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Mad Men and a Mad Woman: Saying goodbye to a grandparent with mental illness

May 11, 2015 - Jamie O'Hare
I've been a fan of the show Mad Men for several years now, and with one final episode coming up, I'm feeling a little emotional. Sadly, I'm more emotional over the twists and turns of the show's plot than I am over the death of my grandmother this past week. I think part of my interest in Mad Men has been a view into the world in which my parents were raised, and the society of 1964 when my maternal grandmother did the unthinkable by leaving her husband and children, a story of emotional wreckage that has recently been part of Mad Men as well.

Something in my grandmother was broken all along. She was in reform school as a teenager. She married my grandfather, who went off to war in Korea (hello, Don Draper!). When he returned, there was a baby that could not be his. She was forced to give the child up for adoption, and then they had four children together, plus a few terminations long before Roe v. Wade (echoes of Peggy and Joan).

My grandparents were prosperous in the post-War years and lived a partying lifestyle in the mid fifties to early sixties, until my grandfather "got religion". My grandmother resented this disruption to their fun and told him he needed to go back to the way things were before, or she would leave. He stood his ground, and they divorced. In the era before no-fault divorces, this got ugly, and the children were squarely in the middle of the misery.

Without the anchor of family and children, she drifted from one rich man to another, drank heavily, smoked constantly, and let her health deteriorate. A dangerous cycle of (frequently unmedicated) bipolar disorder, alcoholism, heart disease and diabetes kept her life in chaos. She married and divorced two more times. She was a kept woman of Chicago mobsters. As her children grew, they each had several instances of increased closeness with my grandmother, followed by enormous blow-ups in which she cursed them and disappeared for years at a time. My grandfather remarried a woman with three children and continued to be a successful business man and eventually an evangelist.

As her eldest granddaughter, I was my grandmother's favorite for a while. She loved to take me places and show me off to her friends, but she once left me with strangers when she got tired of caring for me. I recalled this event from 30 years ago and had pieced it together as her going into a diabetic coma. However, my mother recently told me that she was being dramatic and had passed out from too much wine and couldn't care for me while nursing a hangover. Eventually, my own parents became more religious and feared the influence of her lifestyle on us children. This was a difficult balance because my mother also believed that the essence of the Christian faith is to honor one's parents and to care for the poor, so she felt obligated to aid her mother while raising five children of her own.

My mother helped her to get Social Security Disability when carpal tunnel and reflexive sympathetic dystrophy made working in a musical instrument factory impossible for her. My aunt and uncles did their best to support her financially and emotionally as needed, but it was never enough. She lived out her life in a little trailer in Union, Michigan, demanding attention from anyone who would listen.

After she displayed some negative attention seeking behavior at a cousin's wedding, I chose not to invite her to mine, and 17 years later, I have no regrets about that. I sent her a few photos of my children, and she was delighted to receive them. However, my husband and children never met her. I wanted to spare them her toxicity, and I have no regrets about that either.

All five of my parents' children will gather on my mother's birthday for my grandmother's funeral. We are going there to support my mother, a beautiful woman who loved us unconditionally after not having that kind of support in her own life. I will visit with my ailing grandfather whose dementia may not have left him with any memories of the woman who left him 50 years ago, or with any memories of me. I'm going because I need to be with my people. I need to celebrate the strength that my family has given me. Something that I've learned from watching Mad Men is that some of life's choices lead us down a path of increasing alienation, and something I've learned from life is that we don't have to repeat the mistakes of our forebears.

I am still mourning the loss of my paternal grandparents, who died in 2013 and 2004. They weren't perfect, but their love and support were freely showered on me. I can't exactly mourn my grandmother's loss. We will be mourning the loss of what could have been if she could have opened her heart to genuine love and healing. We've already said goodbye.


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