The Twenty Year Suicide

The Great Depression of 1929 hit my family in a big way. My grandfather lost his farm, lost his mind. Would it have been better if he had taken a gun to his head ?

This has occurred to me many times over the years. It was reinforced recently as I watched a scene in Boardwalk Empire where a brokerage house owner shot himself in the head in front of his staff.

My grandfather was a proud immigrant from Hungary, who came here as a child with his mother and sister at the turn of the 20th century. They left a father and brother behind, as did many families of the time, most likely to arrive at a later date.

They settled in the town of Phoenixville, Pa., where he married my grandmother about a decade later, in 1923. Very little is known about the years in between. I learned early on that mental illness in any form was the scourge of our family. His life, his achievements, his ambitions were all negated because he dared to suffer severe depression, then referred to as “the melancholy”.

What I did know about him was that he managed to save up enough money to purchase a small dairy farm in rural Chester County, Pa. That is where he settled and raised his family, for almost a decade.

He must have seemed a man of wealth to his relatives back in eastern Europe, as they solicited his help in getting to America. My father had memories of many families coming to the farm to get their start; he had sponsored their passage, sent money to them, housed and fed them until they could get a place of their own. My grandmother was a giving, willing participant in all this; it was just what people did for family.

When the Great Depression hit, he survived and maintained until 1932. He was just a few hundred dollars from full ownership of the farm when the bank foreclosed on his property. They took it all back.

He had tried to get financial help from the families he had supported years earlier; they all turned their back on him. Even his own brother, who had cosigned the loan with him during the leaner years, abandoned him and moved into the city with his wife and young family.

A few hundred dollars must have been a fortune in 1932; there was no turning back. He and his family moved into low-income city housing that was provided for steelworkers. He took a job at the mill, but it didn’t last long. He fell into a deep depression.

I never really heard details of that time; we were discouraged from asking those questions. Within the next year or so, my grandfather was truly broken. He was committed to Embreeville State Mental Hospital, an institution for treatment of the indigent.

He never came home. He died in 1952, almost 20 full years incarcerated.

I can’t imagine what those years must have been like for his family; Dad was only 8 when they lost the farm, his sister was 6. My grandmother took whatever work she could find to keep them going; she cleaned homes, took in laundry, did day care. My father took an early job on a golf course, pulling weeds on the greens at first, then moving on to be a caddy in his early teens. He dropped out of high school to enlist in the army during WWII, sending all his pay home to his mother and sister.

The harder struggle was the emotional one. Everyone in this close-knit ethnic community knew of my grandfather’s fate. It was a shame they would never overcome.

Had he taken his own life back in the early 1930’s, it would have been a tragedy, for sure. But it would have changed the course of their lives. There would have been a funeral, grieving relatives, emotional and maybe even financial support for the surviving family. She would have been a strong and beautiful widow of 32 with 2 healthy children. She might have even remarried.

Instead, she stood by him, visiting when they could, never seeing improvement, but never giving up the hope that he might get better. In my father’s limited words, his father merely “gave up”. My dad’s 20 year perception of the mental health industry could not have been more negative, an attitude that compromised the health of his own family when depression reared its ugly head in my mother. The shame, the fear, the denial were all effectively passed on to the next generation.

My grandfather was a farmer, but he was also a hunter. The family had guns, mostly rifles. He could have taken the other way out. But it was not meant to be. His was a slow suicide; tragically, horrifically slow. Sometimes, I wonder.

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6 Responses to The Twenty Year Suicide

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    Your grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman. I can imagine how difficult it was to live with the stigma back then. Mental health issues plague my family, too.

    • Thank you for your comment. She was my role model. She suffered all this with strength and dignity, raised myself and 2 siblings until I was 6, the only mother I knew up until then. Sadly, she died suddenly of cardiac arrest in her 50’s; my own mother went into shock, severe depression. Ironically, my father did not inherit the depression gene but he married a woman who did. Life. It was never dull.

  2. lbeth1950 says:

    How often we marry what we dread. Thank God you had a loving Grandmother.

  3. I’m sure it caught my father off guard, her depression manifested almost 10 years into their marriage. It almost seemed like a kind of family Karma, if there is such a thing. Each generation gets a bit more enlightened about mental health issues…and that is progress. And my Grandmother…our rock. I am thankful for her every day of my life.

    Thanks so much for reading so many of my posts, and your thoughtful comments are so appreciated. Glad we connected. ☺ Van

  4. writerinsoul says:

    Van, thanks for directing me over here. This is such a strong post, bringing in so many issues; the experiences of immigrants, mental illness, family, marriage, turns of fate. It makes you wonder at what point it is okay or reasonable to give up on people, to realize they are never “coming back” or never “getting better”. I hope I will never throw up my hands and let others decide what happens to me, but you don’t always know. Your grandfather probably never imagined his life going that way.

    • I can’t imagine that he did. And I wonder what kind of demons he was fighting even before this happened ? It’s a sad legacy, we are dealing with it in each generation. Thanks for reading it, and sharing your thoughts. 💘

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