I’d heard about Iris over the years, one sentence at a time, but little more than that. She was a great aunt that I never knew, the youngest of five daughters (my late grandmother was the oldest sister). Their family lived in Belhaven, a tiny town on the Pungo River, which feeds into the Pamlico Sound, then through narrow inlets through the Outer Banks, into the Atlantic, and up the Gulf Stream. Iris’ home street was lined with white and cedar Victorian homes, some small and large, but all grand by any standard. Belhaven was a town of sea captains, lumber barons, farmers, and woodsmen. But like the creeks and rivers that flow to the sea, so too did secrets and burdens, including the memory of Iris, who took her life in 1947, when she was just 22.
“Iris broke Grandmother’s heart.”
“This wasn’t the first time she tried.”
“She might have had female problems.”
“She was a nurse, had beautiful dark hair, and played the piano.”
Until I was 41, that’s all I knew about Iris. Time and geographic distance were not the only gaps between my life and hers. My mothers’ generation of cousins absorbed their own mothers’ grief, silence and sometimes anger about Iris’ suicide and the pain it caused, particularly for my great-grandmother. When I brought it up, there wasn’t much to say, and my own mother was still angry about it to some degree, even though she was two years old when Iris died. I always wondered what she was like and why she did it. As a woman living with depression, I was particularly curious. In early 2016 I began a genealogy project and in the course of my research, hoped I would find out more. I informed the older aunts that I was doing this, and invited them to share any stories, if they wished to.
But there really wasn’t much to go on. I found a birth certificate, a family census record, and a death certificate. Years ago, I’d seen her grave stone in Belhaven’s flat and barren Odd Fellows Cemetery. That’s all that’s left of Iris in history. Then my cousin kindly sent me Iris’ charm bracelet, and once I held it in my hands, and examined each tiny charm, finally I had some clues, even if abstract. I became even more determined to “put meat on the bones of the papers,” as a 95-year-old Belhaven resident later described this journey.
I traveled to Belhaven in April 2016 to try to unpack Iris’ story, in order to pay my respects and demystify what ended as a sad story for my family. I knew there had to be more to it. I could, and probably will write a book about how this story unfolded. I stayed in the house she lived in (now a lovingly-kept B&B), I wore her charm bracelet, and I slept in what was once her bedroom. I talked to elderly folks around town that knew the family, although most have passed on. In the end, I employed conversation and followed simple clues to understand her story. What I lacked in paper trails and family storytelling, I more than made up for with intuition and being present in her space.
To keep this blog post somewhat manageable, here’s what I learned and discerned on my trip:
I can’t imagine it was easy for Iris. She was very intelligent and sophisticated, in a small town where old grudges, gossip and marriages could rule one’s social life. Her beloved father died of alcoholism when she was 12, and as her older sisters got married, moved on and left town, she was at home with her grieving mother, a paragon of generosity and warmth. But in her pain, Iris’ mother found solace and strength in her unflinching Baptist faith. This solemn approach and litany of Bible quotes could be austere and simple to an intelligent young woman who was also grieving but also coming into her own as an individual. Perhaps they had a lot of trouble communicating emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps she had no peers to relate to beyond the usual small-town social circuit. She was a nurse, and liked her work. She worked at a hospital in a larger town about 30 minutes from home. She loved animals, especially birds. People in town always saw her smiling. She smoked cigarettes with other girls and played the piano beautifully. She wore her hair in waves. She loved music, obviously the piano but also liked to listen to boogie-woogie records.
Iris suffered from a gynecological issue like fibroids or endometriosis, which can wreak havoc on hormones. Perhaps she thought she could not have children and was tormented by mood swings. She fell in love with a man who could not return it. Whether he simply did not share her feelings or was a married man who could not leave his family, I could not conclude. But he was the peer she longed for and losing him broke her heart, not unlike losing her father. She overdosed on barbiturates once before. Whether or not she intended to die is unclear. As a nurse she had access to the drugs required to end her life. However, her death certificate said it took 27 hours from the time of onset until death. Perhaps she wanted to be rescued, or just to sleep deeply through the pain of both life and death. She died on an unusually warm day in Belhaven, four days after Valentine’s Day. Her body was brought home from the hospital and laid out in the living room. She wore a blue evening gown, her hand was crossed over her long waist, and her beautiful hair was set in waves.
As I shared my findings with my mother, buried stories and emotions began to emerge, gently. Mom said she remembered Grandmother sitting on that back porch. Usually stalwart but kind-faced, she broke down in front of her young granddaughter, crying and hunched over on the steps. “Poor little Iris,” Grandmother said, “I wouldn’t let her pick my flowers in the garden. If I could just have her back, she could pick all the flowers she ever wanted to.” Mom also said to me, “Iris, we are so, so sorry for the pain you were in. We love you.”
While the story continues in my mind, heart, and family research, I finally feel like I can write something for Iris, so she’s remembered by more than a birth and death certificate:
IRIS MARY WILKINSON
Iris Wilkinson was an intelligent, beautiful, talented and kind young woman who lived in Belhaven, NC in the 1930s and 40s. She was the youngest daughter of Ruth and “Cap’n Will” Wilkinson, and grew up in a large white house on Water Street. She was devoted to both her mother and late father. Iris had a great natural talent for music. She loved to play piano in her family’s parlor, and alongside her was her beloved parrot, Polly, which she inherited from a local mariner. She also had pet ducks that would follow her around the yard. She always smiled when she greeted people in town, and her very young nieces loved her smile. Iris was very tall and lean, with dark, wavy hair. After graduating from high school, Iris went on to study nursing and worked at the hospital in Washington, NC. She grieved her father’s death from a young age, suffered from depression, had painful health problems, and also lost her first great love. She left her family and this world at too young an age, but remains beloved and very much remembered, by all who were lucky enough to meet her.