Dinorah Metthe, Grandma’s sister, was one of five women on my mother’s side of the family who were mentally ill and had been committed to a state hospital. Mom had a letter (which I presume she found among Grandpa’s papers) from Kings Park State Hospital in New York. Dated October 11, 1954, it was addressed to Beatrice, with a memo line that read: “RE: Dinorah Metthe: deceased.” The hospital acknowledged the receipt of Dinorah’s divorce papers and some personal correspondence that Beatrice had sent them. How I wish Grandma hadn’t done this! These documents, which were subsequently filed in her patient record, would have revealed Dinorah’s state of mind, and perhaps provided additional details to the family story.
Until I had met my cousin Rita, my great-aunt Dinorah was but an abstraction to me, just one of the women in Grandma’s family who was mentally ill. Rita had only two photographs of Dinorah, but that was enough to spark my interest in this slender, dark-eyed Franco-American woman. Even though I knew less about Dinorah than my other mentally ill ancestors, I felt sure that she had a story just as compelling as theirs, if only I could find out what it was. Unlike her two sisters, Beatrice and Pauline, Dinorah had not been committed to Norwich State Hospital. I had to make a separate effort to get her patient record, in hopes of finding out what had happened to her.
In 2012, I wrote to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center because that is where Kings Park State Hospital records were sent after it closed in 1996. I asked for a copy of Dinorah’s patient record, thinking it would be as easy to obtain as it had been to get Grandma’s. Instead, I received a form letter in reply, telling me that that they would not release hospital records for privacy reasons. The position of the New York Office of Mental Health is that the stigma of mental illness could adversely affect the patient’s personal and professional life. In addition, they said that the patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality does not end with his or her death. Finally, if the information was being sought for genealogical purposes they would not release it. It was a form letter that said “no” three ways from Sunday, and it closed with a response worthy of a top-secret spy agency: “This is neither a confirmation nor denial of the existence of a record.” Curiously, someone had also typed in (and highlighted with a handwritten asterisk): “We are unable to locate a record.”
Failing to get my hands on her patient record (whether or not it still existed), I ordered a copy of Dinorah’s death certificate, hoping to find the exact date of her death, and where she was buried. According to the New York State Department of Health website, it would take up to eight months for them to respond to a genealogical request. When I finally received the death certificate, nearly a year later, I learned that Dinorah Metthe had died on September 1, 1954 of metastatic cancer of the liver, and was buried in the Kings Park State Hospital cemetery. According to the death certificate, Dinorah had lived there for fourteen years, five months, and nineteen days — much longer than Grandma’s time as a patient at Norwich State Hospital. Dinorah had been admitted on March 14, 1940 — just in time to have been counted as a patient in the 1940 U.S. Census. I was heartbroken to realize that she spent her last years there suffering from cancer. She had no family nearby to help her or give her consolation. After Dinorah passed away, no one claimed her body, so she was buried along with thousands of other patients in the hospital cemetery.
I longed to do something for Dinorah, even though her story only touched tangentially on the central one of what had happened to Grandma and Mom. During the months after I’d learned of her fate, I felt a growing urge to find Dinorah’s grave and perform some sort of memorial service over it. There were so many tragedies in my family history that had never been fully recognized or honored. I thought, if I can do something for Dinorah, it would stand in the place of the things I hadn’t been able to do for other members of the family whose graves I had not been able to locate.
At the time I received Dinorah’s death certificate, I did not know how hard it would be to locate the grave of a patient buried on state hospital property. I found the cemetery listed on findagrave.com, the website where I had posted memorials for other ancestors. In addition to maintaining a database of burial and cemetery information, the website coordinates a cadre of volunteers from around the country who are willing to go to cemeteries in their area and take photographs of headstones. Since Dinorah was buried 275 miles from where I live, I made a request for a photograph of her grave marker. A wonderful volunteer named Ann made a diligent effort to just to find the cemetery itself on the hospital grounds. Because Kings Park State Hospital sits on hundreds of acres, and the cemetery is not marked, Ann was unsuccessful, even after two hours of searching. However, in a random act of genealogical kindness, she telephoned Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and learned how family members of deceased patients can locate and visit their relatives’ graves. She passed this information on to me.
It wasn’t until 2016 that my research in Connecticut slowed down enough for me to take a side trip to Long Island, where the state hospital is located. Preparation for the visit involved multiple letters, emails, and phone calls to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. After I proved that I was a family member, the maintenance staff began the process of locating Dinorah’s grave. Once it had been found, they called me back to set up an appointment to see where she had been buried.
In April 2016, Bob and I drove to Long Island to visit Dinorah Metthe’s grave. Although there is a cemetery on Kings Park State Hospital grounds, it turned out that Dinorah had been buried in another cemetery for hospital patients about a mile away, on Indian Head Road. The night before our appointment, I checked the hourly weather forecast. The chance of precipitation for most of the following day hovered around 60-70%. For the hour during which our appointment at the cemetery was to take place (1:00 p.m.), the chance of rain was 100%. I didn’t have any choice but to go to the cemetery, no matter the weather. If I missed this appointment, it might be months before I would be in the area again. So, wearing raincoats and waterproof shoes, Bob and I forged ahead with our plan. We ate lunch at a BBQ joint in the town of Kings Park around noon, and checked the weather again. To my surprise, the weather forecast for 1:00 p.m. had changed — there was going to be 0% chance of rain. Looking at the radar map, I saw that between two swaths of precipitation in the area, there was a patch of clear sky just about to pass over Long Island.
When we met the groundskeeper in a local shopping center parking lot, it was not raining at all. Encouraged, we followed his pickup truck to the gate of the cemetery. He unlocked it and then our two-car caravan drove up a nearly imperceptible grass driveway through the middle of the grounds. It was the oddest cemetery, consisting of three acres of closely cropped grass with no markers of any kind that I could see. An eight-foot white cross stood in front of some small trees toward the back of the lot. After a short drive, the groundskeeper stopped and we got out of our vehicles. Before we walked to the grave, he shared a few facts about the cemetery.
The Kings Park State Hospital cemetery on Indian Head Road contains the bodies of about 1,500 patients. They are arranged in sections, by religion, and then by sex. Locating Dinorah’s grave involved using a map of the individual plots in the cemetery and measuring the distance from the plot to the corner fence posts. According to the map’s scale, the groundskeeper extrapolated these measurements in the actual cemetery, located Dinorah’s plot, and marked it. We learned that buried in the corner of each plot is a metal capsule containing the deceased patient’s number, the one they’d been assigned by the hospital in life. There was no other information, just a number. I found this so impersonal and anonymous and depressing, but tried not to show my feelings to a state employee who had nothing to do with the practice; he was just telling it like it was. I felt even more desolate when I saw how the grave had been marked in preparation for our visit, with a three-foot green metal fence post sticking out of the ground.
I wanted to leave something at Dinorah’s grave that said more about her than a number, something that would say who she had been, and give her back some of her dignity. When she was committed to Kings Park, she was only thirty six years old. Before that time, she had been more than just a mentally ill person. She had a family, for one thing. I came to the cemetery with a slip of paper on which I had written her full name, date of birth (May 13,1904), place of birth (Danielson, Connecticut), her parents’ names (Philippe Metthe and Graziella Bonneau), and the year and place of her death (1954, Kings Park State Hospital, Kings Park, NY). I rolled up the paper and slid it into a bison tube, a small metal container about 2 inches long and a half-inch wide, with a screw-on cap and an o-ring to make a waterproof seal. I showed it to the groundskeeper and asked him what he thought was the best way to leave it. He suggested that I bury it, since the field is mowed regularly. While I puzzled over how to bury my bison tube when I hadn’t come with a shovel, the groundskeeper went to his truck. He returned to the grave site with sledge hammer and a hefty metal stake about a half-inch in diameter and 18 inches long. He drove the stake into the ground near where the capsule with her patient number was supposed to be and made a narrow hole about eight inches deep. Perfect, I said. Then he left us alone so that I could perform the memorial service I had planned.
Bob and I stood on opposite sides of the metal fence post. I took out my script, which was two and a half pages long, single-spaced, and began to read. I had written it as if I was speaking to Dinorah directly. I told her everything I had learned about her life, from Mom’s sparse details to random facts that I had turned up on Ancestry.com. I told Dinorah that I had never known what she looked like until Cousin Rita showed me photographs of her. I told her that she was beautiful, with her dark wavy hair cut in a bob, big brown eyes, and a sylph-like figure. I tried to find something to say about her life that was happy, so I described one of the snapshots that Rita had shown me, the one with her sitting on the beach with her sisters, her aunt Corinne, and Mom and Rita. It was such a pleasant scene, demonstrating a bond of sisterhood with the women in her life. I told Dinorah that I knew she had wanted to be an artist and had taken a trip to France in 1927. She had married, then divorced a few years later. According to Mom, she had used her alimony money for art lessons. Five years after the divorce, she was admitted to Kings Park State Hospital where she spent the rest of her life.
It was a sad ending for a woman who’d had hopes of a life of art and beauty and love. Toward the end of my reading, I began to feel grief well up inside me. I hadn’t expected this to happen; after all, didn’t I already know what I had written? But giving a voice to the words I had written about Dinorah, in the place where she was buried, was very different from reading those same words off my laptop screen at home. It sunk into me how sad it was that she had been forgotten for so many years. Even though she died before I was born, I felt grief at not having had an opportunity to get to know her. My eyes started to tear up as I read the last paragraph of my memorial to her:
“I want to honor your suffering, and say that I don’t think you were a bad person, and you didn’t deserve all the terrible things that happened to you. You deserved to have a life where you were loved and able to reach your creative potential, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen. When I think of you, I will always picture you as a young beauty, when your life was still full of love and promise. That’s the Dinorah Metthe who will live on in my memory. May the Lord give you eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon you. Amen.”
After I stopped reading, Bob hugged me and let me cry a little in his arms. I took the bison tube out of my coat pocket and dropped it down the hole in the ground. Then I got out the prayer book that had belonged to her sister Beatrice and read aloud the Catholic prayers for the dead. When I read those same words at home a few days earlier, they had seemed cold and dogmatic. But for some reason, at Dinorah’s grave, they resonated with me, especially the prayer that expresses the hope that the soul of the departed will “…take possession of eternal joys.” When I was done, I touched the prayer book to the place on the ground where I had been told Dinorah’s head would be. After a few minutes, I told Bob that I was ready to go.
We had spent perhaps a half an hour at the cemetery, and during that time, it did not rain. In fact, there were two times when the sky brightened up a little while I was reading, as if the universe approved of what I had just said. We got into our car, turned it around, and drove just outside the gate, where the groundskeeper was waiting to lock up behind us. I jumped out briefly to thank him, and then returned to the car so that Bob could drive us to the ferry that would take us across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Less than a minute after we left the cemetery, it began to rain again.