Dear Grandma,

Tomorrow is my eldest son’s birthday. He’s at least twice as old as I was when I last saw you, yet how little he knows about his maternal family history. For a while now I’ve been trying to recollect where you spent so many years of your life, you who have made my own life possible, and his; where you died. Then, as sometimes happens, exactly the right piece of information fell into my hands by chance yesterday while I was reading Michael Donahue’s essay Russell and Mary, which won for The Georgia Review the 2007 National Magazine Award: the name Pilgrim State Hospital in West Brentwood, Long Island, italics mine. I googled it. Of course you’ve no idea what this means but it doesn’t really matter. With your fragile skull and papery skin you’ll understand about permeable barriers. I remember how you mumbled under your breath to people who were no longer there, most left behind, I suppose, in ‘the old country’. Nearly half a century on, now I too can find those who seemed lost to me; revisit places which only existed in memory.

Or nightmare. For as soon as I came upon the old photo above, I started in chilled recognition. The years rolled back and I was a little girl again, riding past the iron gates and down the endless drive, staring up at this dark, enormous, terrifying place where we’d pick you up and drop you off in our car. Sometimes you waved goodbye to us from a window, or so my father said. I could never recognise your features behind the barred and begrimed glass. Though memory is often clouded: perhaps clean, the panes merely reflecting the grey clouds overhead.

Could you see us, Grandma? Were you glad to go back to your room and your companions – and I hope, a friend or two? Or would you have liked to stay with us? My father – your only son – never spoke much about what you said to him in Yiddish; never revealed anything at all of what you felt, nor he himself.

Only years later did it occur to me that they may have strapped you to a table like this one to administer electroshock therapy.

There must have been meals. There must have been exercise. There must have been tasks or a job. There must have been talk, and sleep, and some small kindnesses and pleasures, even sex. There must have been a book or two, or at least a newspaper, though I don’t recall if you could read English. There must have been baths, clean clothes, and haircuts. There must have been dreams – or nightmares. Otherwise, your days and years are unimaginable to me.

They ended here, in just such an autopsy room/morgue, perhaps in fact this very one, though I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

There are 18,000 numbered cemetery plots on the grounds of what was once the largest psychiatric hospital in the world, at one time housing 16,000 patients.

Part of an email I received this morning:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your E-Mail researching family or medical history. Please be advised that we are functioning under federal HIPAA regulations and Mental Hygiene Law of the State of New York which regulates disclosure. Information identifying or tending to identify individuals in the Office of Mental Health is rendered Confidential.
Please note that we do not accept correspondence for records by E-Mail as it is not recognized as a secure mode of transmitting confidential information. Please make your request in writing to: [address follows ]

Tomorrow on your great-grandson’s birthday I’ll write. Though not much of a legacy for him, and very belated, it’s all we have.

I will remember.

With love,
Your granddaughter

N.B. Most of the pictures are from this photo essay.


2 thoughts on “Letter to a grandmother

  1. Lee 17 years ago

    LM, there are so many of these suppressed stories; thank you for sharing yours. When I recently asked my mother about this part of our family history, her reaction was almost defensive: ‘Why does this disturb you so much? Forget about it, it’s a long time ago.’

  2. L.M.Noonan 17 years ago

    Dear Lee,
    My great garndmother was admitted into an asylum in her early twenties for what I can only presume was post partum depression. She never left. My mother was taken to visit this ‘deranged’ woman in a straitjacket, a handful of times. I was only supplied by this piece of the jigsaw puzzel that is my family, but rithless determination to know the name and whereabouts of my missing maternal ancestor. her madness was considered shameful and she was effectively eradicated. I have written about her in my as yet unfinished novel “A is for Albania”.
    Your story sent a chill down my spine.