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The Story of Grandma Jo

Grass Valley, CA 1939ish

Strange name for a blog post, right? Today is the anniversary of my maternal grandmothers birth. If that sounds rather formal and stiff, it’s because I wasn’t that close to her. Nobody really was.

In her youth, Josephine was a beautiful woman growing up in the strange world that was pre-war Nogales, Arizona, a place that couldn’t seem to decide if it was in Mexico or the United States. Once she married though, and World War II broke out, it was definitely America. Although he was too old for the draft, my grandfather enlisted in the Air Force, hoping he would have a career as a pilot after the war ended.

That was not to be. After training as a pursuit pilot and being deployed to England, his plane went down in January of 1944. My mother was about two years old.

What happened after that is a sad story. My mother is not known for being a forthcoming storyteller, so lots of details are either left shrouded in mystery or something salacious gets thrown out at a time when she might want to deflect attention from herself. It has sometimes been difficult to separate fact from fiction.

What seems true enough is, after the tragic turn of events, Grandma Jo and my mother lived with my great grandmother. Grandma Jo struggled after the death of my grandfather and made some questionable decisions. My mom has mentioned drug use, an abortion, and even what may have been working in a California brothel that was operated by some extended family. True? Maybe… maybe not… Maybe my mother had watched Vivian Leigh in Waterloo Bridge one too many times.

At any rate, whatever Grandma Jo was distracting herself with was obviously not the healthiest of pursuits. There was probably depression, and who knows what else. Mental health disorders were far less understood then and she was heavily medicated and even given shock treatments.

Her mental state eventually deteriorated to a point where she was committed to the Arizona State Hospital. She was in and out of there for most of my mom’s life and then mine. We would pick up a Whataburger and drive over to 24th Street and Van Buren on a Sunday afternoon, where we would stop at the stone guardhouse. The guard would check us in and hand us a large wooden sign that said “Visitor.” My dad would put it on the dashboard and in we’d drive. Mom would run in and retrieve Grandma Jo, and we would eat our Whataburger picnic on the lawn. I went inside a couple of times and believe me, it was a creepy experience for a child. Also a wasted one, I certainly wasn’t about to tell my school friends where I’d been that weekend. There was so much stigma around the whole thing. What was the use going somewhere so creepy if you couldn’t even tell people about it?

Eventually, the state hospital would release her to either my great grandmother’s home or our own. I dreaded that most of all. My mom was pretty good about playing Grace Poole and keeping our little Bertha under wraps when I had school friends over- most of the time. Sometimes though, there she’d be, looking down at me and some school chums playing jacks on the floor and warning us sternly, “There are 5,000 men in the kitchen.” “Okay, grandma,” I’d say, and look at my friends, “She’s such a joker.” “Why is she wearing three coats?!” my friends would invariably ask. That one could not be as easily explained away in an Arizona summer.

The official line I got as a child was that Grandma Jo had never gotten over the death of her husband and had lost her mind. Truth be told, I hated her. Well, I thought I did. It was really complete and total frustration, I guess, over what I saw as her weakness.

“Don’t you decide what you think with your mind?” eight year old me wondered. Why would she choose to lose her mind? Couldn’t she just decide to get it back?

Of course, things aren’t as simple as that. We know so much more about mental health now, but it still only scratches the surface. Like the childhood me throwing my hands up in consternation at Grandma Jo’s “choice,” many of us are finding it hard to grasp the wave of suicides from people that seem to “have it all.” Nobody has it all. The suicide of a "successful" person shocks us, once again, into knowing that we don't really know what life is all about.

What's sad is that people commit suicide everyday and we are typically saddened, but sometimes only mildly shocked. Anyone losing hope should shock us.

We do all have pain, shame, guilt, low self-esteem and a host of other low vibration feelings that can drive our actions. We have no idea what other people are dealing with, and who knows what Grandma Jo’s real story was. Of course, it is important to check in with loved ones, especially those in fragile mental states. Letting someone know we care is what we can do, without pressure or expectation. We can never choose a coping strategy for anyone else, no matter how much we wish we could. We can put hope out there, but it must be embraced.

Most crucial is to check in with our own story. What are we using to mask our low vibration feelings when our hope is feeling a little muddy? Drugs and prostitution are generally frowned on, of course, and probably too much trouble, but a little too much wine, spending lots of time at the mall or eating too much or not enough are common mechanisms through which people try to cope.

When I was going through my divorce, I was understandably in more pain than I ever thought possible. Drugs and prostitution were out of the question. I toyed with becoming an alcoholic; that seemed feasible but I don't really like to drink that much. I thought of suicide, none of these options were all that appealing.

I thought of Grandma Jo and the pain of losing a husband. It’s so much more than that- she lost the future she'd imagined. Without a future, what do you have?

Losing my mind seemed to be the ultimate coping mechanism. Grandma Jo completely checked out of reality. That’s what I would do- simply descend into madness. Perfect! I sat and waited. Turns out, that was the least possible of all my options.

Even at my lowest points, there was a small seed of hope. I prayed day and night, and I believed in the goodness of God. I knew I still had a purpose and a reason for being here and that I was going to fulfill it. As Andy Dufresne writes to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” I just couldn’t shake the hope.

Ultimately, I was able to make a conscious choice. An opportunity came one day and