Know who made that tub? My sons did,” Mama says. “Know who made that picture?” pointing to a wall hanging. “I made it, I did.” See these walls? My sons made them. See that curtain? Know who made that? I made it, I did.” “Didn't your sons make that television, Mama?” I ask. “No, they didn't. I bought that television at Macy's in New York City.”
Of course, Celeste's not really my mama, though she thought she was. But then, she thought she was the mama of ever so many people. Yes....here is another story from days at the group home.
Celeste had no end of sons. Oddly, she tended to arrange them in groups of fifty, as in the Bible. Lots of daughters, too, but she emphasized sons. She had fifty sons who were policemen, she'd declare. They carry big guns with them, this long (a gesture about a foot and a half) Mess with them, and they'll crack you right in the jaw! She had another fifty sons who were priests, also sons who were bishops, and a son who was a Pope. Others were firemen. Ah....it's good to have so many sons, she must feel really blessed. “Nah....they're all bastards,” she'd say. “They all have their own wives. They don't come to see their mother. They just think of themselves, they do.”
It must be stated at this point that “bastard” was Celeste's word of choice. Everything was a bastard. She'd use the word when angry. She'd use the word when not angry. Her room was filled with objects both animate and inanimate....they're all bastards, she'd chuckle. “That elephant, that there, he keeps looking at me, he does, the bastard,” she'd mutter, and thumb her nose at it. Easing herself into the sit-down tub, she'd curse her own leg. “Get in there, you bastard!” and then “Hah! Called my own leg a bastard!” followed up by a laugh at the witticism. “Shut up, you bastard!” she'd tell the toilet, and then: “How can it talk? It don't have a mouth.”
Now, being wholesome such as I am, I gave serious thought as to whether I should really sprinkle this post with “bastards.” In the end, I decided I would. First, it was Celeste's word, not mine. Second, I can't imagine conveying a feel for the woman without using her vocabulary. Third – trust me on this - I'm sparing the reader (so far) 90% of what she'd routinely say. Fourth, aren't the real swear words ones like “kill,” “rape,” “war,” as Brother Wease told our brother? “The words I use (a lot....he's the closest Rochester comes to “shock jock”) are just silly words,” he says. To which our guy replied that since they are silly, we try to avoid them, but he didn't disagree with Wease's premise. Fifth, I sometimes wonder if strict avoidance of all course words isn't more a Victorian relic than a biblical one. Read through the Old Testament, and you'll find some earthy accounts. Somehow, I can't picture those OT characters using the sanitized words modern translators ascribe to them. When Elijah taunted no-show Baal, for example, in front of his worshipers: “And it came about at noon that Elijah began to mock them and say: “Call at the top of your voice, for he is a god; for he must be concerned with a matter, and he has excrement and has to go to the privy,” I somehow can't picture him using that word. Celeste refers to the same substance frequently, and, believe me, she does not say “excrement.” Therefore, for this post only, I am relaxing my normally impeccable standards of fine language. [let the reader be warned]
When Celeste was but a young woman, her father gave her in to the latest medical craze – that of lobotomies. For about 15 years, that operation was all the rage in America. Group house lore was somewhat vague on dad's reason, obscured by many decades, but it seems Celeste had borne a couple of children out of wedlock. That didn't sit well with the family, and the operation was deemed a good way to control her behavior.
Lobotomies were first performed on humans by Dr. Antonio Egaz Moniz. He won a 1949 Nobel prize for his work. Dr Moniz' technique was to drill two holes on either side of the forehead, through each of which he would insert a special surgical knife to sever the brain's frontal cortex from its thalamus. As might be imagined, the operation was none too precise. However, it was thought to aid psychotic patients afflicted with repetitive thought, and a number of them did find relief. But there were also some who got worse, and others who showed no change, in fact, the results were in just about the same proportions one might obtain by doing nothing. In time, Dr Moniz would advocate his procedure for only the most extreme and incurable of cases. He retired from medicine after one of his patients shot him, leaving him paralyzed. It's tempting to say it was one of his lobotomized patients, but no...it wasn't. It was a non-lobotomized one. (but did the fellow fear he might be next on the "to-do" list?)
Once you attuned yourself to Celeste's frequency, she was quite enjoyable to talk to. You'd play along, of course, try to enter her world. What was real and what was delusion? Sometimes, she'd claim to have made this knicknack or that contraption, like that wall hanging, other times she might say she'd bought them at Macy's in New York, a store owned by one of her sons. Life had apparently been harsh for Celeste. Any number of people in the past had hit her, even her own sons. They'd hit her hard for no reason at all, but she'd always managed to get them back, one time, for example, by knocking them “down the stairs and breaking both their f**king legs, the big bastards.”
Yet in public she could be surprisingly gracious, uninhibitedly complimenting this or that person on their dress or shoes or general appearance, going from person to person, then back to a favorite or two. People loved her. At first I braced myself for the type of invective that she would hurl in a heartbeat back home (“My God! Look at that ass! No wonder - she eats like a hog!”) but there was none of it, as if she was a different person. And if you led her in song ("I wonder if we can get away with singing a song for these people, Mama") such as Unforgettable, you'd find she would join in with perfect pitch, though she'd manage only a line or two undistracted. She used to sing, so she said, on a stage in New York City when she was seven years old. Several people at the last doctor's office waiting room said she'd made their day.
They used to come in through the eye sockets, just above the eyeball; American doctors had learned to streamline Moniz's time-consuming European process. And, surely reserving the process for only the most desperate and incurable was too conservative! Insert an ice-pick instrument behind the eye, a light smack of a mallet would pierce thin tissue and bone underneath, and then a quick rotation of the pick end. The knife end would swish like a windshield wiper, severing all in its path. Some experienced doctors, it's said, would faint at the sight. Electroshock sufficed for anesthesia. The entire process could be done in ten minutes. Largely through the near-evangelistic promotion of one American physician, Walter Freeman, (who trained scores of others) lobotomies became accepted therapy for convicted criminals, for discipline cases, for difficult relatives, for those exhibiting otherwise undesirable behavior. Eighteen thousand were performed between 1939 and 1951 in the United States. President John F. Kennedy's sister Rosemary received the operation as a young girl. The mildly retarded girl was going a little “boy-crazy,” much to the well-connected family's embarrassment, so dad took her to Dr Freeman. After the procedure, Rosemary spent the rest of her life institutionalized. Her father never told the rest of the family what he had done. (The case sounds remarkably like that of Celeste, though be assured, they were not the same person; there were many such cases.)
The media couldn't get enough of Dr Freeman. When he rolled into town, in his Loboto-Mobile – yes, newspapers actually called it that! - his exploits would make front page headlines. Curing mental distress was as easy, they wrote, as curing a toothache! Magazines such as Time and Life sang his praises, exaggerating his successes, sweeping aside his failures. A showman, he would sometimes do both eyes at once, two-handed lobotomies! He'd line patients up as in an assembly line, once doing 25 women in a single day.
I'd somehow assumed a lobotomized person wouldn't recall the procedure. I was mistaken. “I got a son who's a doctor,” Celeste confided once, “a brain doctor! He did an operation on me, he did, he hurt me real bad, he did. I saw stars from heaven! See....I got two holes in my head. (I leaned forward to feel them....no, mama, I can't feel them anymore. They must have healed up) I was out cold for a week! It hurt like hell, it did. He didn't give a goddamn. It didn't hurt him any!” I asked why he would do something like that. “Well, I did some things when I was a girl,” she muttered sheepishly, “and he didn't like that.”
She had a lot of anger; that was apparent to all. She took it out on her housemates - “get away from me, you bastard, I'll cut your throat!” - though they'd done nothing to her. (in time, one of them learned to make preemptive strikes) Yet she could unexpectedly change her tune: “Oh, that dress looks very nice on you, Connie.” And her sorrow at learning of someone's death was genuine. Lots of things frightened her, even things she'd made. She feared death, too. “What do you think happens when you die?” the psychologist probed. “Oh, I'll probably go to hell,” she responded. So the psychologist thought she might do well to see a priest, an idea that gained some traction and I went to a nearby church to see what could be arranged, till Celeste herself slammed the door with: “I don't wanna see no f**king priest!” So I told her later, when she likewise expressed concern over hell, that I didn't think there was any such place. "You know what hell is?" she said to me, dead serious. "This is hell, right here." I swear I don't think there was anything wrong with the woman mentally before the lobotomy. Strong-welled, likely. Rebellious, perhaps. But mentally, I bet she was okay. She isn't now, though.
You couldn't really pin down details, but there was a theme to her early life. It wasn't a nurturing one. Housemates will shed few tears when she dies, I fear, and one or two will positively rejoice. Was she “born mean,” as she herself would tell you? Was she raised mean? Or did she become mean pondering what had been done to her. For, at a young age, those she trusted most were duped by the latest medical craze. She was put into their clutches, and they lobotomized her, they did.