In April 1934, Gloria Harris drowned in a copper wash boiler on the back porch of her family’s farmhouse in Big Woods Township, Minnesota. She was 18 months old at the time. Her sister Olive was not quite three. She was the only one there when it happened. She was blamed for her sister’s death.
Gloria’s sister Olive was my grandmother.
The story of Gloria’s drowning was a specter that haunted my childhood, a story I gathered up and pieced together over time from scraps of conversation unintentionally overheard. I don’t remember the first time I heard of Gloria or whose mouth spoke the words. All I know is what I thought I knew: that Gloria was my grandma’s sister, that she drowned as a toddler, and that my grandma was somehow responsible for her death. No one ever told me what had really happened, and I knew better than to ask. It was only later I would realize that almost no one really knew.
I was 22 years old the first time I heard my grandma tell the story, at a farewell family barbecue in my parents’ suburban backyard. We sat around a freshly sanded picnic table, the six of us—my parents and grandparents and the half-hearted boyfriend I would leave behind when I moved east for grad school the next day. My grandpa made jokes. We laughed through mouthfuls of Ruffles and barbecued chicken. And my grandma sat quietly in the background, laughing gently along with us, careful as always not to take up too much space. I watched as she pulled apart her chicken wings with a delicate precision I’d always admired, plucking the flesh between thumb and middle finger, manicured pinkies pointing outward. It was the same care she gave to everything she touched—saran wrap, her sewing, the pool cue she slid across the felt of my grandpa’s prized Brunswick table in the basement of their immaculate home. She was a woman who handled life tenderly, cautiously, as if at any moment it might break.
I never understood what triggered her telling that day. But I remember how it felt when it hit, the sound of the words pouring out of her as if from nowhere, directed at no one. She spoke in soft, measured syllables—of the porch railing, the copper boiler, of her mother upstairs washing floors. She spoke of the sugar bowl, the sting of a hand against her cheek, and the room in the sanatorium where it eventually unraveled. Thinking back, I remember how she seemed almost surprised by her own words, as if she were taking them in for the first time with the rest of us, sifting through the grains for something solid to grasp on to. There was an urgency to her voice as she spoke, but also a palpable tremor, like she wasn’t sure why—or if—she should need to speak at all.
I don’t remember what I said when she finished. What could any of us say? All I remember is the anger I felt. The confusion. The betrayal. The guilt for all those years of how wrong I’d been and for all those years of no one asking.
The next morning, I boarded a plane, my life rolled tightly in two soft-sided suitcases, and left it all behind me.
It was three years later when she got the diagnosis. And a year-and-a-half after that when she died. Watching my grandma battle pancreatic cancer was like watching her wilt in time-lapse, shrinking slowly into herself, bending gracefully against the pain.
For six weeks of my grandma’s illness, I took my turn sleeping in her guest room, beneath a cream-colored crochet bedspread blooming with floppy magenta flowers. Twice a week, I would wake up, microwave her cup of coffee, and drive her aging Taurus twenty miles north to the hospital where she went for treatment, radio on in the background too quiet to hear. There, I’d sit beside her padded vinyl recliner for the however-many-hours it took to pump the poison through her veins. We’d comment on our favorite nurses and on the almost-view of the Cascades behind the clouds—all to the tune of Bob Barker’s Showcase Showdown. Afterward, we’d stop for lunch at the Olive Garden halfway home, where she’d poke at her unlimited soup and salad, make a dent in a slice of chocolate cheesecake, and stubbornly insist on picking up the bill.
As time passed, I watched her rings grow loose around her fingers—her gold wedding band and her mother’s ring with its seven tiny stones. Until finally she got them fitted with little metal rings of their own in an ill-fated effort to hold them in their place. She’d never quite say how she was feeling those days. She never was one to complain. But, sliding them back and forth over the swollen knobs of her knuckles, she never failed to mention her rings.
Before I left home again that fall, I sat down at my grandma’s coffee table to record her oral history. It was then that she told me the story, for the second and final time, of what had happened to Gloria—or, as she put it, “what hadn’t.” As she walked me through the details, I wondered what she remembered because she remembered and what she remembered because she’d been “told many times what [she] said,” what she did. I wondered if she could even tell the difference.
“At four you forget,” my grandma told me. But, in fact, she wasn’t quite three when it happened. And, 75 years later, it would still bring her to tears.
In the only surviving photograph of my grandma as a child, she looks out from behind dark eyes that speak something of what she couldn't say, lips pursed, tiny shoulders slumped forward and dimples in her hands. To her left, her cousins stand with outstretched arms and furrowed brows. They know nothing of the sickness that will sweep through the family in the years that follow, leaving the unluckier one to die, untreated, in her bed. To her right, her brother Gorden floats into the frame, eyes closed, hanging in the air like a chubby apparition. Born just two weeks after Gloria’s death, Gorden would know little of the sister who came before him—and even less of the secret my grandma carried in her stead. But here, in this photo, in his mother’s mother’s arms, he’s held up as a kind of triumph—as warm, fleshy proof that life goes on.
Looking at this photo, I can’t help but think how small my grandma looks—and how much smaller she would have been on the day that Gloria drowned. It’s hard to imagine the two of them alone together, playing in the ash pile with their tiny paper roads. It’s harder still to imagine their mother, Eileen—missing from this photo as she was missing from the porch that day—upstairs, two weeks from giving birth, on her hands and knees washing floors.
What was she thinking? I can’t help but wonder. But, then again, what was she thinking as she scrubbed?
I knew her as Granny—my grandma’s mother, Eileen—though, if I’m honest, I knew her very little. When I imagine her in my mind, she’s a stolid figure on my grandparents’ couch, leg thrust out on the cushion next to her like a rigid old friend. At the time, I figured this was just something old people did, that maybe she just didn’t want anyone sitting too close. So I never did. Years later, I would learn that her knee had been surgically fused, that she hadn’t bent it since the early ’70s.
My granny was present at every family gathering for the first eight years of my life, and when she moved to the nursing home we brought the holidays to her. Dressed in lily-white tights and scuffed patent leather, we searched for plastic eggs amidst the walkers and wheelchairs of half-bewildered people we’d never met. At the end of the visit, we posed dutifully next to Granny, smiling at the camera, even after she’d lost the strength to hold up her own head.
I was in the third grade when my granny died, just before another Easter. I can remember my dad speaking at her funeral. About how she liked to make little dolls for my sisters and me. Plastic Kewpie Doll heads stitched to tiny armless crocheted dresses. I used to wear one on a string around my neck, kept it locked in a jewelry box with a spinning ballerina. It was the first time I’d seen my dad cry. It was the first time I realized that she was his grandma.
I can’t remember ever speaking to my granny, or even hearing her speak at all, although I’m sure I must have at some point, in the way that children do. Aside from these fleeting recollections, I know her only through secondhand family accounts—of her irascible temper; her beloved Chihuahua, Chico; her cheerful refusal to wear her lower teeth. But in my own memory, my granny has always been more of a story than a person. And you can’t forgive a story. I guess, in a way, that’s how this project began.
Since I first heard the story behind the story of Gloria’s drowning—the story of the story my granny had told—I could never understand it. How could my granny have ever done what she did? And to her own child, nearly as fragile and helpless as the one she’d lost. But, more than that, I could never understand how that child—my grandma Olive—could have forgiven her.
But she had forgiven her. At least she said she had. And part of me wanted to feel some of that same forgiveness for myself. Part of me may have wanted to prove her wrong.
When my grandma Olive died in 2010, I listened, over and over, to her oral history recording, savoring the warmth of her voice and struggling to make sense of the loss. I don’t know how many times I listened to her tell the story of her little sister Gloria, but it was a story I kept coming back to, a story I couldn’t let go—perhaps because it seemed so clear that she’d never let go of it either. Each time I returned to it, I’d think to myself: If I just played it back once more, it might somehow begin to change—or maybe I’d begin to change—and I might somehow begin to understand it. But it never did, and neither did I.
Was this how my grandma felt every time she’d turned it over in her head? What did it mean to forgive without ever quite understanding?
With these questions in mind, I began talking with those closest to my grandma, with those who had known her as a child on the farm. Among them were her cousin Harold, who was there on the farm the day that Gloria drowned; her brother, Gorden, who never knew Gloria, but knew very well that he had come after; and their youngest sister, Helen, who I’m told bears a uncanny resemblance to their mother—my granny—Eileen: her strong jaw, her fiery voice, her love of tiny yapping dogs.
But as I gathered up these memories—of Gloria’s death and the feelings that surrounded it—what I found was nothing like the cohesive story I’d been after, but a densely gnarled nest of conflicting accounts and conflicted emotions, which only affirmed my sense of how far from closure we all stood. In sorting through these pieces of my family’s broken past, I’ve been forced to confront my inability to reconcile their voices—and my inability to reconcile myself with the one voice that is so obviously missing from among them.
In January 2013, my dad and I met up in Minneapolis, rented an all-wheel-drive Subaru, and drove 350 miles northwest to the snowy backcountry roads that would lead us to the farm where my grandma was born. Armed with a GPS and a county plat map of Big Woods from 1909, we set out in search of a tiny rectangle with a river running through, marked “H. Harris” for my great-great-grandfather, Halvor.
I had no idea what we’d find when we got there, or if we’d even find it at all. Thinking back, I only half-knew what it was we were looking for.
What is it about the feel of a place—about the being-there in a there-that-isn’t—that draws us in so tightly? What is it that we yearn for in the rusting ruins of things-once-touched then left behind?
A tattered turquoise bedspring, a pale yellow wood-burning stove, soggy shards of splintered siding with chips of peeling paint. This is what we found of the three-floor wooden farmhouse that Halvor had built, with its wide west porch and whitewashed walls. I’ve never seen a photo of the house—only a photo of a painting made by the daughter of a distant relation before they’d decided to tear it down. It’s hard to believe the grass had ever been so green.
Still standing to the south of the farmhouse, we found the weathered remains of Halvor’s barn—the barn where my granny had run that day with Gloria limp in her arms. Its frame bent sharply to the right like a tree caught in the wind, steel rods run through its insides to keep it from collapsing. I wondered who had put them there, who had thought it worth saving. I wondered how much longer it would hold.
And along the bend of the frozen Snake River on what was once the next farm down, we found the one-room schoolhouse where the Harris family had sent their children, where they’d all gone to see Reverend Gjerde give his sermons every Sunday. Inside the schoolhouse—in tatters but intact—we found a rusted bicycle; the stringed frame of an old piano; a row of metal coat hooks tacked low along the wall; and, in the center of the room, a single child’s desk facing forward, as if waiting for the next lesson to begin.
What we didn’t find at the farm that day—and didn’t expect to find—was the copper boiler. I wondered what had become of it, what they had done with it after it happened. But what could they have done? There were still floors to scrub and clothes to wash, though fewer than before. I can imagine my granny bent over it that day with a corrugated washboard, up to her elbows in P&G soap suds, swollen belly pressed tightly against its side.
As a child, the boiler was a piece of the story I’d never understood. I had no reference for this object—what it looked like, what in the world it was for. As I set out on this research-trip-turned-family-pilgrimage, I found myself still strangely drawn to it, as if it were somehow the key to understanding what had happened to Gloria—and what had happened to my grandma in the days and years that followed. I wanted to see the boiler for myself. I wanted to feel the weight of its lid in my hands. How long had it sat there on the porch that day? Who had eventually emptied out the water?
On the drive up to Big Woods, my dad and I stopped and bought a copper boiler from a couple selling antiques out of their home in the Minneapolis suburbs. The couple lived on Olive Street. We left the boiler on the farm.
“Gloria was a lovely young lady,” my grandma’s cousin Harold tells me. “I remember she had chubby fingers.” At age seven, he rode along in the buggy with Gloria’s body to the cemetery where she was buried. He remembers the handmade wooden box she was placed in, the pennies behind her eyelids. He remembers how Aunt Eileen and Olive stayed home.
Harold remembers nothing of the blame that was placed on my grandma; he remembers only the sadness of his baby cousin’s death. Does he really not remember? Or would he simply rather not? He thanks the Lord for his blessings. He talks of the color of the wheat fields in springtime. “Everything was just beautiful,” Harold tells me. And who am I to argue? After all, as he puts it, “You can’t retract what’s done.”
What Harold remembers of his Aunt Eileen is her temper. And the hand-clippers with the two broken teeth that she used to cut his hair. He remembers how she used to “get into it” with her mother-in-law, his Grandma Rachel—the wife of Halvor, who owned the farm where they lived.
“One time I guess I bit her in the leg because she got mad at Grandma,” Harold laughs. “I don’t remember doing it, but they told me I did, so I guess it must be true.” I picture my granny looking down, red-faced and angry, at a snarling child latched onto her ankle. It’s like a cartoon, and I laugh along with him. But then I stop and wonder: If she were here, would she be laughing with us?
Never good enough for her in-laws. Never good enough for their son. “She was treated more like hired help,” my grandma told me. I try to imagine what it was like for my granny in that moment: finding her child facedown in the water, realizing what she had done, or what she’d forgotten to do. I try to imagine the desperation she must have been feeling.
And then I imagine her looking out of the sanatorium window at three small children—her children—waving up at her from the yard below. I try to imagine what it must have taken to finally speak the words.
I don’t remember doing it, but they told me I did, so I guess it must be true. As I think of this, Harold’s words echo through my mind. And what if she hadn’t remembered? Would her mother have ever relented? Would the truth have ever been spoken? Or would my grandma have lived out her life with the weight of her sister’s death on her shoulders? In the end, though, I’m not convinced that she didn’t.
“And that was that,” my grandma said, matter-of-factly, as if her mother’s sickbed confession were somehow the end of the story. But she knew better, and so did I. As her brother Gorden tells it, it took their mother over 50 years to speak to my grandma about what had happened. And all that time, even after the truth was out, my grandma kept her mother’s secret—kept it from almost everyone, even from him. Gorden feels sad at this thought, but he understands why she did it. If she couldn’t save their sister from drowning that day, then at least she could save their mother from her shame.
Knowing all the loyalty and the love behind my grandma’s silence, I can’t help but wonder: What would she think of my drive to tell?
When I was a kid, my mom told me that my granny was the kind of woman who had always been old, the kind of woman who was born old. I didn’t know there was such a kind of woman, but, at the time, I think I believed her. Sometimes I think I still do.
In the earliest photo we have of my granny Eileen, she’s already a grandmother. Her hair is silver in all but two. Looking at these pictures, it’s hard to imagine her at 17, newly married to her sister’s husband’s brother. Or at 21, a young mother with a stillbirth already behind her. Or at 24, eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her third child and mourning the death of her second.
She was the kind of woman who had always been old.
In many ways, I’ve come see this story as a story that isn’t mine to tell, a story that may not want to be told at all. But I’ve decided to tell it anyway. In doing so, I’ve had to confront the question: What do I want from the telling? If I’m honest with myself, this project began as a simple effort to set the record straight, to reconstruct a story that my grandma herself had been too young—then too kind—to tell. But in lifting the blame from my grandma’s shoulders, I’ve often felt that I had no choice but to place it elsewhere—in this case, on her mother, my granny Eileen.
But the deeper I’ve delved into the insufficient archives of my family’s troubled past, the more I’ve realized: that this is not a story about blame at all; it’s a story about forgiveness, about survival. And it’s precisely these unresolved emotions and ethical uncertainties that make it worth pursuing.
In the months leading up to my grandma Olive’s death, my dad found an old newspaper clipping tucked behind a photograph in an album that belonged to her mother, Eileen. This article stands as the official story of what hadn’t happened to Gloria, and a weathered testament to the years of silent pain that my grandma would suffer as a result.
I will never know what this clipping meant to my granny Eileen. I only know that she kept it. And I have to believe that part of her must have wanted it to be found. In my struggle to give voice to my granny’s experience in this story, I’ve tried to use its words to tell the truths it left unspoken.
An earlier version of this project received a 2013 Digital Storymakers Award - Grand Prize in Visual Storytelling, sponsored by The Atavist and the Pearson Foundation.
Special thanks to Curt Anderson, Gorden Harris, Harold Harris, Helen Jenkins, Barbara Leahy, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and Michael DuPuis.
Photos by Erin Anderson and Curt Anderson