May 13, 2012: (Grand) Mother’s Day

            My maternal grandmother, Giovita Ciminero Clemente, spent the last 27 years of her life in an insane asylum.

            That’s what they were called back then: Insane asylums. Before there was much understanding of mental illness, people who behaved oddly were routinely tossed into these places, where they lived out their lives locked away from the rest of us, receiving no real therapy. I’m sure my grandfather thought he was helping his wife when he had her committed, less than a year after my mother was born, in 1925. I like to think he thought she’d get better and return home. She did not.

            My family has long lived by two rules: 1. If you’re ashamed of something, pretend it didn’t happen; and 2. You should be ashamed of everything. And so I was a teenager before I discovered that my mother’s mother, who went by the name Julia, hadn’t died when Mom was an infant, as I’d been told. No one spoke of Grandma Clemente; she was a deep, dark secret.

            More troubling than the thought of what my grandmother endured as a resident of the Massillon State Hospital for the Insane is that she will likely be remembered only as the crazy lady from long ago. None of her grandchildren knew her. My father never met his mother-in-law. The only surviving member of Julia’s family who might recall her is my mom, who was an infant when her mother “went away.” Mom’s Alzheimer’s disease prevents her from recalling what little she once knew about her own mother; today, when I ask about Julia, Mom can only tell me, “My mother lost her mind.”

            Julia is largely forgotten in our family, which makes me sad. In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to tell you what little I know—besides “she lost her mind”—about my mother’s mother.

            She had blue eyes. She was 12 years old when she came to America from Bagnoli  Irpino, Italy. Her parents and siblings were already settled here, in a town called Niles, Ohio, where her father owned a saloon and later a macaroni factory. She was a talented seamstress who made her own wedding gown. She gave birth to nine children, seven of them girls. Her third-oldest child, Concetta, died when she was still a baby. Later in life, Julia wore glasses. She had beautiful hair.

            She must have been a good mother, before her illness overwhelmed her. Because after Julia was sent toMassillon, her eldest daughters, my Aunts Josephine and Pauline, raised their six younger siblings with the love and strength only a mother could have taught them.

 Thing I Hate Today: “We appreciate your call. Please stay on the line, and our next available agent will help you.”


5 Responses

  1. Robrt, I’m thinking we have roots together. You know my grandparents are from Ohio, right? My grandmother “trained” in Massollin but I don’t know which hospital. What if my grandmother knew your grandmother? Wouldn’t that make some kind of sense?

  2. Ah, that is such a sad story. Your grandmother could have had postpartum depression after having birthed your mother within the year before she was committed. Having had nine children and loosing one of them would drive any mother insane.

    • Kim: The prevailing theories about my grandmother are that the death of her child may have triggered an existing mental illness, likely schizophrenia, or that she was suffering from postpartum depression, which I believe was an unknown condition at the time.

  3. So appropriate to honor Julia on this day.

  4. What an amazing and touching story to share. We had a similar illness situation in our family, but she was not left in the hospital. It was a series of in and outs. I think that women suffered mental anxiety because it was assumed that mothering was an automatic trait, no one explained much.

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