We flew to Buffalo, NY last week for a vacation. I’m from Williamsville, a suburb north of Buffalo and Jim is from Cheektowaga, a suburb east of Buffalo. We went so we could visit with friends, see the Threads of Resistance quilt show, and bury some ghosts.
The Threads of Resistance show was moved to a later date about a week before we were to leave. No, we couldn’t change plans. School starts this Wednesday and we both had to be back for classes.
Seeing friends from law school and a friend from before high school again was fun. I had beef on weck, a Buffalo delicacy consisting of thinly sliced roast beef layered on a kaiser roll that is studded with coarse salt and caraway seed. Add fresh horseradish, and it’s a food found in heaven. Jim had fish fries. In Buffalo, an area where about 70% of the population is Catholic, every decent restaurant and gin mill has a fish fry on Fridays. New Mexico is devoid of fish fries.
My mother and her husband had a cottage on Rushford Lake. It’s a place that holds so many misery filled memories for me. My mother and her husband hated me. Nothing I ever did escaped criticism. Nothing I ever did was worthy of praise. I got screamed at and hit on a daily basis. My escape was to take a long walk through the woods. When I was in high school, my mother would take my brother and sisters out to the cottage during the week. I was left home to babysit her husband. During the day, I’d go through cookbooks searching for interesting recipes to make for dinner. I’d carefully follow a recipe, make dinner, and wait for my mother’s drunken husband to come home. And wait. And wait. Finally, a few hours later, he’d stagger in and announce he had already eaten. He was drunk enough to forget I was at home. Then he’d stagger off to bed. I’d eat by myself. One week, I told my mother I wanted to go out to the cottage, too. “You’re not going.” No explanation. Not that one was needed. She hated me and didn’t want to be around me.
When I was in law school and after my mother and her husband moved to Florida, my siblings decided to have a day at the lake. I joined them. Before leaving, I sat in the middle of the living room floor and got hysterical. It was like going back into the most traumatic memory I had and having to relive the experience of that memory. I survived the day at the lake. My siblings could go out to the cottage any weekend of the summer. My mother and her husband’s hired help got to go out there one weekend a summer. My late sister’s soon-to-be-inlaws got to go out to the lake. I wasn’t allowed. Not even on father’s day.
I wanted to go to Rushford Lake, take a walk, and bury ghosts. As we approached the turnoff for the road the cottage is on, I felt my stomach tighten and the anxiety build. We drove down to the lake and were greeted by an assortment of signs demanding we not park near the lake. We drove to one of the trails through the woods that I used to walk down. It, too, came with signs demanding anyone who didn’t live there to keep out. Jim parked on the main road. I walked down the trail. I buried the ghosts.
The illusion of solitude. Oddly, I didn’t get bitten by mosquitoes.
I buried the ghosts in an unmarked grave.
Bright spots in a dark world.
I earned two undergraduate degrees in college, one in journalism and the other in biology. My interest in biology was plants. One of my favorite places to go was the Southpark Botanical Gardens renamed Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. The gardens used to be free. Now, the senior rate is $10. And someone decided to remove the citrus room. That room was my favorite. Filled with orange, lemon and grapefruit trees always in bloom. The scent of that room was wonderful. I would sit on the bench and just smell the room. There’s now a single lemon tree.
The Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital, renamed the Richardson-Olmstead Campus, was built by H. H. Richardson. It’s a magnificent, huge building. When it was designed in the mid-19thcentury, the idea was to cure mental illness. Wide hallways with natural light encouraged patients to leave their rooms and socialize. There were shops – wood and fiber – where patients could do useful work and a shop where the patients could sell their work. The original grounds, more than 200 acres, included wandering paths and a working farm where inmates could engage in worthwhile physical labor. Eventually, about 2/3 of the grounds were removed from the hospital and used as the Buffalo State College campus. Both Jim and I graduated from Buffalo State College. In the early 70’s, we lived near the hospital and that’s where our polling place was. Voting was interesting. I remember it being lots of tile and very bright.
The building itself consists of an administration building in the middle and a wing on each side. The men were in the east wing and the women in the west wing. Each wing was a series of 5 connected buildings. The farthest building was for the most violent patients. The patients would progress through the buildings until they could be released back into society. It was a humane, gentle, and dignified way to treat the mentally ill at a time when there were no psych meds and patients at other institutions were frequently chained to walls or isolated in cages that resembled boxes.
The building was designed to house 600 patients. By the mid-1960’s, the hospital housed 3000 patients. Patients were “housed” in the hallways and walkways between buildings in the wings. Bipolar patients were tied spread-eagle to their beds if they were having a manic episode.
The administration building which is now a hotel.
Detail from the administration building.
Open balcony where patients could sit – now featuring a cage. Ostensibly, the cage is for the patients’ safety. In real life, it was to keep the inmates in and away from the rest of us.
One of the curved connecting hallways between two of the buildings in the men’s wing.
In the 60’s, three of the buildings of the men’s wing were destroyed to make room for the new hospital. It’s the epitome of Communist Bloc Chic and damned ugly. As we drove by, we saw a basketball court and inmates playing basketball. The court was surrounded by a high chainlink fence as one would expect. The fence was surrounded by an fence impossible to penetrate or climb over. I did not take a photo. We are not animals. We are not freaks. I would not humiliate these people by turning them into a side show.
I thought about my growing up years. Because I had junk for parents, I didn’t end up in a mental hospital. My mother and her husband were far too self-centered to even vaguely notice if any of us kids were having problems. Then I thought about how if I hadn’t had junk for parents, I wouldn’t be screwed up.
I buried ghosts. I brought new ghosts home.
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