Not Your Typical Grandparents

Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, in1956 (before they remarried).
Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, in1956 (before they remarried).

Grandma and Grandpa’s relationship status, had they been on Facebook, could have been “it’s complicated.” My grandparents married in 1922, but two months later, Grandma left Grandpa. In 1925, when she became pregnant with Mom, they reunited.

My grandparents had a stormy relationship.  She continually accused him of cheating on her, and sometimes their arguments came to blows.  In retrospect, her suspicions were probably symptoms of her paranoid schizophrenia.  Grandpa suffered from PTSD and the effects of mustard gas from World War I.  He didn’t know how to handle Grandma’s rantings, which is why their marriage devolved into domestic violence.

They were separated again in 1935, when Grandma was committed to Norwich State Hospital.  Around the time that Grandma was discharged in 1944, Grandpa filed for a divorce, citing the many years of fighting between the two. He married another woman in 1947 who died three years later in 1950.

Meanwhile, Grandma remained at the hospital after her discharge, working as an attendant and living in employee housing for the next fourteen years. In 1958, Grandma retired, and she and Grandpa remarried. They remained together, living in Norwalk, Connecticut for eight years, until she died in 1966. Grandpa died four months later after having moved in with with Mom, Dad, and the six of us children in Wheaton, Maryland.

My Grandparents As I Knew Them

As a small child, I remember Grandma and Grandpa visiting our house in Wheaton. These visits were often tense. Grandma would follow Mom around the house, their conversations peppered with her sarcastic commentary on Mom’s incompetence as a wife, a mother, and a homemaker. She was not your typical warm grandmother, who gave hugs and homemade cookies to her grandchildren. I kept my distance from her, sensing that there was something wrong with her.  Grandpa was mostly silent, trying to blend into the background during Grandma’s and Mom’s altercations.  I guess he knew better than to try to intervene when his wife was on a rampage.

Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, with Julianne, in1957 (before they remarried).
Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, with Julianne, in1957 (before they remarried).

This 1957 snapshot of my grandparents and I speaks volumes about what Grandma was like.  My tiny leg is propped up on Grandpa’s lap; it looks as though he has just finished tying my shoe. I have a big smile on my face, oblivious of the nonverbal drama going on behind me. Grandpa is looking straight into the camera, but Grandma is turned away from it with a grumpy expression on her face. Her right elbow rests on the embroidery hoop on her lap with her chin sunken into the same hand. Every time I look at this photograph, I wonder if she was jealous even of me, her tiny granddaughter.

I once asked Mom why her parents had remarried, knowing how much they fought during their first marriage.  Mom replied, without a hint of irony, “He liked the way she made his life exciting.”

She could have just said, “It’s complicated.”

4 thoughts on “Not Your Typical Grandparents”

  1. Nice blog, long been fascinated with the hospital. I also come from a close-but-not-too-close dysfunctional family here in SECT and can relate to this. My mom had shock treatments for postpartum depression (nervous breakdown) in the 1960’s and I always felt that it affected her deeply and permanently. I tried to subscribe for future updates but the “captcha” thing is taking the day off…

    Again, interesting read!

    1. Thanks, I’m glad to hear that people are interested. Since you are a real person, I’ll go ahead and sign you up for future updates. I’ll also see what’s going on with the reCAPTCHA today. Fingers crossed!

  2. Great post, Julie. Love the way you tied in “it’s complicated.” Looking forward to more installments. Happy holidays

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