By Jennifer P. Miner
In honor of my maternal grandmother, I’d like to share her story for Mental Health month.
My grandmother was a brave and strong woman. She was born in the winter of 1937, to a Lebanese mother and a German father. She was the middle child with two siblings. She was married at 16 and had her first child. By the time she was 23, she’d had 6 children. The marriage did not last very long and it was rough from the start. Although, I don’t know much about her married life, I do know that she was never involved with another man after that marriage ended. It was in the early stages of her marriage, after all her children were born, that she was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia. Although, I imagine that 6 children so close in age and a troubling marriage would not help anyone’s mental health.
My mother recalls a time as a child, trying to help her mother and taking care of her siblings. She recalls her mother being taken away to the hospital, to “get better”. She recalls staying with aunts and uncles. These memories are painful. But they do not define my grandmother.
In the Spring of 1987, I recall my grandmother coming to stay with us, so she could “get better”. It was explained that she’d stopped taking the medication that made her “feel better”. She figured that since she “felt better”, she must not need it. This is not how it works. But it never happened again. However, I can recall several memories of this time, when she stayed with us. I entered the kitchen one morning, to find her standing there shivering. When I asked, if she was cold or ok, she did not respond but only stared blankly at me. I left and got her a sweater. Another, during dinner, she sat and stared at her food, as if it were foreign. I began to eat my peas, one at a time, being an awkward teen myself, she mimicked me and began eating her peas just as I did. There are other unpleasant memories. It was when she began attempting to run away, that my parents and her children decided they could not “fix” this. So for the second time in her life, she went to the hospital to “get better”. These memories scared me. As a child, I did not understand, it was the misunderstanding that lead to fear. But these memories do not define my grandmother either.
During her stay with us, I recall her sitting on our back porch in front of an easel, a large canvas, tubes of paint and brushes scattered. I recall being fascinated by her painting, sometimes furiously and sometimes calmly. I don’t know how many canvas’ she brought to life. During this time, painting was her voice. This memory does define her.
When her children were young adults, she returned to college to become an art teacher. I recall standing on the steps of Buffalo State College with her, my family, aunts and uncles…with her in her cap and gown. It was the first college graduation I’d gone to. This memory defines her.
My grandmother loved art. She painted, photographed, sketched, sculpted and explored other media. She was not confined to one method. (I treasure a lithograph of Divi Divi trees from a trip to Aruba.) She also appreciated music. My grandmother would often, take me along her museum trips and concerts. I cherish these memories more than I did when they were reality. These memories define her. And they define me too.
When my grandmother was 61, she decided that she was no longer an artist. She gave all of her art supplies to my mother. My mother gave them to me, as the only artist in her family. I took these paints, as if they were my inheritance, because they are. The disposal of her paints and her declaration inspired me to create a painting for her. I was inspired by her paints. I was inspired by her being.
My grandmother passed away last year. She died unable to speak, swallow and walk. It was ALS that took those things away from her. But she wrote to express thoughts and feelings in letters to me.
I suppose all of these memories do, indeed, define my grandmother. They all demonstrate the great strength that she possessed. They demonstrate her resilience. They illustrate some of the reasons why she inspires me, immensely. I hope she’s an inspiration to you, too.