Under The Tree Where It's Safe

May 05 2012

The focal point of my elementary school's lobby was a big painting of two girls sitting under a lushly blossoming tree, looking down at what was either a book or a game or a picnic; my rememberance of those particular details is a bit fuzzy. But I remember the artwork, how its depiction of a pastoral spring day loomed over the hallway of the 1950s-issue school, and I also remember that it was in honor of two girls that had passed away. I'd thought, back when I saw it on a daily basis, that they had been killed in a car accident at some point before I'd reached school age.

Memory is a funny thing, though. It turned out that the two girls had actually died when I was in kindergarden, on a May day in 1981. This fact came up by accident on Saturday, when I was sitting in my parents' kitchen, the same one where I ate breakfast every day before trucking off to school and seeing that painting. My mother and I were talking about fear and Etan Patz, whose name had recently popped up in the news like a ghost from the beginning of that period in history where children were not just seen as the future but were seen as potential prey for media-created bogeyman with evil intentions -- baby-food poisoners, overly friendly bicycle-repair guys played by Gordon Jump, Satanist preschool teachers. "That shook me to the core," she said. "And then, those girls on Myers Avenue..."

I didn't know what she was talking about, but she filled me in -- don't you remember the painting, she asked me. I did, of course, and it turned out that it was painted in honor of the two girls, who had been brutally murdered, along with their mother, in the spring of 1981. The coroner, my mother noted, had never seen anything so brutal, so many stab wounds, such reckless disregard for another person's
humanity, let alone three of them. The crime shook our suburb, a grid-planned section of Long Island populated by so many who had left their outerborough upbringings for what they assumed would be a Better
Life, not just because of the trees and bigger houses but because of the illusion of safety, an idea that seemed ever more tenuous with the increasingly bad news emanating from televisions and newspapers but that could at least be achieved on a nuclear-families-in-it-together level. But it was one of those subtle earthquakes that only affects structures, one where the damage isn't fully revealed until many years later. The parents kept a brave face and cloaked the most gruesome details -- or at least, mine did, judging by how shocked I was on Saturday morning, hearing this awful, 31-year-old news as the sunlight beamed into the kitchen where my mother had probably first learned of this tragedy all those years ago.

That night I got home and started pulling up accounts of the crime; the first few I found were wire mentions of the perpetrator being caugh. And then this, from the New York Times, May 2, 1981:

"It was Donald Williams Jr. who several hours earlier had reported to the police that he had been attacked on Myers Avenue at 4 A.M. as he was returning home from a night out. He described his assailant as a young black man with medium build, who he said had come out of the darkness, stabbed him in both hands and the chest and then quickly fled."

Ah, the "young black man." You might not be surprised to find out that it was actually Williams, the family's across-the street neighbor, who committed the crime, a fact that the police figured out quickly (he was indicted less than a week later). That he floated a story that played into the prejuidices of the people who would be investigating and thinking about the crime probably isn't surprising, although it is depressing. But then again, doesn't fear play on those thoughts that lurk in peoples' brains -- especially those that are the ugliest to reveal outside of the context of a narrative that will support them?

Popular recollections of the 1980s might involve dayglo and stockbrokers, but for me, so much of that decade's narrative is wrapped up in the concept of being afraid. Some of it was personal: I was sickly when I was young; I was nerdy when I was older. But the milk cartons and movies of the week and the examinations of Halloween candy and so many other things created an atmosphere that taught children to look not just before they leapt, but before they even took the most miniscule step toward another person. It's something I'm still trying to shake off today, and when I read so many of the recollections of my peers about topics of all sorts, I wonder how many of them are still, in the depths of their minds, preyed upon by the vague memories of tales about people who are out to do nothing but cause them harm.

maura johnston
[email protected]
Astoria, N.Y.

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