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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Alvena McGraw

Josephine, Marg, and Vena McGraw, abt. 1913 All of us grandchildren knew Alvena as Nana, which I think was a corruption of her nickname, Vena.  I remember her as a jolly old lady (she was 60 years older than I) who loved family gatherings.  She was famously gullible, and easy to confuse.  She sometimes had funny ideas about what was happening around her.  I have always been intrigued with her face, a big Irish/English mug with unusually squinty eyes and a small, perfectly horizontal smile atop an imposing chin.  The eyes she got from her dad, James McGraw, and the mouth/chin combination from her mother, Selina Sheppeck.  Some of us have inherited her plump Irish nose with chagrin.

I have also been intrigued with stories about Nana's possible emotional or intellectual deficiencies.  I had no experience of this except for the increasing level of dementia that accompanied her aging (she lived to be not-quite ninety).  So I have had to rely on the descriptions and explanations of other relatives.

One frequently-told story is that Nana came from an isolated, rural setting to live in big, cosmopolitan Boston, and the change was too much of a shock.  The only problem is that Nana grew up in Ithaca NY, a small city to be sure, but a county seat with a significant population.  In addition, plenty of people successfully made the transition from country to city, so if Nana couldn't, why not?  Well, she was a little simple, or slow.  You mean, like mentally retarded?  Oh no, nothing like that, she just seemed not to have been exposed to much in her early life.  I'm sure, though, that Nana had the basic schooling that most of her contemporaries had.  And a person can have plenty of smarts not related to traditional school achievement.  My dad, Nana's son, was dyslexic, but that didn't prevent his educational and professional success.  So the question remains - what was up with Nana?  Well, she was a little unstable emotionally.  How so?  She could get confused and then hysterical, and not be able to function.

It was Nana's inability to function as a mother that seemed to be the main symptom of her ailment.  Her unhappiness, as many put it, seemed to begin with the move to Boston.  As she gave birth to more children (she had six altogether) she seemed less able to care for them, or keep a proper home.  My dad, who was her youngest, felt that he had really been raised by his father's sisters (especially his Aunt Mazie).  By the time my dad was six, his older sister Josephine had married and moved her family in, effectively taking over Nana's duties.

Hysteria was the name given to a disability that seemed to afflict mostly women.  Sigmund Freud's career was based on trying to solve the hysteria puzzle, and hysteria was continuing to be diagnosed as recently as the nineteen-thirties.  The cause was unknown, which stopped no one from guessing, and the treatments were often bizarre, humiliating, and sordid by today's standards.  The existence of hysteria helped reinforce the notion that women were weak, fragile, unstable, and unreliable.

Fortunately, hysteria is no longer a valid medical diagnosis.  Though just about every kind of mental illness has been labeled hysteria when manifest in a woman, the most common problem seems to have been an anxiety disorder.  Agoraphobia is a good example, but Generalized Anxiety Disorder may be the more common illness, and may be what afflicted Nana.

Nana's father, James McGrath, was born in a log cabin in Avon, New York, the son of William McGrath and Catherine Kelly.  He was their second child.  Catherine died young, in childbirth, when James was nine, and William moved the family to a house in Avon town.  James met and married Selina Sheppeck when he was about 23, and he and his family continued living with William.  Alvena was their second child, born in 1894.  When Vena was about four, James got a new job in Ithaca and moved the whole family, including his father.  Selina had her sixth child in 1905, the same year that William died.  Vena was eleven.

When Vena was about eighteen, her parents separated, and her father moved away to Rochester, some eighty miles distant.  I imagine he continued supporting the family, though I can't imagine he saw them often.  James and Selina never divorced, but never reconciled.  It was 1918 when Vena met and married James Calhoun - she was twenty-four.  She and James stayed with the family in Ithaca.  Two years later Vena gave birth to Josephine, her first child.  And six months later Vena's mother, Selina, died unexpectedly, of a stroke.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is thought to run in families.  It is often triggered by a stressful event in young adulthood, and from there it is chronic, and can get worse.  It creates a state of excessive worry, not about anything in particular, but every little thing in general.  If the anxiety is severe or prolonged enough it can lead to depression - an inability to function at all.  It is similar to ordinary worry (my dad was well-known as a worrywart), but is more like a continuous, subdued panic attack.  It is very tricky to diagnose correctly, even by professionals.

After Selina's death, Vena and James moved to Massachusetts, and lived and worked on a chicken farm in Reading, a dozen miles north of Boston.  I've not heard many stories from this period in their lives, but I have heard that they were very happy.  James and Vena lived in Reading until after the birth of their third child, Mary, in 1925.  They moved to South Boston, where the rest of James' family lived.  And this is when, at age 31, the "unhappiness" for Vena began, and grew worse.

But I will always remember the happy Nana, forty years later, who loved the kids, and laughed when she was teased, who lived in the mysterious triple-decker with the smell of varnish, and who was just a little nutty, in a most delightful way.