Archive for #Columbia

White Archival Gloves (Maybe), and My Dead Sort-of Grandmother

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by chateaucone

That’s “sort-of” modifying “grandmother,” not modifying “dead.”

I finally finished my Scotland essay, which I’m sure we are all sick of talking about, and now I have this idea for an essay that would somehow combine the story of my adoptive mother’s biological mother (AMBM), and my biological, paternal grandfather (BPGF). They’re not exactly going to be about transgenerational trauma, but that’s the idea that got me started. AMBM spent most of her life in Letchworth Village, upstate NY, and I want to know more, and write more, about her. Anyone interested in visiting an abandoned mental hospital with me? BPGF spent at least a few months (still not clear on how long) in a Nazi POW camp, and I want to know more about him, too. I’m pretty sure a trip to Germany will be Absolutely. Necessary.

My abbreviations above are not going to work. I see that now. Too confusing, not to mention inconsistent.

But my family tree looks something like Sheldon’s 3D chess game. I’m going to need some kind of keyboard short cut for identifying my family members. I have a lot of grandparents and identifying each of them requires at least two qualifiers. There are the adoptive ones, maternal and paternal, and the biological ones, maternal and paternal, and the adoptive-biological-maternal, maternal and paternal. That last bit is a little confusing, but how do I identify my adoptive mother’s biological mother and father? I don’t think that’s it.

Here are my ten grandparents:

Julia and Angelo (adoptive maternal)
Henrietta and Frank (adoptive paternal)
Adalgisa and Pascal (biological maternal)
Elizabeth and Charles (biological paternal)
Louise and ? (adoptive-maternal biological)

I feel like that hyphen is in the wrong place. Or the words are in the wrong order.

(Last names removed so I’m not virtually handing over my social security number to some identity thief.)

(How do I have ten grandparents and I only managed to have two of them in my life, and neither long enough to really remember them? I think I am due some serious spoiling.)

But really, do I get to count them all? I mean, between me and Louise, we have two adoptions, no blood whatsoever, and tons of sealed records—a big blank lifetime.


Here is a rather glarey photo of Louise, before her life went off the rails.

And I’ll never get those records. I spent a good part of today trying. Apparently, unless I can convince my doctor that the mental health records of my adoptive mother’s biological mother, who my adoptive mother never knew, are somehow related to my mental health. I could maybe make some long and convoluted argument about transgenerational trauma, but no judge is going to buy it. I don’t even buy it. I could write on behalf of my mother, and that might be acceptable, but we don’t have any legal proof that Louise was her mother, because those adoption records are sealed. The other option is to wait 27 years, at which point Louise’s records will become available. And to bitch about HIPAA in the meantime. I mean, Yay HIPAA! for protecting my privacy, but BOO HIPAA! for protecting my dead sort-of grandmother’s.

Nonetheless, I want to know more about her. Give her a voice. She was put away and kept secret (I do know that much) and I want to let her out.

I’ve been deep in research about Letchworth Village for a few days. This is what we’re dealing with: Letchworth’s Annual Report to the NYS Legislature in 1915, just a decade or so before my grandmother was there, is asking for additional funds for the “segregation of all defective and delinquent dependents.” It says:

Few persons except those who are forced to come in contact with the defective realize the extent of the great burden imposed by the rapid increases of the subnormal part of the population both through immigration, and because the feeble-minded are more prolific than the normal part of the community. That it is cheaper to provide permanent custodial care for a feeble-minded girl than to be forced to care not only for her but also for her defective children admits of no argument.

There’s my grandmother, as defined by her caretakers: a feeble-minded girl with defective children.

In lighter news, I have a list of libraries to visit.

I need a book from St. Joe’s library, fortunately just up the street.

There’s also a book I need at Stony Brook. Whatevs. Just kidding. I do like going back there now and then to see what’s up. But the library is neither beautiful nor inspiring of great work. It looks like a very big bomb shelter, or at least it did. It inspires you to run away screaming “Save yourselves!”

But best of all, I found two boxes of archival material from Letchworth from 1906-1970 at Columbia’s Library–so exciting!—because I get to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which I’ve been to, but not for actual research I was doing. More as a tourist. So yay! Doing real research in the Rare Book room. Cool, no? I really, really, really hope there are white cotton gloves.

Don’t call me a nerd.

And, I’m making a plan to go to Letchworth. Other things keep coming up, but I’ll get there.

Somewhere in all of this, I will, I hope, come across at least a blurry and faded photo of Louise. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, someone will take pity on me and let me see her records, violating every HIPAA statute in the world. I’m kind of concerned that this person, trying to help me see the records, will be using subtle signals—like on tv when a nurse pulls a patient’s record up on the computer and then announces loudly, in earshot of the person who wants the record but should not have it, that she’s going to grab a snack—and I will totally miss them.

I’m also practicing crying on demand—the kind of crying that makes people want to give you whatever you’re asking for just to shut you up. Square mouth. Runny nose. “Please, please save my life by sharing my grandmother’s records! Sob! Sob!” I could really milk it with, “My own mother never knew her mother! More sobbing!” Okay, so my mother was three when her mother was institutionalized, and besides that, she’d already been adopted, so it’s not like she really missed her, except in that adopted-abandonment-primal-wound sort of way.

What’s research without a little law-breaking?