Every family has secrets. Mine had more than its share. If there were a way that my mother could have avoided telling me about Aunt Rose, I am sure that I would never had found out about her.
Rose had been in Rockland State Hospital since the 1930s when her brief marriage failed, and she lost custody of her only child. Now, in 1956, her three sisters (Aunt Fanny, Aunt Yetta, and my mother) were planning a visit. We went in two cars: Uncle Irving’s DeSoto Deluxe, and Uncle Mac’s Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
Mac was my favorite uncle. He was warm in a manly way: a World War II veteran whose speech was seasoned with crude slang. Having a Christian uncle, meant that every year I got to help decorate a Christmas tree. Although Irving was Jewish, my parents seemed to consider him almost as unrefined Uncle Mac.
“Irving eats hotdogs at Yankee Stadium,” my mother said disdainfully, “even though he has ulcers.” My father agreed. Yetta, the eldest sister and the only one born in Europe, was stylish; sophisticated; and loved the hell out of Irving, despite his hot dogs and cigars.
It was a sunny day and there was not much traffic. We had just left the City when a convertible pulled alongside. But instead of passing, the people inside were pointing at our car and yelling something. Irving ignored them. Apparently referring to their color — they were Black — Irving said: “Don’t pay any attention. They think it’s funny to play tricks on white people.”
Pretty soon, we had to pull over… to change the flat.
Finally, we arrived. The Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg New York, was a huge residential facility on 600 acres. The grounds were like a big park, and we quickly found shaded benches. Before leaving with Yetta and Fanny to see their sister, my mother repeated the warning she had given me at home.
“Remember, if you see us you must not say anything or show any recognition. Aunt Rose thinks everything is the same as it was 25 years ago. She does not know that her sisters are married and have children. If she found out, it would be too upsetting for her, she could not take it.” Then the three women headed for the main building.
Uncles Mac and Irving went off together, leaving my father to take care of me and my sister. We talked, and played quietly. In this strange place we were subdued. I had not expected to see my mother, but before long, the four sisters appeared. It felt really weird to ignore my mother as they strolled by, but I knew how important it was to protect my fragile aunt. That brief moment was the only time In my life that I saw Aunt Rose. Like Fanny, she was a redhead.
During the ride home, my mother talked about how estranged from reality Aunt Rose was.
“We ran out of things to say to Rose, so we started to talk about politics. We were talking about how Trotsky had been erased from Soviet history. Rose asked what we were talking about. Fanny said, ‘In Russia, they can make a person disappear, as if they never existed.’”
My mother continued: “What Rose said next, did not make any sense. She said, ‘Then I must be in Russia.’ Rose is mentally ill, and cannot comprehend reality.”
I was eleven years old. What Rose said made perfect sense to me.