In 1946 my grandparents divorced, as you can imagine back in 1946 this was almost unheard of, people of that generation stuck together no matter what the circumstances. Except in this circumstance my dear, sweet grandmother was diagnosed with a form of postpartum depression after giving birth to her third daughter in 1944. Back in the good old days a diagnosis of severe postpartum depression got you locked up in an institution with experimental medications and a prognosis of spending the remainder of your days in a mental health faculty.
My mother was 14 when her baby sister was born in 1944 and she spent her weekends alternating visits between her mother in the institution and her baby sister in an orphanage because her father was unable to care for his infant daughter. No parties and hanging out with friends for my mother, she went from carefree teen to an adult woman in a matter of days.
Then there was the middle sister caught in between who was 9 years old when her baby sister was born in 1944, she was too old to go to an orphanage, but she was old enough to be shuffled from relative to relative carrying her belongings in a paper bag…constantly losing her belongings along the way…
In spite of their early separation and the hardships they suffered, these three sisters were fiercely close their entire lives. They had a bond, maybe an unspoken pact of somehow surviving a childhood no child should ever endure.
My grandfather was told his wife would never be cured, that she would spend the remainder of her days locked up. So he made a decision to move on with his life and the first step was to divorce his wife, the mother of his three daughters. He didn’t have to look very far to find a new wife as his sister-in-law, also his ex-wife’s best friend, was recently divorced. So in 1947 they tied the knot combining their new blended family of 5 daughters, first cousins by blood, now step-sisters by marriage into one big family of seven, and my mother and her two younger sisters were forced to choose their allegiance between their aunt, now step-mother, and their mother still locked away in an institution.
My parents were also married in 1947, my mother was a 17 year old bride…..and the newly weds continued to spend their weekends visiting mother in “the home”. When I was very little in the early 1950’s, I have vague memories of playing near a car with my brother and dad while my mother visited her mother in “the home”
So fast forward about 12 years to 1959 and with new medications, lo and behold, Nana is well enough to be released from the mental health facility. The decision is made for Nana to alternate her time between her two oldest daughters homes, now bursting with the combined addition of five small grandchildren. We lived in a very small post WWII Cape Cod style home, so when Nana stayed with our family she shared a room with me and my younger sister.
As a kid, I had a sense that there was something about my Nana that was different, I don’t recall having conversations with her or playing cards with her like I did with my dad’s mother, but I do remember she loved to cook for our family and she was the happiest when she could venture out to the local 5 and Dime store and pick up small toys and trinkets.
My Nana was about 57 when she was released from the facility. .I think about what must have gone through her mind…what happened to her life? Her home, children, husband and best friend gone, a faint recollection of her baby daughter, vague remembrance of her older two children. I regret not asking my mother while she was still alive who was the one who told Nana that her husband married her sister in law?
Once Nana moved in with us, it was an awkward situation for my grandfather and his wife to visit, that was until someone in the family came up with the idea to remove Nana from her home and take her to a relatives house so my grandfather and his new wife wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in her presence. As a child, I didn’t give this a thought, it was a decision made by grown ups, so it must be right. But now, as a grandmother who has been through a divorce, to this day, I cringe when I remember how my Nana was treated.
Somehow my mother and aunts knew this charade couldn’t go on forever, that at some point, both women and my grandfather would be destined to be in the same place at the same time. That time came in 1971 at my brother’s wedding when during the reception, my mother went into the ladies room and found her mother and her step mother engaged in conversation. I don’t know what was said….but there wasn’t shouting, or fainting or wailing or anything terrible…all things that had been predicted for years to happen.
I often think about my beautiful Nana Concetta and her life, how after experiencing the incredible high of giving birth to her third daughter, her life completely changed. Everything that was near and dear to her gone and then to reemerge on the scene to find the ultimate betrayal of your husband and best friend.
In spite of all the challenges, Nana survived and in her later years she shared an apartment with her dear sister Mary where they both thrived.
My Nana was an inspiration to me several times in my life when I went through some difficult challenges, any time when I felt particularly tested I would think that my difficulties paled to what Nana Concetta went through. I know my mother inherited her strong willed tenacity, her love of books and music. And through our bloodline I know I have a bit of Nana Concetta coursing through my veins, and for that I am grateful.
Nana Concetta on her wedding day with her husband. The other people in this photo are Concetta’s brother and his wife, her best friend and the women who would eventually marry her husband….I like to name this photo “It’s Complicated”