The Revenge Chronicles
Clara got to like me as soon as her only child started courting me. She got to love me when Joel
and I married and especially when we gave her two granddaughters. She thought the world of me when, just months after our second child was born, I cared for Joel as he battled a malignant
brain tumor. But I think she prized me most after his passing. That was when Clara truly viewed
me as her daughter.
I embraced that role. I hadn’t felt like someone’s daughter in a long time, my own mother and
father having died years earlier. Now in the wake of Joel’s death, I longed for the sheltering wing
of a parent, so the 20-mile drive to Clara and Sidney’s house quickly became a well-worn stretch
of highway. Yes, my relationship with Clara just got better and better—right until I introduced
her to the man who would become my second husband.
Clara told me outright that if I remarried, it meant I never loved her son. Nothing I could say
would sway her. And I said a lot. I told her that I wasn’t trying to replace or forget her son. That
entering a new relationship was a testament to the strength of my first marriage, which was so
fulfilling that it left me wanting another one. That her grandchildren deserved a loving father
I told her how, a few months after Joel’s death, my older daughter asked, “Can we go to the
daddy store and buy a new daddy?” We were at the grocery store. She was not using her indoor
“You can’t buy a daddy,” I said. “They aren’t for sale.”
Undaunted, she replied, “Then can we go to the daddy shelter and adopt one?”
I offered these and other testimonies as I pled my case, but Clara remained unmoved. And
prickly. Since Sidney (Joel’s father) went with whatever she said, it seemed that the only way I
could remain in their good graces was to stay single. I did not comply.
My conversations with Clara—although to call them conversations is stretching the definition of
the word—became briefer and briefer, punctuated by longer and longer periods of radio silence.
There were tears and raised voices, cajoling and browbeating. My leverage was that I had her
only grandchildren with me. Her leverage was that she and her husband were my daughters’ only living grandparents. None of it was enough.
Sidney eventually died. The self-penned epitaph on his headstone read, “Husband, father and
Papa.” Papa is what my girls had called him. We were touched. I could just picture him sitting on
his sickbed, composing this fond goodbye with the girls in mind. It was just the right touch for a
man of few words.
Then Clara died, so we made another trip to the cemetery to pay our respects. I wished we
hadn’t. Clara’s headstone read, “Beloved wife, mother and aunt.” No Grandma, as the girls had
called her. No acknowledgement whatsoever of my children. Her grandchildren. Her dear and
only son’s children. My girls were bereft, as in “why?” and “how could she forget us?” and “she
told us we were everything to her.” Losing their father had been a much greater loss, but at least they knew he’d loved them. This was a different beast. This was loss compounded by an
overwhelming sense of abandonment.
As for me, I was furious. In the deepest core of my being, I felt Clara had wronged my children,
who were already so vulnerable. Outrage consumed me. I wanted revenge on behalf of my
girls—I wanted to hurt Clara back, but there was nothing to be done. Clara was gone. She’d
gotten the ultimate last word.
Not only was actual revenge impossible, but even passive revenge fantasies—the things I’d do if
I had the time, money and legal impunity—were object-less. And for the longest time I couldn’t
even vent my anger to friends for fear they’d secretly side with the little old lady who had lost
her only child.
So what do you do with the rage borne of an offense for which justice is unattainable? Here’s
what I did. First, I simply stewed. Then I sought company for my misery, searching out vendetta-
inspired self-written epitaphs. Consulting Find A Grave and other sources, I found a surprising
number of these gems. Like the spurned husband who announced: “My wife Eleanor Arthur of
Queens, NY lived like a princess for 20 years traveling the world with the best of everything.
When I went blind, she tried to poison me, took all my money, all my medication and left me in
the dark alone and sick. It's a miracle I escaped. I won't see her in heaven because she's surely
going to hell!”
Or the woman who apparently endured years of neighborhood protests against the number of cats she owned: “May eternal damnation be upon those in Whaling Port, who, without knowing me, have maliciously vilified me. May the curse of God be upon them and theirs.” Or the guy who was still mad at his brother two decades after the brother’s death: “My brother was good at
pissing people off.”
These made me laugh, but they didn’t really help, not in any kind of deep-down way. So I moved
on. I tried waxing philosophical, telling myself the best revenge is living well. Or looking good.
Or being noble enough not to need payback. The problem is, I am not noble. I even tried
embracing the notion that the fullest revenge is forgiveness. But again, I am not that generous.
So I kept stewing—churning, boiling and occasionally frothing over—until something occurred
to me. What if I’d been looking at it all wrong? What if the question wasn’t how can I get
revenge on a dead person, but how can I turn her action into a personal advantage? Then it would be as if she hadn’t really hurt us to begin with. Revenge would be a moot point.
The strategy that came to me was this. With Clara’s jilting as the stimulus, I would launch a
campaign to enlarge my children’s circle of close-knit relatives, opening up a whole new
network of love and support for them. With this fortified scaffold in place for them, my anger
would go poof, and the drive for revenge would melt away.
A good idea in theory. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we’d already done such a good job
of staying connected to far-flung family over the years, our worldwide web was maxed out. We
were visiting, phoning, emailing, Skyping, Facetiming and texting our relatives on both sides of
the family, as well as with my second husband’s large clan. There really wasn’t anything to
Yet something did change. Maybe I started asking different questions or sharing different
stories—I don’t know—but one day when we were sitting around with Clara’s cousins, one of
them said, “Did you know Clara’s mother died when she was an infant?”
My rare moment of silence spoke my answer. I thought I’d known the woman.
“Her father remarried when she was too small to remember,” the cousin went on. “She grew up
thinking her stepmother was her biological mother.”
“When did she find out?” I asked. “Did she ever find out?”
“When she was twelve or thirteen, some neighbor blurted it out. Her whole reality fell apart with
that faux pas.”
The girls and I offered a collective jaw-drop.
The cousin nodded and sipped her tea. “No surprise then, how from that day on, she felt insecure in her relationships and clung so tightly to what she considered hers.”
“Indeed,” some of the other relations murmured.
My reaction, I confess, sat squarely on the low road. “Hold the phone,” I said. “You mean, Clara
knew what it was like to lose a parent at an early age, and she knew how defenseless and alone it made her feel, yet she still deserted her granddaughters, who were in the same boat? What kind of stony heart does a thing like that?”
My daughters, however, had a different response.
“I feel sorry for her,” Zoe said.
“So do I,” said Annie.
“Now I get why she shunned us at the end,” Zoe went on. “Like, she had so much grief, and she
was so scared we were going to cut her off …”
“… that she decided to cut us off first,” said Annie.
This, my daughters told me afterward, was a woman who personified their own feelings of loss
and impotence. This was a woman who, during her whole long life, could not voice her deepest
feelings, who had to wait until after she died, and even then it was an indirect and cryptic blurb.
This was a woman who deserved our sympathy, not our scorn.
I always knew—and hoped—the day would come when my children would prove themselves
more generous of spirit, more self-aware, and more expressive than I. Now that day had arrived,
and it meant so much to me. It meant the girls had grown into loving, compassionate, mature
young women. It meant something good had finally come of Clara’s epitaph. It meant that not
only was vengeance off the table, but something had moved in to take its place: gratitude. I
actually felt grateful for Clara’s gravestone.
So thank you, Clara. Thank you for helping my children understand themselves better. Thank
you for allowing their kindheartedness to bloom. Thank you for opening us all up to something
that feels a lot like connectedness, if not outright forgiveness. We might never have done it
without you. Rest in peace.
About the Author: Shirley Vernick’s work has appeared in Salon, Cosmo, Reader's Digest and newspapers nationwide. Her novel, The Blood Lie, won the Simon Wiesenthal Book Award, and her novel, The Black Butterfly, is a Library Guild selection. She is an alumna of Cornell University and the Radcliffe Writing Seminar Series.