A Cure for the Incorrigible

Jacob and Marilyn Shapiro on their wedding day

My mother and father created a scandal in Highland Park, Illinois when they married. My father was Jewish. My mother was a Protestant, from a denomination with German roots.

My Grandfather Solomon did not want his son Jack marrying a shiksa (Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman who had lodged her charm into the heart of a Jewish man).

Their meeting and marrying happened quickly. They met in February and were married by the end of June. Their meeting was, like so many introductions, developed by chance. My father, in the army, recently home from Tokyo was a broadcaster; my mother a journalist for the Indianapolis Star. The local USO was sponsoring a dance and needed a man and a woman to make a radio commercial announcing the occasion. The woman who was supposed to be the female voice was ill. So, my mother took her place in front of the microphone, my father next to her.

The next day my father brought a bouquet of roses to mom at her newspaper desk. He asked her out. She said “no.” As she said “no” her editor walked by and said, “Any man that brings a dozen roses deserves at least one date.”

After the first date, they were apart only one day between February and their wedding day. My father was serving the end of his army obligation at a Camp thirty minutes away and responsibilities kept him away one evening out of some 120 evenings.

My father proposed in March; they had only known each other for six weeks at most. My mother hesitated. Her mother wasn’t well. She didn’t want to leave her parents without proper care. For years, my mother had been a caretaker for her mother as my grandfather was a pharmaceutical salesman traveling far beyond the boundaries of Indianapolis.

I’m unclear about my grandmother’s illness. As I knew her, she was friendly and child-like. She read magazines about the lives of movie stars. She loved the Lawrence Welk Show. When I visited her house she would offer me a glass of Coca-Cola with one ice cube.

At some point, I don’t recall exactly when, but I was an adult, I learned that my grandmother received a lobotomy (what is the correct verb, endured?) long before my mother graduated from high school. A lobotomy is a surgical operation. The doctor cuts into the prefrontal lobe of the brain. Once upon a time the procedure was used to treat mental illness.

I don’t know specifically why she received a lobotomy. It couldn’t have been her idea, could it? Did she suffer from mental illness? Back in those days, did she experience what was called a nervous breakdown? Sometime in someway someone told me that she had become incorrigible and the cure decided upon was the ice pick through the prefrontal lobe of the brain.

My mother was an only child but she had a best friend who wasn’t only like a sister but bonded with my mother as if they really were sisters. They lived next door. They shared a dog. They used lanterns to send secret messages to one another through their bedroom windows. They ran down the sidewalks of the neighborhood, together, every day they could.

I’ll call her Elizabeth. My mom knew a secret about Elizabeth’s family. Elizabeth was adopted. When my mother got mad at Elizabeth my mother would say, “You know you are adopted, don’t you?”

Elizabeth would respond immediately, “Well, your mother had a lobotomy.”

My mother told my father she couldn’t marry Jack (just as she had initially said “no” to the first date). She couldn’t leave her mother.

My grandfather who I remember as a distant man who rarely talked to any of his grandchildren told my mother she absolutely must marry my father.
“You can’t give away your life on account of your mother and me.” I imagine this as the most valiant act of his life.

My father had his own battles. His father, Solomon, refused to attend the wedding. As much as my maternal grandfather was an advocate for the marriage, my paternal grandfather was against the union. No, this isn’t going to happen.

My mother’s minister said he would welcome sharing the wedding with a rabbi. He would add parts of the Jewish service to the ceremony. My mother’s minister was willing to officiate at a neutral place, away from the Christian sanctuary.

None of this was a balm for my grandfather Solomon. He would not attend and that was it.

Well, that was almost it. He also forbid his other children, my aunt and uncle from attending.

The wedding took place at the Indianapolis Athletic Club. My father wore his army uniform. My mother wore a white, simple wedding dress. They honeymooned at Lake Manitou in Rochester, Indiana.

Years later my mother told me their hotel room was rat-infested and spider webs loomed over their bed. One day they drove into town. They stopped at the library. As silently and invisible as they could, they looked for books to tell them if they were making love the right way.

Three weeks later they weren’t in Rochester, Indiana, nor were they back in Indianapolis. They found themselves in Highland Park, Illinois. My Grandfather Sol was hosting a reception in honor of his newly designated daughter-in-law, Marilyn (try to hear the name spoken with a thick, Russian Jewish accent). His smile was as bright as a rabbi dancing to the echoes of an old Yiddish folk song. Room to room he led my mother, with arms interlocked, to meet all his friends. My grandfather was steadfast in not going to the wedding, but the wedding had come to him.

My earliest memory of worship was going to the temple with my grandfather and father. My grandfather placed a yarmulke on my five-year-old head. I remember men with beards, everywhere; beards and the thick but oddly pleasant scent of aftershave. It seemed (though I didn’t have the words then) foreign, strange, exotic, otherworldly, something that could only be understood beyond words. My grandfather introduced me to everyone he knew. He was exceedingly happy. My first experienced with an official gathering concerning God was abundant with warmth and a strangeness that, if strangeness was a person, said: “You are special here, come closer.”

I have no recollection of attending worship with my mother and her parents. When the surgeon poked the instrument into the front of my grandmother’s skull, did he steal from her the ability to imagine God? Among whatever neurotransmitters still making connections inside of her, was there only room for Ed Sullivan and his musical guests?

When part of your brain is missing you might lose whatever shadow you are trying to outrun: depression, disturbing visions, missing your husband traveling to sell Abbott Laboratories pharmaceuticals to small-town doctors; you might lose the dialect of incorrigibility(when did that become a mental illness)?

For my grandfather Solomon, God was working away in a tradition that said “no” to certain kinds of marriage but “yes” to valuing relationships beyond the rules.

Come meet my veautiful daughter Varilyn.

For my grandmother, God and most everything else essential in her life disappeared after deep breaths of cyclopropane put her asleep while a surgeon disconnected one part of her brain from another.

As I have fought against my own incarnation of depression, I am puzzled that I was not more curious about my grandmother’s lobotomy. The one time I asked my mother about it she said simply (or not so simply) that grandmother had suffered a stroke.

I told this to a psychiatrist. He paused. He tapped his pencil on the chair, with no particular rhythm. He said plainly, “They didn’t do lobotomies on stroke victims.”

The presence of the Divine overcomes all kinds of adversity. During wartime, chaplains lead soldiers in soulful, pleading prayers. In oncology units, a family of four places their hands on a dear child and pray for healing. A man experiencing a divorce he never once wanted dreams that an angel comes to him and enfolds him in her wings. A minister proclaims the demands of justice after another youth dies from a gunshot wound (no more weapons that slaughter our innocent).

But where is God when some of your brain goes missing?

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Tim Shapiro

Tim Shapiro

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I am an ordained minister exploring life at the crossroads of spirituality, mental health, and brain science. I can be reached at timshapiro@outlook.com.