hospital, a man came in on a gurney. The man, it turned out, was the same headmaster who had fired my grandfather. The headmaster died that day. My grandfather called my dad and told him all about it. He knew it was twisted, but he ended the story with, “Here I am, I failed at my life, I failed my family, I’m a failure, but I got this one little thing.”
My father was living with his father, just the two of them, at the time. But the drinking became too much, and like his mother, my father moved out. He went to an experimental college in Maine. He decided to spend Spring Break with friends in Cambridge. And after everything they’d been through, he chose not to tell his dad he’d be there; he didn’t tell anyone he’d be there. So no one knew how to get in contact with him when it happened.
“His third suicide attempt—the other two had been by cutting his wrists,” my dad recalls. “He had slit his wrists, and you can ask my sister Mimi about it, but dad said he let his wrists run under warm water so the blood wouldn’t coagulate… he said he was so amazed by how the body worked so hard to keep him alive… and he remembered thinking that right before he passed out.”
“So he shot himself in the head the third time?” I ask.
“I don’t know but that’s what I heard, which makes sense because the other way wasn’t successful,” he says, matter-of-fact.
So I decided to ask my aunt Mimi. Mimi and I aren’t particularly close. The last time we spoke was when she visited the family house in Maine this past summer for my grandmother’s funeral. I can’t remember the last time we spoke before that. Probably not since my parents moved from California, where she lives, to Maine, four years ago.
My dad briefs her on what I’m calling about and gives me her number. I call late on a Tuesday night.
“I know it’s strange for me to call like this. I hope that this is okay—I know this probably is difficult to talk about.”
“Well, not particularly with me,” she says.
Mimi is a scientologist. I would be lying if I said this didn’t cause a rift in our family. I, like the rest of my family, assumed it was all nonsense. Or stupidity. But when she explains her relationship with her father, I can’t help but think it makes some sense.
“When I was growing up, I always knew he was trying to do himself in… that was probably the reason I got into scientology, I was trying to find the answer, what was going on with my dad.”
I asked my dad what he thinks of this: “I mean, that sounds a little ridiculous to me, that she always knew.”
“I actually don’t think so,” he told me. “I think Mimi is very perceptive. She was closest with him, because she was oldest. She probably knows more about him than any of the rest of us.”
I ask Mimi for her memories of Jack. And my dad’s right, she has more memories than anyone else I’ve spoken to. But hers are darker. She recalls a time she saw Jack drunk on the couch when she was two or three years old. She recalls how he would drive really fast and if he saw my dad and his brothers on the side of the road, he’d almost run into them. She recalls his memories of the war.
“He told me about waking up after a tour of duty at one point. He would have these dreams about how he’d be upside down, hanging upside down in the dark screaming ‘mother, mama, mama!’ And then he’d wake up hoping he hadn’t been screaming out loud.” She laughs then, which catches me off guard. “He was probably coming off the drugs. They gave him speed because he had to stay awake while he was over the South Pacific. They called it battle fatigue but it’s not battle fatigue, it’s the drugs… coming down off drugs.”
I ask her about what my dad said about Jack cutting his wrists open. About the miraculous human body. She doesn’t remember that. She just remembers him saying, “Well if you really wanna commit suicide, then you can do it. If you botch it, then you don’t really wanna do it.”
Mimi tells me about a dream her dad had at this point: In the dream, he’d gotten a new apartment and all the clocks in it had stopped. “I remember thinking at the time that he was thinking of dying,” Mimi tells me. She went to a psychiatrist for help, but, as she put it, “they don’t really know what the fuck to do.”
I ask her if she was relieved at all when he finally did it.
“Well I just wasn’t surprised, I knew it was going to happen.”
. . .
Over the summer, a couple months after I started this project, I went to our family’s house on Great Cranberry Island for a weekend. Great Cranberry Island sits off the coast of Acadia National Park, the largest of the five islands that make up the Town of Cranberry Isles, Maine. My grandparents bought a house there in 1959, on a small edge of the island called Jimmy’s Point. It’s connected to the rest of the island by a rock bar, and because of this, has 360-degree views of the water: the perfect place for a painter.
At the time, my father says, the whole island was a bit of an artist colony. William Kienbusch painted there, as well as lesser-known artists– families that still summer there today: the Wadsworths, the Romes, the Cummings. As my dad put it: “They all had hard-drinking war stories in common—but they were very talented artists.”
His father’s paintings still line the walls of the island house. They all seem sort of unfinished. The tops are painted and solid, but the bottom halves are charcoal sketches of rocks and sand and boats. Despite their unfinished states, the paintings are all hung up and framed. My grandmother did that—and lived in the house every summer until she died, surrounded by his paintings.
I’ve always imagined my grandfather’s life through those unfinished paintings. I recognize so many of them—the shores of the beach that surround the house, the big, wood stove in the living room, my dad’s curly hair that I inherited. At times I catch myself standing in front of them, wondering, if I look from the right angle, will I see things the way he saw them? Could I stand in his actual footsteps? The paintings and the house, these are the only things that ever lent me any insight into my grandfather’s life.
So this summer I stood in front of the paintings again, scouting for clues, not entirely sure what I was trying to find. I went through my grandmother’s desk, the one with the Valentine’s Day card on it, looking for other letters from Jack. I found a few things, documents that reference him, but nothing that lent any real insight into him. I decided that maybe there was nothing there.
The morning before we left, my dad handed me a navy blue leather journal. Its cover and seam were cracked, with flecks of burnt orange shining through like brick. It’s peeling, because it’s old.
Inside were pages on pages of letters my grandfather received during World War II, haphazardly organized by my grandmother, with sections divided by a rusty paperclip, an elastic-worn rubber band, and a post-it note labeled “Jack’s Writing.”
I spent the rest of the summer going through each letter. The majority of them are boring niceties; congratulations on his becoming a Junior Grade Lieutenant, on the birth of his daughter, on bombing down some “Japs.”
Mimi was born while Jack was in the war, and most letters reference her. When Jack spent Christmas of 1944 at home, a fellow soldier wrote to him: “Wish I could see the offspring. Was she afraid of that big man who had been out killing Japs?”
My grandmother lived with her mother in New York while Jack was in the war. Her mother wrote a letter to Jack that reads, “You are thanking us for our care of your little family. I’m afraid the shoe is on the other foot- and we are the ones who are enjoying what should rightfully be your pleasure. That little girl of yours is so adorable. In true grandmotherly fashion I think all the best traits of disposition on both sides of the family are concentrated in her- she’s so good. We show her your picture- and she seems to know it’s someone very special- she smiles so delightedly at you.”
But Mimi’s childhood memories from just a few years later, once Jack had returned home from the war, are far darker, filled with words spat between her parents and her father drunk on the couch.
There’s one memory she brings up in our phone call that contrasts that darkness. She’s a little girl, trying to go to sleep, and her parents go in and sing a lullaby to her—but not a traditional “rock-a-bye-baby.”
“They used to sing cowboy songs to sing us to bed. My father would play the guitar and my mother would harmonize with him,” Mimi told me. And then she began to sing, “ Get out the way old Dan Tucker, you’re too late to get your supper.” And for a moment, I can see it, Mimi in a crib, Jack singing with his guitar, my grandmother laughing and singing along.
. . .
In our first FaceTime call, I asked my dad if he had ever hoped that his dad would die, that maybe the alcoholism was too hard on everyone and it would be better that way.
“I didn’t hope for it… I wasn’t prepared for it… but I was kind of. But I felt very badly about it.” I don’t know why, but I was surprised by his answer.
“Why?” I asked him.
“I felt bad for him.” He paused for a long time. “I bailed on him, even though I lived with him, I left home very early… and I loved my dad. Everybody admired him.”
Months later, while I was home for summer break, my dad mentioned he’d left a manila envelope on the dining room table I might be interested in. Inside, I found fifty some-odd letters in response to my grandfather’s death. There were letters from family, friends, students of Jack’s.
One letter mentioned that my father “seemed to be the most upset of all.” The letter was from one of the Great Cranberry Island families, the Wadsworths. Charles Wadsworth, a celebrated painter, was a good friend of my grandfather. The letter was written by his wife, Jean, to my grandmother a month after Jack passed. Speaking of my father, she continued, “And, I suppose, he is now the man of the family.”
My dad went back to school after he found out, a sort of solace, but his school got shut down shortly after and my dad disappeared. And, once again, didn’t tell anyone where he was going. This time, because he didn’t know where he was going.
“I just drifted off… it might have had a lot to do with my dad. I finally went bump… I was in the Pacific Ocean and I couldn’t go any further.”
He’d travelled from Maine to California.
“You ever see that comic about Columbus? He just bumped into America and that’s how he discovered it– that’s kinda what happened to me.”
. . .
The letters in the envelope my dad gave me spanned the year after my grandfather’s suicide. Some, unaware of the circumstances of his death, were addressed to “Mrs. John H. Murray” asking how a healthy man could have died so suddenly.
There’s comfort in thinking my grandmother wasn’t devastated by Jack’s death. She had a new boyfriend. In fact, a month or so after Jack’s suicide, she went to London with him. But she never married again. Never had a long-term relationship. Kept all the letters following his death in an envelope for the rest of her life. Kept all of his letters from the war safely secured in a beautiful leather journal, easily accessible in her desk.
With so much darkness surrounding the mystery that is Jack’s life, the letters my grandmother sent him during the war are a bright light shone on better times. On his birthday in 1944 she wrote to him recounting his last birthday:
“Do you remember last year at this time, darling? We had a gay little party in San Francisco with that rather drippy girl…And seeing the Drunkard and you up on stage with that crazy magician. I was convinced he’d hypnotized you… Gee I can’t believe it’s been a year since those golden days. Seems just like yesterday. Does it to you?
On their 11-month wedding anniversary:
I woke up this morning and found a box from the florist on my bed table… Oh what beautiful, beautiful orchids- 3 just enormous ones! And such lovely ones- with your sweet note- Do I remember?- I remember every little bit of so many marvelous times together…
On New Year’s Eve:
The moon looks like a lullabye (sic)- and the stars are so bright- and I came home to you- smiling at me from the bureau- looking serious from the dressing table- I wanted you so much- Goodnight my love. I just had to say goodnight, to talk with you. Before I went to bed. And so to dreamland on the wings of a kiss I blow to you.
. . .
I transcribed every letter Jack received during the war. It took me three months of starting and pausing and starting again. I saved one section of the journal for last, the post-it labeled “Jack’s Writing.” I figured if I was looking for clues, some sort of insight into his life, I would find it in there. What I found in the envelope surprised me. There weren’t journal entries recounting his own experience, but a story, or, more accurately, sections of an autobiographical story.
There was a piece of paper with the handwritten heading “Proposal Story—The Escapists.” The proposal is less than 200 words in total: a sentence-long description of a prologue, epilogue, and sections in between. There’s a section called “war.” And then a section called Utopia, with the rambling description: “we follow our bent-intimations of fundamental human characteristics popping up self centered egotistic can’t live with each other or without- civilization best because we can be still impersonal and gregarious.”
Two pieces of writing center around a clearly anxious man in a war setting. In one, he describes waves of panic that, “rise, engulfing him, and recede, leaving him a few moments to marshal his reason in preparation for the next wave, though he knew that when the next wave broke reason would melt away and he would again be powerless with fear.” In the next, he writes about a man who had to stay up all night to oversee soldiers working in an oxygen factory. In it, he details the character’s fear of being chewed out by a captain:
“If he failed to have the plane repaired, he’d get hell from the captain. If he landed the plane aboard ship with half an inch of daylight between the stabilizer and fin he’d get hell from the captain. Well, he was going to get hell any way for being shot down, so he might as well fly aboard ship before she made port. It would spare him another night in a drafty tent eating marine chow, washing his own mess kit, wandering around at night being scared to death by jumpy marines who thought he was another Jap infiltrating behind the lines.
It’s not a journal, but it’s pretty close.
. . .
The last piece of his writing that I read was set in a different time, about a different man. This man is an assistant professor. Beloved by his students, his colleagues. He writes about this man leaving a particularly difficult day of class:
The Assistant Professor surveyed the empty auditorium for a moment, wearily gathered his notes together, and walked slowly down the center aisle toward the exit. For some reason it had been a lousy day, a damn lousy day. From force of academic habit he made a half hearted attempt to determine why the day had been so lousy. It would have been soothing to vail (sic) against the unkind fate which had forced him to try vainly to pound precious knowledge into the head of shallow and frivolous youngsters. But he could not in all honesty assume such a pleasing role. His students were neither apathetic nor frivolous on the contrary most of them listened to every word he uttered. He was well aware that the bulk of his classes not only carefully memorized each hastily scribbled note, but thought long and seriously about his lectures. Nor could he rebel against the useless theory in which each day he expanded from the lecture platform- steril dogma unadapted to the needs of practical living. He knew that his course in sociology was soundly based on the studies and findings of individuals well qualified for their work, people who were not only successful in their own field but also successful in the art of living- competent men and women, satisfied with their life and well adjusted to their world and yet something was missing- some means of perception of understanding which would reconcile these able young intellects with the life they were living and were about to live, something besides life itself.
He turned up Boylston Street, suddenly recalling Virginia’s shopping instructions. It seemed to him that his married life had been one long struggle with half remembered lists of things he was to buy, which Virginia carefully wrote down for him every morning, and which he seemed almost as carefully to forget every evening. As he expected, the grocery stores were closed and he tried the delicatessen. The shop was out of veal, but there were a few lamb chops left. He remembered to buy extra for young Blacky, who was coming for supper. The transaction reanimated his original train of thought. His best student, young Blackie was a case in point. Intelligent, sensitive, active minded and unsatisfied, unsatisfied with college, unsatisfied with the prospect of life after college- unsatisfied with the government, with the newspapers, with radio, the movies, advertisements, unsatisfied with everything. And Blacky came to him with his problems as did so many of his students. Unable to make anything of the undeniable truths in sociology 2B they spoke to the professor after classes, stopped him in the halls with serious faces and carefully phrased questions, and some, as in the case of Blackie, found their way into his home, seeking a word in the very sanctity of his study.
There he was, waiting for the war to end, dreaming about some distant future. I wondered if this was the “utopia” he labeled in his story proposal. The name he uses for his wife, “Virginia,” was my grandmother’s name. I imagine my grandfather in the barracks, writing about the most mundane moments of civilian life—forgetting to grocery shop for his wife—as a respite from reality.
Jack didn’t become an assistant professor of sociology, but he did become an art teacher at a boy’s boarding school. Going through the letters sent after his suicide, I found so many from students remarking on the impact he had on their lives.
One student, Tim Harding, sent my grandmother a letter saying:
“I was terribly shocked to hear… and have felt like crying ever since. In the six years I spent at Groton your husband was the only man there that I totally respected. Although I never had him in a class, I worked under him as stage manager and we played guitar together and mostly we talked, and I learned more from being with him than any class.”
Another wrote that he was, “the only teacher I ever had at Groton that I ever called by their first name. (come to think of it, I never even had a course from Jack) I think I have referred to you both in my thinking all through my life as sort of check points for my sanity.”
There were more:
“He literally opened my eyes to a new world and what lasting pleasure it has given me.”
“You can’t possibly know how often I think about Jack, gratefully stealing his insights which used now are still new and effective.”
“I cannot overstate the effect on me of many hours spent in the Groton Studio– in that wonderfully fruitful atmosphere and environment created by your husband.”
“One of the happiest times of my life was that fall that Nancy and I would motor up to Groton and go painting with Jack.”
“My best memories of school (and those, I know, of a number in my form) are the result of his character and work.”
And in Jean Wadsworth’s letter:
“I hope the boys and Kit and Mimi realize what a lot Jack gave those boys at Groton. There is perhaps many a grotonian who will be a more understanding human being because of the ideas Jack threw around while he was working with them, and I imagine many of those kids will have their place in society.”
“I feel that you have to respect Jack for his courage to do this thing, and if he really tried and was unable to change, at his age, perhaps it was his privilege…
Our condolences to you, (I’m sure you still felt for Jack) and the kids. He was a man of value.”
. . .
“Tear it up and throw it away,” my dad tells me at the end of our first interview. “You don’t have to write that story. But you got material if you need it.”
A few weeks later, I have another question for my dad: “Don’t you think it’s strange to name your daughter after a man who committed suicide?”
“Both my children are named after my parents. We thought it was a good name—he was a great guy, everybody loved him. He was a very talented and very curious and very creative individual. And we like to remember him, and we wanna pass on his good things—keep those alive and working.”
“But he committed suicide.”
“He ended his life but it wasn’t like it was an insubstantial life—he left us a great house, great paintings… it’s not like that’s all he ever did was commit suicide.”
Rereading a letter from one of Jack’s students after his suicide, a certain section stood out to me.
“It suddenly seemed clear to me that my life was related to despair and petty aggravation while Jack somehow was always reaching for meaning or joy or something positive.
Anyway, the point of the man as a teacher was that I felt maybe I could get some of that good joy too...”
The irony here doesn’t escape me– the man whom the student thought always “reached for meaning” killed himself. But, the impact he had on his student led me back to some of Jack’s own writing, from that same story about the assistant professor:
…yet something was missing- some means of perception of understanding which would reconcile these able young intellects with the life they were living and were about to live, something besides life itself.
Maybe Jack couldn’t reconcile his past and present. Maybe he was looking for his “means of perception of understanding” in “something besides life itself.” In death.
In the two phone calls with my father directly after our first interview, he reminded me again that I don’t have to write this story. But even he can’t help himself—he still brings up that day in Cambridge.
“And, it was April first, and it’s just my dad’s sense of humor to do it on April Fool’s Day. You know, kind of dark, but just when he wanted to do it. But it’s interesting because, I think, what if he saw me? A lot of people were out that day. And it was the first bright day of spring. So he might have seen me that day in Cambridge. Probably not, but it’s possible.”