My grandmother’s madness seemed to come about suddenly, based on what I read in my mother’s diaries. It was clear to me, however, that Grandma K (for Koroschetz) always displayed what today we’d call “anger management” issues.

In Redlined, I write about my maternal grandmother’s slide into serious mental illness, just a couple months before my parents were to marry. Was it a coincidence that Mom’s mother started down the road to paranoia and psychosis just before she lost her only daughter to marriage?

Grandma K with Baby Lil (Mom) 5 months old. March 1918

Redlined explores the timing of my grandmother’s mental breakdowns. Here’s a sneak preview of a portion of the chapter, “Madness and Marriage. It’s the first incident Mom recorded of her mother’s madness, written in a small, spiral notebook, separate from the diary where she detailed her thrill of falling in love with Dad.

The tone of the two journals were strikingly different, one filled with anguish and confusion; the other with joy.

From the Chapter “Madness and Marriage”

Mom with Grandma K in the early 1950s, about 10 years after the Lake Como trip.

Mom began recording her mother’s bizarre behavior on August 15, 1942, two months before she and Dad were to be married. In June of that year, my grandma Koroschetz had peered out the kitchen window of their Near North Chicago apartment on a blustery day, demanding, “Who’s making those doves fly around out there?”

Mom looked through the glass, caught in her own swirl of confusion. “Mama, that’s just the wind blowing some scraps of paper.”

“No! Someone’s made those doves come here just to aggravate me!”

Grandma K shouted. It was the beginning of a downward slide. Always quick to anger, Grandma K was now not just bad-tempered but also paranoid and delusional.

Mom arranged a vacation that August with her parents at Lake Como, a resort in southern Wisconsin, hoping the country air and peaceful surroundings would soothe her mother’s nerves and give her seventy-one-year-old dad a break. When they opened the door to their rustic cottage, a strong smell of gas assaulted them. “They’re trying to kill me!” Grandma screamed, backing out, her eyes wild.

“It’s okay, Mama,” my mother said, running into the darkened room, straightening a burner knob left askew. “Someone just forgot to turn the stove all the way off.”

Throughout the trip, Grandma K either remained locked in a morose silence or went on the attack. If Mom or her father attempted conversation, Grandma shook with a fierce anger and yelled, “Keep your big mouth shut!” or, “You’d be better off with plaster in your mouth!” When Mom was silent, her mother accused her of “hiding something.”

“She told Papa to get out of her sight,” Mom wrote. “She said to me, ‘You do nothing but make trouble!’”

Page after page, Mom documented her mother’s paranoid thoughts and behavior, but one scene captures it best.

At two in the morning, the darkness blazed to light in their cottage. Grandma ripped off the covers from her sleeping husband and glared down at him, screeching, in her drawn-out Austrian accent, “You cr-r-r-rook, you!” He lay blinking and astonished.

“You’ve hidden my pills in your bed!” she screamed, eyes blazing. “Get up! Get up! I want them. You’re both cr-r-r-rooks!”

Mom and her father finally were able to calm her, but Mom’s dread and confusion wouldn’t let her sleep.

After fourteen days of living with Grandma K’s frenzied accusations, Mom broke down. Wracked with sobs, she choked out to her mother, “You have made these the most miserable two weeks of my life.”

End of sneak preview

How will Lil, an only child and about to be married, cope with her mother’s condition? What will it mean for my parents’ marriage? How did family’s manage a mentally ill relative in the 1940s, when treatment was in the dark ages and no pharmaceuticals for psychosis existed?

Redlined, relates what my mom did—and the consequences.

Thanks for reading.

Redlined tells a first-hand story about a West Side Chicago family’s personal struggles and dreams intersecting with the racial upheavals of the 1960s.


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