Susan Ayres Wimbrow was just 5 years old when her mother was savagely murdered and raped. That unimaginable yet indelible event altered the course of her life, as she channeled her grief for more than 40 years assisting others cope with death as a funeral home owner-director. Now, nearly six decades
Death Is My Life, is not only the debut novel from local author Susan Ayres Wimbrow, it is, in key ways, the story of her life, as seen through the eyes of her principal character, Elizabeth Barclay. “I was Elizabeth. I am Elizabeth,” said Wimbrow, 62, whose long, winding path to novelist began when she was just 5 years old, spurred by an unthinkable tragedy. That occurred on October 19, 1961, in Norfolk, VA, when her mother was murdered and raped — in that order.
In the decades that followed, Wimbrow was able to observe the far-reaching effects of the traumatic event, not only in herself but in others, as well. She saw the quiet strength of her grandmother, for example, who for 43 years channeled her grief into a passion for helping other bereft families through death’s darkest days as the owner and director of a funeral home.
“[Susan] thought she might want to write this story of what happened to her mother and how that led to her involvement in the funeral-home business,” recalled Stephanie Fowler, a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association with whom Wimbrow had shared the premise of her story in 2017. “So much death really had become her life’s work.”
Wimbrow began reliving her mother’s death in detail and her family’s lifetime of silent anguish in May 2017. She sifted through nine years of court transcripts and newspaper articles outlining a legal battle centered around convicted killer Jay R. Timmons, his mental state and the death sentence he received for murdering her mother, Ann Ayres Bannon, at age 26. She wrote for six hours each afternoon, without exception, for more than a year. “It was very arduous and very lonely,” Susan said.
Long walks each morning with her greyhounds, Oliver, 12, and Penelope, 9, and dinner conversations with her husband of 15 years, Maurice Wimbrow, offered solace. But the characters within those pages — many of whom represented family and friends forever scarred by the horrific events of 57 years ago — were her constant companions.
Wimbrow said she immersed herself in telling their stories, because each played a role in helping her “educate the public” as to what happens to the nucleus of a family when a member of that family has been murdered. “We always hear about the one who commits the act or the crime,” said Wimbrow, “but people forget about the families of the victim.”
The characters of Margaret Eyre, Elizabeth’s grandmother, Uncle Harvey and others, Wimbrow added, “were with me 24-7. I would wake up in the night and think about them. And I know this sounds a little creepy, but they actually were telling me what to write.” Then one day, her cathartic journey ended, with the final written words: Your characters leave you, and it’s a sad process when they do.
Much more uplifting, however, was the arrival of August 16, 2018. That’s the date on which Wimbrow and Fowler rallied around the book-binding machine in the Berlin office of Fowler’s five-year-old company, Salt Water Media, a self-publishing and tech-services company that turned Wimbrow’s life story into a bona fide literary product. With Champagne in their hands and tears in their eyes, they celebrated the courage of the author.
Wimbrow said she learned at a young age that refined Southern women rise above life’s hardships. “You’re not raised to be a victim. You don’t talk about it. We pick ourselves up, and we go on,” Wimbrow shared, marveling at the inner strength her late grandmother, Eleanor Ayres Bruehl, who endowed her granddaughter with a normal life while quietly coping with her own daughter’s death.
“For Susan to open up and tell this story, to tell everything, is so brave,” said Fowler, whose celebratory, but empty, Champagne bottle still resides on a bookshelf in her office. Meanwhile, just blocks away, on South Main Street, Death Is My Life is on display at The Greyhound, an indie bookstore that Wimbrow opened with Maurice in October to showcase local authors.
The novel has quickly grown popular among locals and visitors, which “is a blessing,” as Wimbrow put it. Barbara Lockhart, a noted Eastern Shore novelist whom Wimbrow credits with providing the final surge of motivation needed to write, penned a congratulatory letter that said, in part, Death Is My Life is “genuine and honest, humorous and heart wrenching. I was with you at every word.”
Wimbrow is amazed at the impact many have experienced from reading her novel. “I did not realize the interest it would garner,” she said. “I had no idea that people would really be interested in this story — not only the locals, but also people who come into the bookstore.”
“It’s great the way people have responded to the book,” added Maurice, who recently met a woman buying the novel who knew Susan’s mother. “She said it was devastating for everyone in the community when it happened.”
Since publishing Death Is My Life, Wimbrow has spoken freely and publicly about her family’s story.
“It’s exhilarating. It’s healing. It’s like a weight has lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I am definitely a stronger person because of it, and by helping others with this book, I’m a better person for it.”
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