Tag Archives: grandmothers

Ebb and Flow.

[formerly titled “Mentality.”]


For many years, the shroud of mental illness draped our family.

Our father’s mother had been committed, by her brutal husband, to a Massachusetts sanitarium circa 1914. A Sicilian immigrant, she spoke no English and could not defend herself. And, she was pregnant.


Dad was born there.

Because sanitariums in those days were not equipped to house young mothers, let alone those deemed unfit, she was not permitted to raise her third child. Along with his sister Dad was first sent to a foster home, where he was regularly beaten over the back of the head with the buckle end of a strap belt, and then to a state institution.

Marvelously, being of sound constitution, he survived – drifting, riding the freight cars, playing his harmonica and bones for loose change and, then, joining the Army – to meet his future wife, on a steam train bound for New York. Years later, as grateful husband and father, he would give God all the credit.

But, our unknown grandmother wasn’t the only figure in the shadowbox.

Mum’s father was a scholar of the Old Testament, a crane builder, and a brooder. We’d never know what mood we’d find, entrenched on the recliner in the corner by the radio. Sometimes a wide, toothless grin, a wisecrack or a belly laugh. Other times, a deep, distant scowl, and scrap envelopes, scattered near the Bible or the stack of National Geographics, emblazoned repeatedly with the bold signature of his name in broad, flat, penknife-sharpened pencil.

Mum inherited a bit of that mercury. She had two faces, so distinct that, had anyone met the one, the other would be unrecognizable.

I learned early on that observing human behavior was not only fascinating, but prudent. I became all too aware that, by watching others, information would come to me continuously, most of it in very great need of being sorted out.

What we called our family was a cinematic display, its camera’s filter missing, of the most transparent aspects of humanity. Beyond dysfunctionality, each member was its cautious and dreaded subject. We never knew when the ball would drop; we only knew that it would.

And, as if to deny the reality, explosive events were often followed by years of avoidance. Being English, Mum’s side of the family called this “holding a grudge.” I remember a Christmas so volatile, so reverberant with screaming and weeping, that the cozy kitchen and grand oak table in the diningroom could hardly contain the scene. That would be the last year, truly, that the whole family would ever convene again. And, I was only eleven years old.

With the stigma of mental illness weighing heavily on the conscience of our society, I now guardedly approach what moves me to disclose. There is a very great need amongst us to identify, primarily because, most of the time, victims cannot do so themselves. Even as physicians are ultimately required to confirm diseases of the body, those who bear up under afflictions of the mind are in even greater need of being found. There are none more lost among us.

The following is a list of traits, hallmarks if you will, that suggest the presence of mental disease. Some are easily recognized, but others may not be. Included are short references to loved ones, by example.

1.) Reaction to Stress.

Those with mental conditions have weaker coping mechanisms than their healthier counterparts. What merely annoys most will sometimes derail the other.  The mentally ill person has a far longer list of stress inducers than the rest of us and, most importantly, is often ready to react to each of them with apparently little power of restraint. My mother spent much of my adolescence alternately sobbing or shrieking; only in the late evening, well after midnight when the house was quiet, would she find solace  – seated alone, at her sewing machine.

2.) Sensory Load.

While some extreme mental states produce catatonia, or an apparent absence of reaction, those with mental disease can often be more easily stimulated, and more ready to respond to stimuli. To them, the world is a maelstrom of desirable and undesirable feelings, and these can often collide over a single incident; sorting through the pleasure and the pain which simultaneously ensues is a task, and may often confound normal counterparts experiencing the same event. Our grandfather would open a family gathering with joyful and exuberant laughter, but a disagreement at the dinner table could send him into a rage that dispersed the family in all directions – to say nothing of the effect on our collective digestion.

3.) Lucidity.

So much is said about the character of a good citizen in various social environments that the trait of honesty, or veracity, seems almost mundane. But, to one who is afflicted, even the best intentions can go awry. Mental disease can cause one to both speak and write things that cannot later be defended; sometimes the language itself is ambiguous, or the content vague, the tone unmistakably that of either anger, bitterness, or undying devotion. One can set out to be the most upstanding and compassionate towards others, but be left with chaff in the wake of a verbal outburst which, long since forgotten, cannot even be recognized or acknowledged. I can recall lengthy, if earnest, handwritten letters from my mother, so convoluted that I hardly had the emotional energy to read them – and, repeated denials:  “I didn’t say that!”

4.) Immediate Gratification.

Everybody likes to get answers to important questions, or receive something nourishing. But, those with mental disease depend on a degree of satisfaction in closure which others find demanding. Furthermore, they become inordinately convinced of the reality of their needs, and wear these convictions as blinders. The unknowns which populate normal, daily landscape can be sources of fixation to one who is burdened, and obtaining what, to others, can easily wait becomes a mission. Dad, especially in his later years, was the most popular member of his neighborhood when it came to solving household problems which, to the rest of the world, were incidental; repeatedly dialing the man up the street, because he couldn’t get the wrapper off of the slice of American cheese, was the story nobody could forget.

Like all syndromes of the human frame, such burdens can have a range of expression. At moments of intense duress or demand, an otherwise healthy person might exhibit traits which could be attributed to one who has a form of disease. This likelihood is intensified if one has been closely exposed to the illness and its manifestations. But, those who are marked by such affliction will fight, on a daily basis, a chronic, inner battle.

There are likely other points which can be made about illnesses of the mind. But, for now, maybe making a mental note to save these in a secure corner of awareness for future reference would be wise. And, most of all, having a quiet conversation with self might help remind us all that we each occupy bodies which are random in their assignment. Only our souls matter, in the end.

Best that we all move through life with a mentality of acceptance, linking our virtual arms with determined commitment to bearing with each other. We are all both strong, and weak, in every way, and it is the convergence of these that both encourages and sustains the ebb and flow of life.





© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

9/25/15  All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Sharing by permission to ReBlog, exclusively. Thank you.


Dropping Your Sunglasses.

Mammy was the family saint. She always had a smile, a cheery, chatty story, and a deep peace. But she was also profoundly intuitive, perhaps even psychic.

As a child of the late 1800s in eastern Pennsylvania, my grandmother’d enjoyed the “Key Game”……one blindfolded, spun around, then sent – still with the blindfold on – to find the key hidden by the room full of players. And, who could say how she always found it, every time, and quickly.

Yes; Mammy was a source of comfort and encouragement to a vast extended progeny, primarily through daily, hourly prayer. But, she was also quite superstitious. Long after putting aside the deck of cards when, as a young girl, she converted to the life of a Christian, she retained several “beliefs”.

One of them concerned omens. Mammy always knew that, if a bird fluttered by your window, you needed to stop and pray for the safety and protection of all your loved ones. And, this, along with other signs, she took as seriously as she did a direct answer to supplication when it came her way.

In the days before my mother died of cancer, lying in the hospice bed brought into her room at home, a crow appeared in the back yard. The bird was lame, unable to fly, only walking slowly across the yard. This omen was impossible to ignore and, in spite of my fragile faith, I knew my mother would soon pass.

Decades earlier, our dog, Nero, had been a lively part of our family. The day I’d come home and was met by an eager wagging tail and a face, that face still branded in my memory, of a beseeching, sweet animal who wanted to chase the stick, me too busy at that moment, bounding instead into the house – at that very second, something told me that this would be the last time Nero would ask me to play. Sure enough, two days later, our precious dog was dead of a flipped stomach, my pleas that she be lifted by someone strong enough and carried to the vet ignored by everyone.

The year my beloved father moved in with me, I’d searched for a daytime caregiver to supplant my efforts while at work finishing up the school year. One girl I’d been directed to contact by a woman who overheard me in the drugstore. She came so highly recommended that I could not ignore the opportunity. But, the day she showed up at the front door and I looked into her face, there was a grey shadow that crossed her countenance. A sensation passed through my chest and out the other side. Though I couldn’t know at the time, she would be the prime suspect in a household theft discovered days later, with only my 94 year old father as witness.

Last Christmas I took a trip south, to visit my brother and his family and to check out the baby grand piano that was waiting on hold for my perusal. Upon entering the dealer’s showroom, I removed my sunglasses and looked around at the setting in the lobby. In a few minutes, the salesman with whom I had spent many email exchanges preparing for this moment appeared. Lean, taller than me, balding and bow tied, he extended his hand. As I reached to grasp it, my sunglasses fell to the floor.

Bending down to pick them up, I had yet another of those infinitesimal moments. The same feeling I’d had so many times before tore through me like a fleeting current, so brief so as to be almost undetectable, as if my body intended to process and discard it before my mind could react. This was yet another sign, and another foreboding.

And, typically, I disregarded the omen. Following the salesman into the room, I would subject myself to a power of persuasion so overtaking that months would pass before I would fully grasp what had happened to me.

Today, I sit facing a legal scene that will likely take weeks of my most precious thought hours, impacting my productive quality and every aspect of my more nourishing anticipations. And, I can’t help but look at my Mammy’s face, in photograph and illustration, and feel her gentle admonishments, and implore her intercession one more time on my behalf. And, I ask the Almighty for an even bigger sign the next time, one that might slap me right in my tracks and make me feel the pain. Far better a momentary hurt than half a lifetime of regret.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

5/1/15  all rights the author’s. Sharing allowed upon request. Thank you.


The Treasured Place.

It seems that the oldest about to die, in their moment of lucidity, request – demand, if strong enough – to return to their most treasured place. The place of relief from oppression, the place of personal balance…..a field of blueberries, a pond by an oak…….for Mammy, it was to “g’out ‘n the porch.”

No concrete platform, balconette, steel-guarded veranda, or womanized deck in her day, but a true “place”. Hand-hooked rag rug runners layered a white-washed clapboard floor, in blues and greens and whites, held down by carpet tacks and deeply cushioned wickers painted royal blue, the blonde rocker facing out, the chaise-lounge to the left of the center door, cushioned with large, Victorian roses and, on her side, the steady squeak-creak, squeak-creak of the pillow-upholstered, quilt-draped, metal-framed couch swing with its odd, mechanical rhythm as she bore up and settled in the left end of it, peeking out over the gnarled tangle of potted, knotted, blossoming begonias and geraniums shoulder to shoulder across the sill. And, all shaded and fortified, on all sides, with deep royal blue canvas awnings that whipped and billowed in the wind, wafting the spicing, sour scent of twin whisker trees reaching up and out from their trunks on either side of the ascending path between the rock gardens below, a canopy for all those walking up the steps to reach her porch as Mammy watched, expectantly, always grinning with joy at the sight of anyone. A sure place to inspire, to expire……a beautiful place to die.

Mammy’s bosom was large and full, her body round. Nestling up against her provoked little childlike reflections, part resolute, part wonder and awe, the giving over of self to the greater God. She reached the end of her days when a 72 year old ectopic pregnancy’s adhesions reared their encroaching head, halting her body’s processes.  She was 98; rather than allow her last hours to be increasingly painful, the surgeon performed the necessary, delicate and successful procedure, and then we waited. As expected, the anesthetic was an assault, her O-levels were stubbornly resistant and, slowly, her magnificent, tender mind succumbed to insufficient breath. She passed away in a blissful, oblivious dream-state, watching a cat on the roof outside that wasn’t there, after my mother made the agonizing decision to pull the plug on her respirator but not before she spoke, repeatedly, of “going out on the porch”. How I wish I’d had the presence of mind to have them try to bring Mammy home. The porch would have waited for her.

Bonnie was a beautiful, country girl. Her features shaped her face naturally, the nose slightly broad, her smile wide and immediate, the giggle tight in coiled anticipation, her eyes sparkling with suspended tears. She was flawlessly presented, her grooming a facade, the working woman’s costume, a professional’s care to hair-weave and correct placement but, above the dress, always the radiant countenance of a perfect innocent.

Bonnie should have, at the very least, been brought to Mammy’s front porch, just once in her life. Had she sat there even one time with my precious grandmother, squeak-creaking back and forth on the metal swing, breathing deeply of the sill-flowers and the whisker tree, feeling the slight breeze pass between the awnings and listening to Mammy’s sweet old stories of the good old days, I doubt whether she would have made the irrevocable choice to leave this earth at the might of a steel locomotive just after 4pm in the October of that fateful year. How many times we revolved around the thought that it was the glare of the autumn sun at that hour, masking the oncoming train, hoping for the miraculous assurance that she never knew it was coming.

But, sooner or later, we all know it’s coming.

There’s something about saying goodbye to your second parent, the last one to go. When you know the orphan’s heart, you begin to live differently. Your fear of the unknown hereafter is succored when the resignation settles in, because your parents are already there. But, I do think that we should all choose our point of departure, our place, live within and as close to that spot as we can get, and then pray that we are granted the nearness to it when that day comes. And, just let nature take its course.

Whether we get to be there in this plane, or the one in our imagination, we should take care not to let ourselves or anyone else pre-empt that moment. We would want to be as close to our treasured place as we can be, so God can recognize us in the crowd.




© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 2000-2014.

all rights reserved. Thank you so much.