Life and death behind perfect doors



When my family was living in Evanston, IL, our apartment was on the outskirts of a neighborhood of beautiful historic homes.  Walking to the beach, to the university, to one of four nearby playgrounds, would take us past these gorgeous, multi-million dollar houses.  It was strange, living in such close proximity to these homes that we will never be able to afford (I’m an author, my husband is an astrophysicist, I harbor no delusions about our chances of ever becoming rich).  With a couple notable exceptions (one being a hulking brick structure buried in ivy, with peeling white columns and dark shuttered windows) the homes were meticulously cared for, beautifully detailed with finely maintained lawns and gardens of flowers and even the occasional vegetables, tomatoes and cucumbers and snap peas.  Perfect.

All the more shocking when I found out about the bodies.

One of the houses that we’d pass by while taking the kids to the park belonged to a 90 year old woman.  I believe we saw her once or twice, out in the yard, tending her plants.  When her name hit the papers, her neighbors said the things that neighbors always say in such instances.  She was sweet and friendly, liked to give away cuttings from her plants.  Entirely normal.  There were no indications that anything was wrong.  And when they didn’t see her for a couple days, the neighbors got worried, and called the police to check in on her.  They found her inside, weak and malnourished and dehydrated.

And they found the bodies of her brother and two sisters.

They died of natural causes, the police said.  Time of death was unclear, but according to neighbors, the brother had last been seen earlier that year.  One of the sisters had last been seen five years before.  And the other sister?  Last seen in the 1980’s.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for these siblings.  None of them ever married, and after their parents died, all they had was each other. When the one sister died in the eighties, was there a fight among the remaining three?  Did one sibling want to report the death, bury their sister properly, and was talked down by the other two?  Or was there a silent agreement that they must stay together, no matter what, even in death?

What was it like, having their sister lying dead in one of the rooms of the house.  Did they visit her every day, washing her body, washing her hair, caring for her in death as they had in life?  Or did they close the door, go about life as if her corpse wasn’t there, even when the stench of decay was overpowering?

When the other sister died, they had already had the body of the first sister in the house for fifteen years, so keeping the body of the second must have been a matter of course.  And when her brother died, what was the remaining sibling to do but keep them together as the last bastion of the family?  Did she object when the police came in to take her away, to take the bodies of her brother and sisters away?  Did she want to die in that house, her brother and sisters close, like they had died?  Did it feel like a defeat when she could not defend their unity, keep them from being broken up at last?  She had been living that way for over two decades.  Whether by conviction or inertia, she had chosen that way of living.  Having it wrested from her much have been a terrible blow.  I do not know what happened to her after she was “rescued,” but somehow I doubt she lasted long, being alone for the first time in her life.

The house was surrounded in yellow police tape for a week.  When it was taken down, it was hard to remember which house it had been.  It was just one beautiful house in a neighborhood of beautiful houses.  A perfect exterior that hid the rottenness inside.

6 thoughts on “Life and death behind perfect doors

  1. I got chills reading this. There are several houses we pass on our daily walk with shuttered windows. These are the houses that make me wonder what happens inside – but I never think about the houses that have their windows open and folks out watering their yards. Never judge a book by its cover is too right!

    1. I think most of us have parts that we keep tucked away behind a pretty facade. The skeletons in the closet were just a little less metaphorical in this case.

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