As she mourns her mother’s death, Delores Williams wonders how her life will change. After the funeral, she uncovers a mysterious collection in a safe deposit box—a collection of papers and old photographs that raise questions about her past. What secrets did her mother take to the grave?
Soon after, Delores attends an art exhibit at the Everson Museum in Syracuse. In the gallery, Delores pores over artifacts that were removed from the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center. Here, the lives of past patients are on displays—and Del is shocked to see a familiar face in one of the portraits.
In her confusion, as she attempts to determine what to do next, she stumbles into a church service. There, she meets Eli Fisher, a pastor who offers help as she attempts to unravel her past. As her investigation begins to consume her life, Delores follows the tenuous trail of clues from Syracuse to the Mississippi Delta and, eventually, to Italy.
Her journey will help to reveal the shadowy truth that connects four generations of women, each of whom dealt with trauma, abuse, and uncertainty in her own way. Can she find the strength to rise above her family’s past to build a new legacy of hope, love, and redemption?
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In Its Timea novel
By Nancy Rehkugler
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Nancy Rehkugler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Exhibit Saturday, April 21, 2007
Del had never been to the Everson Museum of Art before, though she had driven past it many times. The architecture was striking with contemporary lines and blocks. Del simply was not usually a museum person, but on this occasion she had willingly agreed to go with Alicia, wanting company, and a diversion from her routine. Spring still seemed weeks away yet. Del did not enjoy winter walks nearly as much as the rest of the year, though she did occasionally force herself to take them, at least when it was well above freezing.
That April day would change Del's life. Seismic shift. Shattering. What she saw there in that museum would eventually change her mind and heart, and draw her out of the reality she had been living, and into an unexpected search, a search for herself.
Del dropped in her five dollar donation as they entered the Everson museum. Alicia had thought it would be interesting to see The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic. It was indeed a fascinating exhibit. Del was drawn in immediately. She read the panels with increasing interest and curiosity.
Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, had originally driven to visit the old Willard Psychiatric Center in the spring of 1995 thinking he might be able to pick up some artifacts. A member of the staff suggested that he check out the attic of an abandoned building. A seemingly simple suggestion changed the course of William's life. And on April 21, 2007, it changed the course of Del William's life as well. It was just mere chance that both Williams should share the same last name, though there was no relation.
Craig Williams was directed to the suggested location, and there he found four hundred suitcases covered by decades of dust, as well as pigeon droppings. The suitcases were labeled with the former patients' names. For Craig Williams, a museum curator, this finding was the equivalent of discovering a chest filled with gold chalices used by Jesus Christ himself. He did not immediately understand in that moment that what he discovered that day would consume his life. But he did get a sense of each person, as he opened the attic suitcases. It was as if a spirit which had long been locked away, was released at long last. And as each one emerged with the opening of the cases, Williams felt overwhelmed. Something of their humanity seemed to still be lingering, even after the passage of so much time. Craig Williams felt some sense of power in that humanity, as if there were voices that wanted to speak.
Inside those cases Williams found personal possessions. Photographs, diaries, military dog tags, books, letters, postcards, a Bible, a quilt, baby clothes, gloves, a pair of shoes. A team was brought in to study the artifacts. The team included an historian, mental health professionals, and a psychiatry professor. Their research and conclusions accompanied the suitcases on display in Syracuse's Everson Museum. The exhibit was first on display in 2004, and it was immediately obvious that it was an exhibit which touched people deeply. Perhaps none more deeply that Del Williams that April day in 2007. It was not the kind of art she had come expecting.
The Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after one hundred twenty six years of operation. It had originally been called the Willard Asylum. More than fifty thousand patients had been admitted during those years. Many died there, along with their stories, until some were exhumed from the attic.
In the exhibit, a few told their stories on large panels with biographies and photos. In depth research had gone into the creation of each panel-life, suitcase story. Each person was identified only by first name because of issues of confidentiality. Their stories were told with as much detail as possible, gleaned from medical records, visiting their original homes, reading their correspondence, talking to caretakers or family members. The research team also examined thousands of Willard photographs and documents.
Del stood before the triple seven foot high panels that displayed Madeline. Her trunk, along with her belongings was in the center of the room, roped off so that you could not touch the delicate items. Madeline had been born in Paris in 1896 to a wealthy French family. She had worked as a secretary and a French literature teacher throughout the United States, but during the Depression, had a difficult time finding work. Because she had been labeled stubborn and too independent, Madeline was deemed unemployable, and eventually she was sent to the psychiatric unit of Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital in 1931. In 1939 she was moved to Willard. Madeline never stopped her protest at being there. She believed the hospital was wasting her time and theirs. In the exhibit was a steamer trunk full of many of Madeline's possessions, which included an elbow length pair of white button gloves, and books of philosophy.
Del moved around the room of what she concluded was a very different sort of art, certainly not art in the conventional sense. Del's limited understanding of what constituted art tended more toward paintings, photographs, and sculptures. This was something different- more an examination of the lives of the mentally ill through personal items.
Then she saw the picture. There was a panel with a very large photograph that stopped Del in her tracks, took her breath away, and almost brought her to her knees. She had such a visceral reaction, she thought her heart would explode out of her chest.
"Oh, my God," she exclaimed, with the tone of one who has seen a ghost.
"Oh my God Oh my God."
Alicia was not far away and turned back to her. She was thankful no one else was nearby in that moment to hear the distress of her friend.
"What's wrong, Del?" Alicia asked, seeing that her friend's face was white and she was even shaking.
"Oh, my God." Del breathed, holding herself with both arms in front, defensively.
"Del, what is wrong with you? Are you sick?" Alicia asked.
"It's her," responded Del, pointing toward the picture in front of her.
"Who?" Alicia wondered, glancing over her shoulder, looking for some threatening enemy who must have walked into the room.
"It's the woman in the photograph."
But Del had not yet told Alicia of her lockbox findings, so Alicia had no idea of the magnitude of what Del was seeing. Del herself could scarcely comprehend it. She tried to sort it through in her mind. A picture of a woman from Willard Psychiatric Center. A picture from the lockbox. Same woman. Why would her mother have a picture of a crazy woman in her lockbox? Who was she? Then Del tried to remember the details of her mother's letter from the safe deposit box.
The photograph had been with the birth certificate. The photo was a black and white picture with scalloped edges, from the early 1900's. The photograph had come with a birth certificate from Columbus, Mississippi, via Del's Aunt Sandy. How was all this connected to the woman from Willard? Del stood there and read what information was on the one panel, and studied the few artifacts on the table nearby.
Del read the panel again and again, taking it in, or trying to, wanting to remember every detail. She suddenly regretted that her cell phone did not have a camera to take pictures of the exhibit. She asked Alicia to take pictures; Alicia's phone had that capacity, although hers did not.
This discovery was too much for her mind to process. How could this woman have anything to do with her?
Deborah W A Woman of Mystery
According to the medical records, Deborah W was admitted to Willard in 1928.
She was brought by a New York City social worker in a zombie-like state, after spending a week in a city hospital where she withdrew from reality and no longer spoke. She was able to give her name when the police first found her, but she provided no further information. No family members were ever identified, or birth records located.
Deborah was estimated to be approximately eighteen years old when admitted in May of 1928. In her file, there was a copy of a police report which stated she had been raped. A few months after she was admitted, the staff noticed her pregnancy. In November of that year, a little less than nine months after being admitted, Deborah gave birth to a daughter, who was immediately handed over to an adoption agency. Following the birth of this child, Deborah still did not speak, but she frequently wept.
The photo displayed here was dated on the back 1928, taken shortly after her arrival at Willard.
Her medical records did have notations that indicated a marked improvement in her mental and emotional state when she was in her late thirties, which mystified the medical personnel.
In the suitcase she left behind, there is evidence of an artist--paintings, brushes, old dried up tubes of paint, and other artifacts. It is believed that some staff member helped her acquire art supplies.
Deborah W, woman of mystery, came without family connections, lived without much human interaction, and then suddenly improved dramatically.
The file had one brief notation stating simply: Discharged 1948.
In the middle of the room, roped off, near the panel of Deborah W, there were paintings arranged around a tan cardboard suitcase, which was on display. The paintings were on paper, pieces of wood, on anything she could find. One stood out. It was on a five by seven canvas, and was easily identifiable as an arrangement of irises, although it also had abstract geometrical features woven among them. Also, among Deborah's possessions, was a yellowed old postcard from Ithaca, New York, picturing a building at Cornell University.
* * *
Seeing her friend so clearly distressed, and shaking, Alicia asked, "Del, are you all right? What's going on?" Del just stared and did not answer. She stood there for what seemed like an eternity, while all her illusions about herself, one by one, fell in broken bits at her feet. She did not know who she was. She thought she had known. She was confident and secure in who she was and in her abilities. Then her mother died and she had been forced to look at her past.
While she had not been surprised to find that her mother was not the one who gave birth to her, she had been stunned to discover strange peoples' names and pictures, people to whom she was somehow linked. And now this. A woman from Willard Asylum was the same woman she had seen in the safe deposit box papers.
Del feared what might happen if she found the answers. Already Del believed there must be some long buried trauma that had made her forget her past. What if she ended up like this woman Deborah? That was her great fear.
On the drive home, Del explained to Alicia the things which she had recently discovered. Alicia listened intently. Alicia was concerned about Del, because it had been so difficult to get her to leave the museum. Del seemed frantic and lost, like Alicia had never seen her friend before.
When Del told her about the lockbox, Alicia could understand her friend's shock. Alicia could never have imagined that what was set in motion by the universe would find its way, would have its way to completion, to consummation, to conclusion. What is birthed, whether a life, or a thought, or art, may occasionally have a power beyond even itself. Alicia could not have known what was playing itself out through her friend Del. Alicia had been a key catalyst, faithfully doing her part, unwittingly. We are all like puppets dancing, some force pulling us here and there in the drama of our lives.
Del knew that once she pulled herself together and sorted all this out, she would have to try to find some answers. At the moment she couldn't think of how or where to begin. Or where it would end. But she did know that her life would never be the same again.
Chapter TwoDel Williams Syracuse, New York 2007
Even though Del had noticed that her mother was growing weaker with age, she had not imagined life without her. Even though the close bond she longed for had never fully materialized, she loved and appreciated her mother. To Del, at seventy three Ida seemed as strong and invincible as ever. Del still enjoyed going home to Newark Valley for holidays. The family had enjoyed a good Christmas dinner together. Frank Jr. and his wife Linda seemed happier than usual this year, perhaps because they had a really profitable year on the farm. Linda was more at ease in the barn than Ida had ever been. Ida was not a barn girl, staking out her territory in the kitchen and the yard. Ida respected the cows because of what they could do, but she did not love them. You had to love cows to be a dairy farmer, but Ida got by with her sincere respect, and keeping her distance.
Ida had cooked everyone's favorite food, as usual, for Christmas. A big pot of hubbard squash never seemed big enough for Del. The large pan of stuffing with sausage and dried cranberries was her father's favorite. And of course, apple pie and pumpkin pie, and chocolate cake, all three. They all loved desserts.
Since the family lived close enough to one another to get together for holidays, visits did not require overnights, and were therefore, generally, stress free, except for the squabbles of her nieces and nephews. But both Frank and Linda were strong disciplinarians, so their children were not unruly. Long ago they had eliminated the need for family gifts, except for the children, making the get-togethers a time to eat and celebrate, relax and enjoy.
Earlier in her life, Del had loved to go to the candlelight worship services at the church. There was something about them that drew her in, like she was somewhere familiar, and haunting. The congregation would light their candles, then lift them high on the last verse of Silent Night and she would feel some longing deep inside, which she did not recognize, but that service always seemed to stir some emotions that made her both sad and hopeful. It had been several years now since she had attended.
News of her mother's death early in January had been completely unexpected to Del, and it sent her into an unusual sense of confusion and emotional discomfort. At the calling hours the night before the funeral, she thought that people approached her differently than they did her brother Frank, as if he were somehow legitimate, and she was not. Del vowed that someday she would get to the bottom of all that. Del might have started by quizzing her Aunt Sandy, but Sandy's immobility made travel to the funeral too difficult. She was living in an assisted living complex in Binghamton. Frank had called her and to let her know of her sister's death.
Del wondered to herself, as she stood there in the receiving line, why she had not long ago pursued her questions, and she had to admit that the reason was that she had always been afraid of the answers. To find out that her story of origin might be other than birth by Ida, as she had always suspected, Del did not feel would change anything for her, especially if it was birth by Sandy. What good would that information do? What difference would it make? Del had not been interested at all in going on a roller coaster search for a long lost mother who might or might not want to acknowledge her existence. The very idea felt to her like total family treason, disloyalty, ingratitude. Besides, Del told herself, if there was anything she really needed to know, someone would have told her.
For a forty year old woman, Delores Williams had managed to attend very few funerals in her lifetime. She could only remember going to the funeral of a friend's father in high school, and later a couple of other distant relatives, but no one close to her. Until now. The family viewing left her badly shaken. There was a shell of a body there, but she could not see Ida in it. Still, she had not cried. She would save that, she told herself, for some private time when she could grieve. Del knew in her heart that probably she would not permit herself to cry; she usually did not. Would she now, at her mother's death?
Del wondered about that as the people came through the line shaking her hand, or giving her a hug. Many were faces she should have known, but she had not lived in town for well over twenty years, so names had faded. Those who had been her high school classmates, she did recognize. There had been only sixty five seniors in her graduating class, at least forty of whom still lived in the general area of Newark Valley, Vestal, Binghamton, Richford and Tioga County. Del had been to only one high school reunion over the years. That had been enough.
Excerpted from In Its Time by Nancy Rehkugler Copyright © 2013 by Nancy Rehkugler. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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