Family Lore

I’m reading a book about Roosevelt’s Island in New York. It was named Roosevelt’s Island in 1973. Before that, it was Welfare Island. And before that, it was Blackwell’s Island. Although it has a sad and appalling history as a place to house the unwanted — criminals, sick people, mentally ill folks, people who were lost and didn’t speak enough English to explain where they wanted to go — I have a personal interest because a woman who might be my great-grandmother was once incarcerated there.

According to family lore, our family comes by its insanity naturally — we inherited it. My great-grandfather was a scientist and inventor. He worked with Edison and other renowned scientists of the day, perhaps even Tesla. He invented the postmarking machine and foolishly sold the patent to get funds to invent a subway sweeper that never caught on. The people who supposedly did him a favor by buying the patent, became very rich because that postmarking machine was used continuously until the digital age made it obsolete. This otherwise intelligent man — my grandfather — had been married twice. One wife he threw down the stairs. The other he consigned to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

The asylum was supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility, with patients classified as to their illness, rather than all thrown in together, the violent and harmless alike. The Asylum was also supposed to be moral, treating the patients like humans rather than like depraved animals. This humane mental institution never materialized. Instead, the asylum was a dreadful place that journalist Nellie Bly described as a “human rat trap.” Even worse, since convicts from the nearby penitentiary were used as guards and attendants, the patients were “abandoned to the tender mercies of thieves and prostitutes.”

No one knows which of my great-grandfather’s wives is my great-grandmother, but even if she weren’t the one committed (especially since there’s a chance he had her committed for his own reasons rather than her mental state), the insanity could come from dear old great-grandfather himself because there seems to be a portion of insanity in incarcerating one woman and tossing another down the stairs

His son, an embezzler who never quite measured up to his father, went to prison for a while and died an alcoholic at 96.

My father kept himself on a tight rein to keep from turning into his father, which was an imbalance of a different sort, and caused all sorts of problems, especially with his oldest children.

My older brother seemed to have inherited all the family craziness — he was a brilliant inventor and electronic genius at the age of twelve, and then he succumbed to the same devils that had tormented his progenitors.

For all I know, I might have inherited some of these problems, but I have more of the Polish placidity of my mother’s family than the German genius and volatility of my father’s family. And besides, it seems to be a sort of insanity that is passed down from father to son.

Not that any of this makes any difference. All those people are gone now, and nothing can change anything that happened, but I do sometimes think of my great-grandfather and his wives and wonder what happened to the poor woman who was sent to Blackwell’s Island.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

In a Cavern, in a Canyon, Excavating for . . .

Unlike Clementine’s father, I haven’t been excavating for a mine, but I have been excavating in the caverns and canyons of my workspace.

I turned on the computer a couple of hours ago to write my daily blog. Although I began this blog in 2007, I’ve only been daily blogging for the past 966 days. The miracle is that I’ve found something important to say each of those days (important to me, anyway), but today I’m dragging my feet. I don’t want to talk about what is most on my mind — the insanity of my life. My 97-year-old father is continuing to decline, and my crazy brother is getting increasingly crazy, blaming me for everything wrong in his life. He claims I am the one who’s crazy, tells me I am a jealous, revengeful bitch, but the truth is, I am too tired to be anything but what I am — a person who is doing the best she can under burdensome conditions.

Not wanting to go into the particulars of today’s insanity, I’ve been procrastinating writing this blog, cleaning around my computer and sorting through all the notes that accumulate.

I found a ndeskote indicating that, as of right now, Jeff — my life mate/soul mate — has been dead for 1513 days. Although I am not actively grieving for him, I still feel a blankness inside that his presence once filled.

I found an information sheet from my poppy trip that I hadn’t yet read. Apparently, the local Indians believed the Great Spirit sent this Fire Flower to drive away the evils of frost and famine, and to fill the land with warmth and plenty.

I found a phone number, and when I googled the number, discovered it was for a dollar store, though why I have the number, I can’t say. I also found an address for the county jail, and I do know why I have that. I had to go pick up my brother one day after he’d been arrested for public intoxication.

Barely discernible on a paper with many strange hieroglyphics — long forgotten calculations and cryptic notations — I found a great quote: Screw Romeo and Juliet. I want a love like Gomez and Morticia. Oh, my, yes! Now that was a great love affair, albeit unsung. It’s only those who die for love who become fodder for the bards. To be honest, though, I don’t want any love affair. One excavated note reminded me that my subscription to the dating site OurTime expires at the end of the month, and I don’t intend to renew it. I considered asking the one guy who didn’t pose with a motorcycle if he’d like to go to lunch just so I could say the subscription wasn’t a total waste of money, but I only sent him a brief lob to see if he’ll return my serve. (What I know about tennis is almost nothing, so I have no idea why I used a tennis metaphor, especially since I don’t know if I used it correctly.)

The most interesting thing I found in my excavations were notes about Blackwell’s Island. Apparently my family comes by its insanity naturally — we inherited it. Our great-grandfather, who once worked with Edison, and who invented the postmarking machine that continued to be used until the digital age made it obsolete, had been married twice. One wife he threw down the stairs. The other he consigned to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973). The asylum was supposed to be a state of the art facility, with patients classified as to their illness, rather than all thrown in together, the violent and harmless alike. The Asylum was also supposed to be moral, treating the patients like humans rather than like depraved animals. This humane mental institution never materialized. Instead, the asylum was a dreadful place that journalist Nellie Bly described as a “human rat trap.” Even worse, since convicts from the nearby penitentiary were used as guards and attendants, the patients were “abandoned to the tender mercies of thieves and prostitutes.”

No one knows which of my great-grandfather’s wives is my great-grandmother, but even if she weren’t the one committed (especially since there’s a chance he had her committed for his own reasons rather than her mental state), the insanity could come from good old great-grandfather himself.

The best part about this excavating through the caverns and canyons of my workspace is that now the space is neat and clean. And I did write a blog after all.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.