'Til Murder Do Us Part: A Familial Tale of Death, Dementia, and Drama

Growing old without dignity: Uncle Paul killed Aunt Helen and then tried to kill himself. They were already dead to most of us.

"I have mixed emotions about my father. . . . When I was a little girl, he was definitely the good daddy. There was definitely a lot of 'good cop/bad cop' going on in my house. When I was a teenager, I still cared for him more. But as I got older, and thought about things, I did transfer a little blame to my father. He should have seen certain things and not buried himself in sand." For a time, Paul did try to play mediator between Julie and her mother over fights brought on by what she terms Helen's "OCD cleaning and laundry issues."

The apartment didn't even have a hamper. Helen would practically rip the clothes off Julie's back to make sure they went immediately into the washing machine. "This posed problems as I got older and wanted to go out in the evening," Julie says. "In her mind, I wasn't going out to have fun with friends, I was going out to punish her. We got into lots of fights as a teenager, because I knew she had to wash my clothes."

Helen once called her daughter a "filthy human being" for wearing jeans two days in a row. "It was very important for her that I be clean, especially in certain places," she says.

Paul: “Son, I promised my wife a long time ago I would never put her in a home.”
Paul: “Son, I promised my wife a long time ago I would never put her in a home.”

Paul had his quirks as well. My father says he once told him he used to go to bed wearing gloves with his hands slathered in Vaseline. Julie didn't remember that, but she did agree that her father's hands were "soft, exceptionally clean, and unusually manicured for a man's hands. He used to buff them every day," she says.

But Evelyn, who logged more time in that apartment than any other "outsider," can offer up little about any of this. Like a cigarette company executive being questioned by a Senate panel, all she can say is, "I don't remember."

Evelyn does admit that she thought Helen drank too much. ("I said to Helen, 'I know what you're doing in that house. You drink,' I says. 'Don't drink so much.' ") There was also a strongbox full of pills that Paul kept at the ready for his perpetually stressed-out wife. "She needed something to sleep so he'd give her something, then, in the morning, she'd be kinda dopey, so she'd need something to wake up. There seemed to be a pill for everything," Julie says.

The drugs did little to diminish her tyrannical personality: "She was always the warden—whatever she said went." It was no small miracle that Julie managed to persuade her mother to let her sleep on the fold-out couch in the living room. The same went for bathing herself. She was already nine years old.

That was also the year of the "Doll Incident." One day, when Julie came home from school, Helen was "on one of her rampages," cleaning the apartment. Julie's toys were simply taking up too much space, including her doll collection, brought back from Germany by her father's mother. Among them were two- and three-foot-high beauties sporting porcelain faces and silken hair that could be combed. Julie agreed that she'd outgrown them and wanted to pass her treasures on to some other child. But Helen had other plans. Fearing that someone would find them in the trash, she dismembered their heads and cut their hair down to stubble.

"I'll never forget that picture. It used to give me nightmares," Julie says.

Julie will also never forget obtaining her first training bra at age 11 or 12. Of course, her hypochondriac mother couldn't simply go out and buy one—she had to consult her doctor. "So I'm sitting there, and she hands him the training bra, and she goes, 'Is this gonna be OK?' Here's the six-foot-tall guy, with a cigarillo in his mouth, feeling the cups of this training bra—making sure it's not gonna damage me in any way."

As Julie entered her teens, the weirdness continued. At 13, she "talked back," prompting Helen to pull down her pants and deliver a bare-ass public spanking at a shopping mall in New Rochelle. The following year, the same thing happened in front of her friends at a sleepover party: "I think she got what she wanted. I never invited people back to the house again because I couldn't deal with any more embarrassment."

And that same year, Helen went after Julie with a three-inch-thick rolling pin: "I said to myself, I'm not gonna get hit by a fuckin' rolling pin, so I drop-kicked her. And she starts screaming for my father because she's laying on the floor. My father comes in and says to me, 'What the fuck did you do?' and I said, 'I kicked her.' He said, 'Why?' and I said, ' 'Cause she was gonna hit me with a rolling pin.' He said, 'Well, I can't blame you there.' So she was mad at both of us. At least my father had common sense."

Paul never could stand up to his wife—or, as my father puts it: "He wanted to be thought of as a man, but he was only a roly-poly, soft-as-a-lily pretender."

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