Before I knew anything about my family’s ties to Norwich State Hospital, all I had was the brief stories Mom told me about her family. To understand why I became obsessed with uncovering the family secrets, you have to understand how frustrated I was for most of my life with the lack of details about the family’s past. It starts with where my mother came from.
Mom grew up in Connecticut — first in Stonington; then Danielson; and later, Norwich. She moved to Washington, D. C. when she was in her twenties, just after WWII ended. At about the same time, my father moved there from Indiana. My parents met at Catholic University of America in the library, where they both had work-study positions. They married in 1948 and raised six children, of which I am the third.
I grew up in Wheaton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Before World War II, the town of Wheaton was a quiet place, surrounded by dairy and poultry farms. By the time Dad and Mom moved there in 1951, it was a booming suburb. Much of the farm land had been sold to developers, and thousands of identical Cape Cod houses were cranked out to meet the demands of the post-war baby boom. A Catholic parish was established in that same year, just before my parents started producing their brood. All six of their children went to the Catholic Church elementary school, and of course, we all went there for Mass every Sunday.
All of that sounds pretty mundane, even to me. The thing that is important to know is that I grew up in a home that was significantly more stable than the one Mom was brought up in, and for that I am thankful. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t an undercurrent of mystery and hints of trauma in the family’s past.
Mom had dabbled in genealogy for decades, starting about the time I entered high school. But I wasn’t interested in genealogy, because to me, it seemed like the gathering of dry facts about who begat whom, when they married, and where they died. I was more curious about Mom’s stories about her family — and in the way she told them to me: in short and disconnected anecdotes. The one she repeated most often was this one:
My mother had an uncle who set her up in business running a delicatessen in Stonington. During the Great Depression, the business failed. When I was seven years old, my mother became mentally ill and was sent to a mental hospital. I was taken from my father and put into the county home.
Another story that Mom used to tell was this:
When my mother was a child, she lived in a shed. Her father deserted her mother and went back to Canada, causing her mother to go insane. Some doctor thought it was a good idea to pull out all of her mother’s teeth.
I was most interested in the first story, although it was hard to pin Mom down on the details. She usually would change the subject after blurting out this family tragedy, as if she was releasing some emotional buildup, like a pressure cooker. She didn’t like it if I suggested that her father had abandoned her. She always insisted that he had been a good father, even though he divorced Grandma while she was in the mental hospital, and he never tried to get Mom out of the county home. It made no sense to me.
As for the second story, I remember asking Mom why a doctor would have pulled out all her grandmother’s teeth. She had no explanation and simply answered, “that was what I was told.” I later realized that Mom got much of her family information from Grandma, a paranoid schizophrenic, and perhaps not the most reliable source.
The thing that bothered me about genealogy was that no matter how much research Mom did, nothing changed about the stories she told over the years. What I wanted was a more continuous and coherent narrative of the family history, and it didn’t seem like genealogy was going to do that for me.
What happened to change my attitude about genealogy will be revealed in the next installment, “What I Found.“