Frozen ground and fresh flowers

Olivia Mohr

This is a personal essay by Olivia Mohr.

Outside in the cold at my great-grandmother’s graveside service at the Lexington Cemetery in January 2013, my mother wore her long, forest green coat.

She placed the fresh, colorful flowers she had taken from the floral arrangements on the dead, frozen ground where her older brother Billy is buried as her mother, who lives in Montana, had asked her to do. My mother burst into tears and buried her head into her younger brother’s shoulder.

I stared at her and felt like I had been kicked in the gut. My mother had always been a pillar of strength in my eyes, and it was the first time I had ever seen her really cry. I was 14. Though we were at my great-grandmother’s service, I knew my mother was crying over Billy. After all, my great-grandmother was 96 when she died. Billy was 19 when he took his own life.

Billy committed suicide just six days before my mother started her first year of college in 1975. After my mother’s parents divorced, my mother, her mother and my mother’s other three siblings moved to Montana while Billy stayed in Kentucky with my grandfather, who was an alcoholic.

My mother said that one night, Billy and my grandfather got into an argument at around 2 a.m. and Billy stormed into the room they shared.

“I know how to get out of this mess,” Billy said, according to my mother.

He picked up my grandfather’s gun, pulled the trigger and was gone.

I never got the chance to meet Billy, but my mother told me I would have liked him. She said he was creative and smart. The artsy type, like me. He liked to write poetry like I do and he painted oil paintings.

Still, every time “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles comes on the radio in the car, my mother smiles sadly into the distance.

“This was Billy’s favorite song,” she tells me every time.

I always feel a crushing blow of sadness because I love the Beatles, and if I had ever known Billy, I could have shared that love with him.

Billy and my mother used to play at the Lexington Cemetery. They watched swans swim in the pond and imagined skeleton bodies lying under the ground. She wrote a poem about it called “Georgia Marble.” In it, she wrote that she never could have imagined him occupying the place.

My mother said she didn’t understand how she was alive and her brother wasn’t. She couldn’t understand how the world kept turning.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off inside of me,” she said.

I remembered the nuclear bomb she told me about when I was in middle school and my classmates joked about suicide or casually threw around the phrase “I’ll kill myself.”

They laughed, not necessarily meaning anything by it, and I would think of my mother. I wanted to tell them to stop, that it wasn’t a joking matter, that suicide has a lasting effect, just like a nuclear bomb. But I stayed quiet. They wouldn’t understand. I didn’t understand it myself.


Sometimes I hear my mother scream at night. She says she dreams she’s lying in the dark and her father is standing over her. It’s recurring, and she always wakes up screaming. After my grandfather passed away nine months after his mother, my great-grandmother, my mother’s nightmares became more frequent.

My mother and I were in the car one morning. She was driving me to school, and we were talking about my grandfather.

I recalled stories my mother had told me about my grandfather’s drunken anger: how he hit her with a belt, called her stupid and beat her mother.

“At least he was never sexually abusive,” I said.

She got quiet for a moment, and then she told me a story I had never heard before, about the time when she was 11 years old and he came into her bedroom drunk in the middle of the night.

She said she slept with her door locked after that night.

After she told me the story, I realized why she never wanted to be alone with my grandfather, even as an adult. I thought, maybe that’s where the nightmares come from, even after all these years.

I thought of my own father and my complete trust in him. I couldn’t imagine a life or a world in which I didn’t see him as the strongest man I know and someone who would never hurt me, but would always protect me, even if it meant dying in my place. 

My mother never had that. She locked the door at night as a little girl to keep her father out as if to keep a monster away. I left my door open as a little girl so my parents could protect me if a monster came into my room and tried to eat me.

I learned when I was a little older that the real monsters in the world are people. My mother learned that truth too soon.


Perhaps the only good thing my grandfather ever did for my mother was tell her she needed to value her education. He said she needed to be more than just a pretty face and that people should know it.

When she was little, she snuck into the bathroom at night to read and stuffed a towel in the crack under the door to keep her family from seeing the light.

School and reading were her escape, and she was one of the only girls at her school growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s to take the hardest classes, like physics. She graduated high school and got big scholarships for college in Montana.

When my brother and sister and I were little, my mother read to us for hours. My father always told her she bought too many books, but for us, there was no such thing.

My bookshelf was always spilling over with children’s books. I remember stacking countless children’s books on my bed at a time and locking myself in my room to read every single one.

In my bookshelf and my old books, I see love. I see a mother who wanted her children to never feel pain like she did, but to understand enough about it to empathize with others, to learn about adversity from the pages of books and from the stories of others.

I see a mother who wanted her children to have a better life than the one she had growing up and a mother who gave them a father who, as my mother said, “couldn’t wait to get home to his family.”

Features editor Olivia Mohr can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @oliviamohr3.