The smell of the place is a mixture of disinfectant, urine, and dust as old as time. I hear the hollow echo my black Mary Janes on a gray tiled floor. The grimy, metal barred windows are so high up, I cannot see out of them. It is winter outside; I remember the chill on my cheeks. The place has a creepy eeriness which raised the hair on my arms and set me shivering. A similar smell or empty hallway transports me easily back to that place. I always associate it with my grandmother.
My Grandmother Molesworth didn’t live on our family farm when I was very small. When people mentioned Grandma Katie they did it in hushed whispers. Their grown up words and their raised eyebrows successfully hid the secret for many years.
When I was seven, the conversations about Grandma became more frequent. One Saturday, Uncle Dale and my dad got in the old blue Chevy station wagon. They were gone over night and when they came home, they brought my grandmother with them. She was a squat gray haired woman in a brown gingham dress. Her thick stockings were rolled up above her knees. Her pale blue eyes showed no emotion behind the bent dirty glasses she wore. I couldn’t understand her when she talked. It seemed as though her large yellow teeth were glued together somehow although she opened her mouth fine when we sat down to eat dinner that day.
After that she was always at our house. The boys would drop her off early in the morning and then pick her up after the farm work was done. She would sit in the same chair all day staring at the black and white television, only coming to the kitchen for meals. She talked to herself through her clenched teeth and her mutterings frighten me. When my mother talked about Grandma she used words like “Thorazine” and “shock treatments”.
One day, Grandma was sitting in the kitchen and I was playing near her on the floor. Grandma said something to me and Mom translated. “She wants to see your doll.” I handed it to her and sat fascinated as she stroked the long ponytail of my classic Barbie. “She likes blond hair,” my mother said. I thought about my own blond hair and wondered why Grandma didn’t like me.
And then I knew. Grandma was a blue-eyed blond. She and my quiet, sad Uncle Howard were the only ones in the family who resembled me. Whatever was wrong with them was going to happen to me, too. I became afraid of my own thoughts. When I played with my imaginary friends, I was ashamed and I played as far from the house as I could, so no one would know my secret.
One spring night I heard my mother talking in a loud voice. “I am sick of being stuck here with her all day. She hates me, you know. She thinks I am her sister Etta. I didn’t get married to babysit your mother.” I couldn’t hear my father’s answer. “Okay then. After school is out I am taking Debra to Lewiston, and I am not coming back until you get rid of her. Do you hear me, Bob?”
When we came back that fall, my grandmother was gone. My dad and the boys had found her a place in a nursing home. I rarely visited. The smell of the place gave me such an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, I would flee for the car after only a few minutes.
One afternoon when I was about thirteen, my Aunt Jeanne came to visit. She was upset that her husband, my dad’s youngest brother, didn’t want more children. Mom pored ice tea and we went to sit in the front yard. I sat on the tire swing, listening intently.
Mom began to talk. “Well, you know about their mom and dad, don’t you?” Jeanne shook her head. “Well, their father committed suicide. Hung himself from his own tie. In a hotel in Twin Falls.” Tears started to leak from Jeanne’s over made up eyes. “And their mother, well,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “She tried to castrate Don with a butcher knife when he was a baby.” Jeanne covered her mouth with her hands. My mother went on. “They kept her at home after it happened. Their dad died a few years later and Howard took over the housekeeping. After the war, Dale and Bob took her to Blackfoot. She was there until the hospital kicked out all the chronic patients.”
Grandma died when I was in college. She had lived over thirty years of her life in institutions. The day of her funeral was the only time I ever saw my father weep. He called her “A saint.”
During my third year of medical school, I was assigned to the Nevada Mental Health Institute. When I walked into the grey tiled hallway with its barred windows and that sickly hospital smell, the déjà vu struck me once again. I knew I must have visited my Grandmother at State Hospital South when I was very small. I spent the month there walking crab-like down the hallways, protecting my back against my memories and fears.
One day I told my mother about my memory. She said it never happened.