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How My Great Grandmother’s Tragedy Helped Me Heal

I do not have a family history of mental illness. Knowing I was the only one in my family who suffered with depression left me feeling broken and lonely. When I was committed for the first time at 22 my mom called and said, “I wished I would have known you were so sad.” Apparently my desperate cries for help as an overly emotional teenager did nothing to alert her to the fact that I was different. Not having the support of parents who understood that there was something off with me was difficult, and it led me to self medicate with alcohol, drugs, and boys at a very young age. It wasn’t until I was 29 that the veiled mystery of why I was so different began to pull back, leaving me with a comforting, yet horrifying truth.

At the end of this week my grandparents will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary. They still live independently and travel often, but my 92-year-old grandfather is beginning to slip. While visiting him last year with my three-month-old baby, he began muttering about, “That’s how old my brother was when he died.” I can ignore a lot of what my grandpa has to say (he loves to talk) but I couldn’t ignore this. I pulled my mom into the next room and began asking her about what my grandpa had said. “Grandpa had a brother who died when he was a baby, rumor is my grandma starved him to death. ” My mom’s voice then dropped to a whisper. “Dad’s mom was kind of crazy.”

For someone who has never suffered from postpartum depression, to hear of a woman starving her baby to death is incomprehensible. To me? My heart simultaneously shattered and exploded with this new information, my great grandmother was damaged. Even more comforting? She was damaged in the trenches of new motherhood. Suddenly I wasn’t the only one in my family who battled demons and who suffered through postpartum depression. I had a great-grandmother who not only suffered, but lived during a time when mental illness was just barely beginning to be discussed and patients were shut away in asylums or lobotomized.

I suddenly wanted every bit of information possible about my great-grandmother. What was she like? How old was she? Where was she from? Where did she live? When did she get married? How old were her kids? What happened to the baby? What happened after the baby? My mom’s knowledge was limited, she knew the baby was sick when her great-grandparents took the baby away for a month and nourished him back to health. It was after they returned the baby to their daughter that he allegedly died from starvation. I fought the urge to press my grandparents for more information. They’re from an entirely different generation of understanding and I wasn’t even sure how much my grandmother actually knew, or what my grandfather actually remembered.

My great grandmother’s name was Mary Celeste and she was born in 1896. Her second son was name was Donald and yesterday (July 2) would have been his 90th birthday had he not died as an infant. My grandpa would have been exactly two and a half years old when his little brother was born. My mother in law who is deeply involved in family history has been looking into the life and death of Mary Celeste, as well as the life and death of her second son Donald. Unfortunately the things I want to know most of all will never be answered. Did her husband ever find her crying on the bathroom floor? Did she ever hide her head under a pillow screaming to herself so she could drown out the sound of her crying baby? Did she even have words for how she felt? Did she have friends who took care of her? Friends who listened to her? Did she have a difficult pregnancy? Did she keep a journal? Did she believe she was going mad? Did she ever fear her own children, grandchildren or great grandchildren would suffer the way she did?

Did she cry when her baby died? Was she even aware of what happened?

I wish I could go back to 1922 and hug her.  I wish I could tell her that things will get better and smuggle some Lexapro to her. I wish I could thank her for keeping me from feeling so alone and broken with her own story. While I hate knowing that my great uncle went the way he did, knowing that my great grandmother showed signs of postpartum and clinical depression lifts so much guilt off my shoulders knowing it’s not just me who broke in my early years of new motherhood.

Photo Credit: Cornell University Library

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