Great Aunt Gloria by Julianna Marchant  I had never heard the word suicide until my Great Aunt Gloria killed herself when I was seven years old. Her death came, eerily, only a week after she had traveled all the way up from New York City to our house in Westchester for lunch, something she had never done before. I remember the hazy August day my dad sat me down on our front porch and told me that Gloria had passed away. “How?” I demanded, an admittedly callous reaction to the death of a family member, but I saw it as more of an anomaly than a tragedy—we had been to see her only a handful of times, after all. Sure, she was old, I remember thinking, but she seemed perfectly fine last week! Don’t old people usually end up in the hospital for a while before they die? I don’t remember what my dad said exactly, or how he said it, but somehow he answered my question. “Aunt Gloria committed suicide.” “What’s that?” “It’s when a person decides life is no longer worth living, so they end it.” “So Gloria just… made herself die?” Could a person kill herself if she lay in bed and wished for it to happen? I wondered. Could you think yourself to death? “Well, she made it happen.” I don’t think my dad told me any true or fabricated details of her suicide right there on our porch, but I found out long after that she had smothered herself with a grocery bag. Or pills, or a combination of the two. The friends who found her the next morning in her apartment never really specified which. But it was that first image of Gloria’s slender corpse lying stiff and supine on her bed, her head shrouded in the same wrinkly plastic we used to line our trash cans and pick up dog poop, that was seared in my brain right under the definition of suicide. Gloria Emerson was my dad’s first cousin once removed. She became his surrogate caretaker when his father grew ill with Parkinson’s disease and his mother died from cancer. He was only eleven. He and his two older sisters, Sofia and Giovanna—Fia and Gio for short—lived with a German nanny in a small Upper East Side apartment and were frequently taken under the wing of their parents’ friends and other extended family members, growing up in a unique milieu filled with the kinds of eccentric adults you’d find in a Wes Anderson movie. Gloria, perhaps the most eccentric of them all, was no permanent or consistent substitute. She was married briefly three times much earlier in her life but had no children of her own, remaining independent and distant until the day she died. At the most unexpected times, she would appear at their apartment doorstep and whisk the kids away for a long walk in Central Park or a visit to the Met; then she would completely disappear from their lives, often for months at a time. To my dad and his sisters, she was like an older, colder, less musical Mary Poppins—enigmatic, yet beneath her fearsome pout, caring to the core. Gloria was born to wealthy bluebloods William Emerson, the brother of my dad’s mother, and Ruth Shaw Emerson, in Manhattan, 1929. She probably attended elite private schools and debutante balls and other displays of adolescent pretension, but we don’t really know for sure, because she never spoke about her upbringing. We do know that she didn’t go to college. Somewhere along the foggy beginning of her timeline she began writing for the women’s page of The New York Times, but quit shortly after because she hated covering only fashion. She moved to London years later—possibly after marrying and then disposing of her three husbands—and started working for the Times London Bureau to report on the Northern Ireland conflict. Once the Vietnam War arrived, she convinced the paper to transfer her to Saigon so she could document the situation firsthand and speak directly to Vietnamese civilians. She lived in Gaza under the Israeli occupation for a year in the ‘90s and wrote a book about her time there. When she turned seventy and her passport pages looked like collages, she came back to New York and stayed there for the remaining five years of her life. Gloria’s apartment was overwhelmingly gray—the walls, the carpets, the light, the mood. My parents and I visited her maybe once or twice a year. She had posters of Jackie Kennedy and Che Gueverra hanging above the entryway, which was met by shelves upon shelves filled to the brim with dusty old books. The apartment always smelled like cigarettes, and so did she; at least twice during the annual gathering she would excuse herself from our conversation to go have a cigarette, and we’d sit and watch as she dangled out of an open window and retreated into a cloud of smoke. She once told us that the reason she refused to take an airplane nowadays was because she couldn’t go that long without a smoke. When I picture Gloria, I remember the few times I saw her in her apartment, and the one time she sat opposite me at our lunch table; I picture her slim yet looming figure, probably clad in a navy turtleneck, black slacks and black loafers, her silver bob and the incongruous streak of white hair lining her forehead that looked strikingly cartoon-like, her delicate features that lay in the shadow of her probing, deep-set eyes, as if belonging to a beast that haunts a dark cave, all combined with a husky drawl and slightly hunched posture that made her appear quite villainous, especially to a seven-year-old. Gloria was notoriously rude. Volatile, domineering, sometimes downright tactless, a real ball-buster. It’s how she got what she wanted. I never saw this side of her, but my parents did—they told me about a few frightening screaming matches that had taken place before I was born. John Lennon and Yoko Ono did, too. Back in the sixties, Gloria conducted an interview with John and Yoko about their anti-war campaign in which she not only berated the two of them but got up and stormed out only about five minutes in. You don’t need to watch the YouTube video to picture it: a thirty-something Gloria, sitting squarely and confidently across a table from two of the most well-known faces of the time, who somehow seem dwarfed by her presence. She speaks coolly yet brazenly, her stern pout not once softening. The discussion elevates until finally, at the most cringe-worthy moment, she packs up her things and leaves while Yoko is speaking. The clip ends with John and Yoko looking appalled. The nerve, they must have been thinking, just as I was. I don’t have many memories of Gloria—my favorite is secondhand, told to me by my parents countless times after she died. When I was about three years old I was obsessed with a children’s book about an elephant named Babar who travels to a big city in order to avoid hunters and then brings civilization back to his elephant friends and family. I consequently learned some impressive vocabulary from the urbane elephant; I’d begin every sentence with actually, for example, practically singing each syllable as I delighted in my sophistication: “Actually, I would like to watch Teletubbies now.” As the story goes, we went out to a restaurant with Gloria once and, upon seeing the pea soup I had ordered, I exclaimed, “What a becoming shade of soup!” Gloria laughed and laughed, and I don’t think I ever saw her laugh after that. She too, apparently, delighted in my sophistication. Gloria was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about a year before her suicide. This, as I learned only recently, was the reason. Gloria could not imagine a life without work, without journalism, without writing; she could not imagine a life in which she could not hold pen to paper, let alone light a cigarette. So Gloria, true to form, assembled her last grand scheme in her seventy-fifth and final year: she wrote her own obituary, sent it to her friends to publish at major newspapers, organized her own funeral, edited friends’ eulogies, and visited all of the people in her life to bid them farewell. My parents have told me that Gloria didn’t tell them what she was doing when she came to our house, that she acted normally and gave no indications that this trip would be her last. Then she killed herself, quickly and cleanly, the final step in her perfectly planned exit. She didn’t try to cover the fact that it was a suicide, either—she left multiple suicide notes in her apartment for her friends to find. A few months before Gloria died my Great Aunt Patsy passed away. Her time had come, though. She was nearly a hundred years old and in a near vegetative state. She never left her bed the last few years and could only mutter a few words. Her death I understood plainly—her death was what my seven-year-old brain pictured death to be, a gradual descent that ceases at the hands of some higher power. Her final years were a decrescendo; she slipped slowly and smoothly, a steady passage across the bridge between life and death. Death was something that happened to a person, I had thought. Not something that was summoned by a person. As it goes, the day Gloria killed herself some other notable author died too, casting her below the fold on The New York Times obituary page. Some things you just can’t control.