Friday, March 28, 2008

Winifred's Story

I'm going to tell you the story of my great-grandmother Winifred. I originally wrote and posted it on my Bravenet blog, but after making reference to her yesterday in my "Voices" post, I thought it would be a good time to tell it again. Just so you understand what I meant when I said I have a great empathy for people in similar situations:

Winifred was born in Nova Scotia back around 1880. Canadian census records a friend of mine unearthed showed her family to consist of her parents, a couple of brothers I think it was, and a house maid. I know nothing of her young life. I know nothing about how she met my great-grandfather. I have a portrait of her hanging in my living room, taken presumably at her high school graduation. She was a beautiful young woman with an abundance of wavy dark brown hair, expressive eyes, wearing a lovely high-necked Victorian-style white blouse and a choker of luminescent pearls. She was 6 feet tall, very 'statuesque' for that time period, especially.
She met and married my great-grandfather Louis. She gave birth to my grandmother in 1907. No other children entered their lives until 13 years later when she gave birth to another girl. Winifred was around 40 at the time so this second child was considered a "change of life" baby. I don't know what transpired, what deep depths my great-grandmother plummeted to, after that child was born. What I do know is when my grandmother was 13, Winifred came after her with a pair of scissors. I don't know how violent the confrontation was. I don't know Winifred's state of mind. I don't know my poor grandmother's reaction as a young girl whose mother attacks her with scissors raised in her hand. What I DO know is my great-grandfather had her committed to a State Hospital for the Insane. She was dumped there, and he threw away the key.

Life fell apart for my young grandmother. Her baby sister was taken away and adopted out to a kind dentist and his wife in another city. The baby's name was changed. My grandmother never saw her sister again. What I don't understand is I don't think my grandmother and great-grandfather Louis ever parted company from that day onward. I believe my grandmother and grandfather lived with Louis from the day they were married. My grandparents divorced during WWII and my grandmother lived with her father until he died in the early 1970's. If it had been ME, I don't think I could've looked at the man, let alone lived with him, after tearing their family apart like that. But I also have to remember what a stigma there was in society concerning anything to do with mental health and even epilepsy at that time. People thought mental problems were 'contagious' or 'inherited'...they had no clue about the workings of the human mind. I believe the only problem my great-grandmother suffered from was a very deep post-partum depression...maybe I'm wrong and it was something deeper than that but there were no 'whispers' coming from the 'family closets' about any other signs of mental illness before she attacked my grandmother.

Growing up, not much was said about Winifred. We knew she was alive "somewhere Back East" in a state hospital but that was about it. My grandmother never spoke of her whenever we visited. My grandmother died sometime around 1980 and, on another visit 'home', my mother and dad decided they'd take a trip to the state hospital and inquire about Winifred. At first when my mom arrived there and started asking questions, the staff was very guarded and alarmed by this woman who shows up on their doorstep over 60 years after Winifred had been left there! When they found out my mother was her granddaughter, they were shocked and astounded! They had no idea Winifred had any living family anywhere in the world. Winifred was 102 at the time. Imagine that.

My mother was taken to Winifred's room. She was allowed to take a couple of photgraphs of her, normally never allowed there for the sake of the patient's privacy but they decided they'd bend the rules this time, the circumstances were so unusual. I have those photographs now. They show a woman in a wheelchair with beautiful snow-white hair -- which I'm proud to say I'm inheriting -- and even tho she's seated, you can sense that if she stood up she'd tower over most people in the room. She died about a year later. But, instead of being put in some state "Potter's Field" cemetery, she was buried next to my great-grandfather. When Mom visited there, she informed them that Winifred had a burial plot all bought and paid for. They'd had no idea. So even though he never divorced her, though he never visited her, though he never spoke her name again....she rests peacefully by his side now.


Liz said...

What a tragic tale! It's hard to credit that someone could be kept confined for so long but I suppose that even if they'd decided to release her later in life, she'd have been so institutionalised by then that she wouldn't have been able to manage. That's no excuse though. I hope these conditions are better understood these days.

HORIZON said...

That is some piece of family history Kris and hard to imagine a lady being locked up for so long- and by her husband for that matter. Think of the women these days who are excused from serious crimes pleading PMS alone!
She must have been stunning at that height- my daughter is the same height and with her long red hair certainly she turns heads. To think that in those days she was so tall- it would have looked so elegant and strong. Perhaps her husband felt intimidated by a combination of both - you never know.
Thanks for sharing and you are so fortunate to have that portrait.