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You Will NOT Go Gently Into the Night

Our room is on the second floor where that curved tiny balcony is located. Bobbie and her roommates are directly above us in the ballroom behind the flat roofed perfect sun porch only accessible by climbing out a window, which we did, of course.

An earlier blog post of mine focuses on my cousin Ray’s suicide that occurs in my formative years. It makes an impression on me that might be described as an epiphany.

After the fact I do not dwell on it, but the sharpness of the memory stays with me still. As a curiosity, only to be sure my memory has not blurred or even switched things around, I confirm the details with my cousin, Lewis Vaughan Mills. He assures me that I have it right. He says that he has not thought about Ray in years.

At the end of my post about Ray, I add the usual eternal hope of us all, that if this helps one person, Ray’s death will have served a purpose. Perhaps it did. I offer you another personal experience with suicide.

This time I’m in college. In Richmond, Virginia. My dorm is a beautiful White House inspired piece of architecture. It is Mrs Bocock’s house on West Franklin Street, 909 to be exact. Today it is part of the VCU campus offices but in my time it is Mrs. Bocock’s private residence. Always short on dorm space, the college quickly accepts her offer of the front rooms in this magnificent house for housing.

I am one of the lucky few girls who get to live in this amazing palace. The first year it is home to us, only the front of the second floor is ours. Mrs. Bocock lives in the back of the house, upstairs and down. The first floor is for the daily activities of a senior citizens group. We are allowed to use it after they leave and before curfew. The second year more rooms are opened up, on the third floor which used to be a ballroom and servants rooms complete with a full kitchen.

It’s the mid-sixties, I am dorm president. One night late I am awakened by several girls from the room above ours. Theirs is the biggest room having been the ballroom. Fours girls are assigned to this room. It could have held more.

“Jett, Bobbie has locked herself in the bathroom and is threatening to slit her wrists.” I leap out of bed. Not on my watch. I dash up the circular metal stair case installed for a second access to the third floor in addition to the huge wooden stair case in the back of the house and into their room. A cluster of girls is gathered around the bathroom (each room had its own private bathroom) door yelling at Bobbie to open the door.

I move them out of the way and tell them to be quiet. I give them the sharpest evil eye I can muster. It shuts them down immediately.

“Bobbie,” I call through the door easing down onto the floor so I can talk in a soft voice to her. I hear muffled crying. We begin an exchange. We are friends. We have a history. We’re beer buddies. Neither of us is one to deny a pitcher of beer at Andy’s to share around. I’m used to calling her by her last name, Carlyle. Probably because Nash and I go by our last names. We tag favored girls in the dorm by their last name. They are our posse. But Carlyle is for lighter times, it doesn’t seem to fit here, so I use Bobbie. I beg her to come out. But I do not push. I let her pace her thoughts.

At some point one of the girls says that she is going to get Mrs. Carter, our very southern, straight as an arrow, prim and proper dorm mother. “No!” I hiss. “Do. Not. Get. Carter.” I know without a doubt that Mrs Carter will exacerbate the situation and only further agitate Bobbie, who does not cut Mrs Carter any slack.

I’m (third from right) teaching Bobbie (third from left) and other willing dorm mates how to play bridge.

Bobbie and I continue to dialogue. We are making progress. The crying has stopped. I hear the lock click and the door inches open. I get on my knees and begin to rise. Bobbie is standing there at the sink, apparatus at hand. She slowly turns to me. I am standing now, but I do not move toward her.

I do not speak. Now is not the time. I so want to, I am desperate to really talk to her. I have no clue what precipitated her decision to end her life. I need to understand. I reach out my hand to her. We will talk this out and make a plan. We’ve got this.

But someone has alerted Mrs Carter and she in turn has called EMS. They burst into the room just as Bobbie and I are connecting. They hustle me out of the way and grab Bobbie. They strap her down on a gurney to wheel her away. We tearfully look at each other. So many said words. So many more unsaid.

We learn that Bobbie is taken to a close by psychiatric hospital on Grace Street. It is small with a wrought iron fence and pretty shrubs. It doesn’t look like a hospital. It could be mistaken for a home. I purposefully walk by it. I want to visit. But I don’t know if Bobbie is ready for me. I think that she might feel like I tricked her into leaving the bathroom thinking that I knew all along medical intervention was coming.

Bobbie doesn’t comes back to school. I never give up hope that she starts over somewhere fresh. It will always be unknown how serious she was about ending her life; she did tell her roommates what she planned, a certain cry for help. Bobbie is a lesbian in that raw time of misunderstanding. Truth be told she’s probably more a trans, she doesn’t like anything about being female; but, that birthright is not part of sixties vernacular. Bobbie simply reaches a brink that she can not navigate beyond. I like to think that my cousin Ray helps me know how to guide her back from the edge.

 

 

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The Girls of 909 West Franklin St

909

Sandy in front of 909 standing under our balcony room.

Current VCU campus rumor has it that we were hand picked by Mrs Bocock to live at 909. When we are told this at our reunion dinner we all laugh. The unspoken thought that floats through each of our minds is, “Hand picked? Cannot imagine how I got on that list.”

Elisabeth Holmes Bocock is a force of nature. She lives as a widow in her parents antebellum home on W Franklin Street in Richmond. The house was then in the heart of the VCU RPI campus. Good friends with school president, Dr Oliver who resides across the street with his lovely wife in his own mansion, she graciously offers the upstairs front rooms of her house (she lives in the back section) to the school for their use. Dorm space is needed and so the rooms are outfitted for a handful of girls. I am one of the first thirteen girls to live in this mansion. Previously I have been offered a single room in another dorm house on Park Avenue but turn it down as being too cramped and small.

I have already done the cramped room tour with incompatible roommates my freshman year at Miami in Ohio. Never again. Besides, I am living in my grandmother’s home at 6416 Three Chopt Road in the west end. I share a room, a big room, with my 5th grade cousin. We are well suited roomies. I am in no hurry to move. My uncle might have been in a hurry for me to move as I play my Beatles album over and over and over and over again. That was when it and they were new. I still have it.beatles

I learn at the reunion that 909 was closed as a dorm the year after I graduate. Sandy has to move to Monroe Terrace, a high rise old apartment building turned into dorm rooms, and is miserable. She gets an apartment as fast as she can.

Such a small window of time to experience the splendid glory of life at 909. We know we have it good. But we are in college, a lot escapes our radar. During the reunion dinner held in our old dorm, now a school culture center, we marvel at all the beauty we missed or so took for granted that we barely saw it.

When Frances (Bolton Wilkins) calls to suggest gathering at the reunion can be fun, I stall. Could be fun but an entire weekend. Sandy stalls too. Then we chat and agree to go together. We laugh at the fact that her picture is in the middle of the photo montage used for every segment of publicity for the reunion. She is on all the mailing material. She is on the website. She is everywhere. But that is typical Sandy. She never seeks attention. It comes to her.

Frances is delighted that we are committing. She has a bevy of other 909/RPI girls signing up too including Barbara (Buskell Davison) who rooms with Sandy and Alicia after I graduate. That is after we stealthily move all of her belongings from her other dorm to our room because we know that she needs to be a 909 gal. It’ll be a grand party. I email the amazing worker bee Diane Stout-Brown that has put everything together to thank her for all her hard work and add that she will have a contingency of former 909 residents at the dinner. It is a grand evening. Well, until Barbara provides the requisite gal reunion drama by unintentionally leaving her purse in our now locked room upstairs. Chris has left with the only keys. Diane works her magic and the drama is short lived. Just a token 909 antic.

our room door   bathroomwatercloset909 bathroomsandy and chris   balconyfive of usentertainmentdorm dome   purse searchsingserenade

When we arrive at the dinner I introduce myself to Diane and she says to stay put. She has a surprise for me. She comes back with a guy and introduces me/us to him. He is Chris Ritrievi, Senior Associate Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations and has keys to the offices, his included, on the roped off second floor. He begs us to disregard his office mess and leads us upstairs. We are having our own private tour! We are a group of about ten plus a few that get wind of what is happening and join us.

Up the beautiful splint staircase we clamor (there was no carpeting in our day). Chris opens the first door. It’s my original room. It’s much smaller now because when they put in a spiral staircase to the third floor (more rooms for girls) for a fire code second exit it took part of this room. Frances and Maureen live here after I move across the hall. Chris cannot show us the adjoining bathroom (because it it out of commission) where we used to climb out the window and sunbath on the roof. That is until we got in trouble with the Dean of Women. But Mrs Bocock tells her that it is fine and we resume our golden disk worship.

The next room, Chris’ office, is a huge corner affair. None of us spend much time here. The girls are on a different focus from us. All the rooms adjoin via interior doors. Our room is next door through a small inner connecting hall. To one side of the tiny hall is a shared bathroom that we pretty much claim as our own. Those corner girls can share the other bathroom. It’s just as it was then. The water closet. The big tub. Sandy and I both remember it as a claw foot. It’s not but it is deep with one of those tall porcelain shaft stoppers. (My grandmother’s are exactly the same.) “No shower?” someone asks. Nope. “How did you wash your hair?” Probably stuck our head in the running water of the tub.

And then we step through the doorway into our room. We know the French hand painted wall paper went years ago. But the room is just as we recall it. The balcony. The twist and turn secret passage like closet with a door in our room, in the tiny hall and in the adjoining the room we just left. Totally occupied by those corner room girls. We settle for metal free standing things the college gives us. I change to this room that second year because Betsy, the girl already in the balcony room, and I are good friends plus my roommate Jane (Winters Wise) is leaving school at the end of the semester. Mary Ann Sturgis (Nassawadox native ferry ride and all) has already left midterm.

Enter roommate number three, Sandy, a freshman. I get a letter from her that summer naming all the things we have in common. Our names. Sandra Lee and Sandra Leigh. Our home towns. Rockwell and Rockville. It is a match meant to be. We become instantly Jett and Nash, so decided by me to avoid confusion but also because my Dad and his best friend in college went by Jett and Leggett and I thought it exceedingly cool.

When Betsy gets married on the spur of the moment in early January (I vow in a letter home that if anyone else dares to get married during exams I will shoot them) we quickly turn her bed into a sofa in fervent hopes that the school will not assign another girl to our room. It works, just us for the balance of the year. About that wedding. Betsy is engaged to a guy, Ronnie, from VPI. We talk her into going out on a blind date just to get out of the dorm. With Jack Bruce, Gordon’s (dating Frances and also Sandy’s first cousin) roommate. They fall madly in love and truth told no stretching it (letters home confirm) get married in a church with a posh hotel reception the next weekend. Poor Ronnie. He shows up that first date weekend with roses in hand to surprise Betsy (it was one of their anniversaries). Betsy will not see him. It falls to one of us to break the news. Talk about drama. The next year Alicia who lives in the ballroom on the third floor joins Sandy and myself. Then it’s just one more year and 909 as a dorm is closed forever.

A small window in time when we were The Girls of 909.

A composite I made one winter break when I was the only one in the dorm and bored to tears

A composite I made one winter break when I was the only one in the dorm and bored to tears

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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