The summer was long and hot at Long Lane School, the euphemistic title of a correctional institution in Middletown, CT. In 1953 I was in the elite corps of college interns supervising the activities of girls who had taken the wrong lane in life -- runaways, preggies, druggies, incorrigibles. Some were victims, some were victimizers, but we all sweated together weeding flower beds, picking peas or strawberries, hoeing weeds out of the potato patch. Five p. m. meant "wash up," and the staff dormitory had deep, wide bath tubs. They looked vaguely Victorian and were so cavernous and enveloping one could submerge up to the eyes and ears and feel peacefully remote. After thirty minutes we had to join the chattering girls in the dining room.
Forty years later I find myself struggling with Mother at the end of a hot day. She will not take a dip in the pool although she was once a good swimmer. She will not be coaxed into the bath tub although cleanliness was always a high priority. Sweaty from puttering in the backyard, she watches me in the shower (which pleasures I loudly extol) but cannot overcome her fear of water or closed places or whatever. I persuade her to wash some stockings in the sink, and with that distraction and chirpy chatter I strip off her light dress and give her a sponge bath. Mother didn't choose the wrong lane in life, but she reminds me of the Long Lane girls because she's short (4 ft., 10 inches) and the scar on her belly shows she's been pregnant (Caesarean birth). She's also been a runaway (from a nursing home) and a druggie (prescription psychotropics) because some nurses found her "incorrigible." Perhaps her lane got too long or the black box of controls got lost.
Dementia as a word has the feminine ending a, as does hysteria. The latter is derived from the word womb because Aristotle observed that women, mostly, seemed to have uncontrollable outbursts of emotion or fear. Actually, more women have dementia because they survive longer. It is characterized by perseverations (like raking one spot of grass until it's bald), irrational behavior (starting an electric burner under a plastic bowl) and extreme forgetfulness. It is a progressive, long-term condition. Hysteria is also irrational, but it is short-term. Its victims seem unable to inhibit wild emotional swings from laughter to crying. Because she has forgotten the social/emotional significance of people and events, my mother rarely laughs or cries anymore.
Girls at Long Lane seemed crazy at times, but their outbursts often involved calculation and manipulation. When newcomers evidenced hysteria, they were not put in solitary locked rooms so they could vent anger and outrage without hurting themselves or others. Later they formed new relationships and became passionate accusers when staff showed favoritism. Their intense friendships were marked by blood like the Indians. Healed razor cuts on the forearm showed how many times love had flared and died.
What a balm it is to realize that a bad memory helps avoid unpleasantness. Mother harbors no resentment for the casual and close friends that have cut her. She has stopped asking for her husband of 56 years. She enjoys whichever man is kind and cordial, usually my husband. After helping him rake the yard one day, she came into the kitchen and confided, "Gee, Barb, he's an awfully nice fellow. Why don't we invite him to lunch. I like him a lot. I wouldn't mind marrying him. No sense waiting until you're too old.... But somehow, I haven't got the push."
By summer's end in 1953 I had decided against a career in social work. It seemed more reactive than creative, and I missed a personal social life because the institution required alternate weekend duty. A less objective reason was the morale factor. Because the girls had such multi-faceted problems, I felt helpless. There were no shining solutions. After returning to college, I still jumped out of bed to investigate whenever I heard laughing late at night. I mistook it for hysterical crying. The summer had set my mind on misery, and the glasses all looked half-empty.
Now I cannot walk away from the service role. There is little or no social life, but that doesn't hurt as much as the depressing mind set. Where is the wisdom and compassion I didn't learn as a college intern? Perhaps I will find them at the end of Mother's long lane or my own.