Addie with grandchildren Johanna and Matt, Summer, 1962

by Johanna Skilling

This picture is of my Grandma Addie; the two cute kids are myself, age 4, and my brother Matt, in the summer of his first year.

Addie was my father's mother: slim, elegant and English, with a taste for beautiful antique furniture and delicate bone china. She was a secretary at Warner Brothers Studios; she was married to Grandpa Jack, a barber, and they had two sons, my father and uncle.

Even though they'd been in America for many years by the time I was born, Addie and Jack retained the customs that they'd been brought up with: cutting food in that peculiar English way, scooping peas on the back of a fork, a talent I never mastered, despite years of loyal imitation, and making elaborate pots of tea with spoonfuls of intensely-flavored black tea leaves.

And of course there were those accents. My grandmother was from Manchester and had the slightly flat sound of the Midlands; my grandfather was from the East End of London, and spoke in the classic cadences of a true Cockney. To me, in the bland comfort of my suburban childhood, my grandparents were the closest thing I could imagine to British Royalty. Based on a celebratory mug for the Queen Mum's birthday that sat on their mantle, I assumed they knew the Queen personally.

I was twelve years old when all that changed.
We'd had a very exciting week. Addie and Jack's extended family was largely based in England, and I had never met any of them. A large contingent of cousins, aunts and uncles came together in New York that spring to reconnect and meet the new and not-so-new in-laws and children in America.

Grandma Addie was basking in the role of family tourguide, planning elaborate excursions to some of the great New York attractions. I remember walking with my cousin Susan, one year older than I and impossibly more sophisticated, in the gardens at the Cloisters, the medieval retreat overlooking the Hudson River. Our primary topic of conversation was how well American teen magazines, versus their British counterparts, covered such important celebrities as Davey Jones and Jack Wild (my secret heartthrob from the series H.R. Pufnstuff.) I was so impressed by Susan's knowing air and nice clothes (her mother had made her dress up for the walk; mine hadn't), that I let her win the argument.

And then one evening the next week, in our kitchen, I picked up the white princess phone hanging on the wall, and heard a voice asking to speak to my mother or father. There'd been a bad accident.

Addie and Jack had been with the relatives that night, going out to Long Island. There were a lot of people, and everyone was quite crowded in. Susan, I know, was sitting on someone's lap. It was before people were educated about wearing seatbelts.

It was dark; they were on the highway. From the opposite direction, driving the wrong way down the one-way highway, came a pair of headlights, going very fast. The speeding car crashed into a taxi; the taxi spun into the car carrying my grandparents.

The driver of the other car was drunk. A middle-class, middle-aged man, a "nice" man, who'd had too much to drink and tried to drive home.

One of my older cousins, a man in his fifties, died in the crash. As I understand it, his head went directly through the roof of the car. Everyone else sustained injuries: Susan walked out of the wreck with a broken arm.

My grandfather wasn't badly hurt, but my grandmother was: she was flung up in the air and hit her head on a steel beam in the roof of the vehicle. Her head and face were badly injured. In addition, dozens of the delicate bones in her feet had been crushed; other bones in her legs and pelvis had been broken. She spent three months in traction. The doctors put metal pins in her feet, legs and hips, but she never really recovered: eighteen months after the accident, Addie died.

I was 14; I had never known anyone who had died. I had a lump in my throat that wouldn't go away; for the first two days, through the end of the funeral, I couldn't force any food down my throat. That accident caused a chain reaction: my grandfather apparently decided that he couldn't live without his wife. He stopped eating and despite family intervention and hospitalization, he was dead six months after we buried Addie.

I remember my father, then just about 40 years old, looking down at the kitchen table and saying blankly, "I'm an orphan." My father's grandmother, a robust 90, had to endure the pain of burying her daughter and son-in-law. And the chance for everyone in the family to enjoy whatever time we would have had together, and perhaps to heal old wounds, was gone forever.

I'm telling you this story because everything I needed to learn about driving drunk I learned in that time at the cusp of my adolescence. Thirty years have passed since that accident, and I realize that out-of-control driver taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. To this day, I don't have a drink without thinking about whether I have to get behind a wheel. I won't drive after even one drink.

You see, it isn't usually raging alcoholics that kill people and shatter families. It's nice people. Like you and me.

So far, so good. I've been safe, and the people I care for have been, too.

But I hope everyone else on the road is just as careful.

Johanna Skilling is the author of Fibroids: The Complete Guide To Taking Charge of Your Physical, Emotional and Sexual Well-Being
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus