by Wanda Fischer

My grandmother did not bake cookies. She didn’t wear a white apron and read stories to my sisters and me.

My grandmother was a resident of the state hospital for the mentally ill in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. She was committed in 1940, when my mother, the youngest of her four children, was 12.

Every Sunday, my mother would pile my sisters and me into the family station wagon and retrieve Nana for Sunday dinner. Ma had to go to the office to sign out Nana for the day. She would lock us into the car and tell me, the oldest, not to open the doors.

Sometimes, while waiting, residents would surround our car. We felt as if we were in a fishbowl, but we were also scared. I had no idea what I would have done if one of them had taken a rock and smashed the window. Were they insane enough to do that? Were they violent? Sometimes one of them would put hands on the windows and peer in, as if looking at window displays at Christmas at Jordan Marsh. We were the animated, electrically-controlled beings behind the glass, being moved by something, anything, just like the cartoon characters in the store windows. I didn’t realize then, but in retrospect, I now know that we gave them joy, a bit of normalcy, at a place where they rarely saw people who were not “like them.”

The residents all looked the same. Pale, white faces, drooping skin and blank eyes. Blunt-cut hair hanging just below the ears. Short-cut bangs. The women wore shift-type dresses and plain black shoes with stark white ankle socks. They shuffled their feet as they walked – an effect I would later learn was directly related to the drugs they were fed daily.

The men wore the same black shoes and droopy, castaway pants and messy shirts that always seemed to be mis-buttoned, with pants often too long, so when they shuffle-walked, they trip-walked as well.

They all had terrible teeth.

On the way to our house, we would stop at the original Dunkin’ Donuts in Quincy and buy my grandmother two jelly donuts.

I recently saw photographs of a similar abandoned insane asylum. The photos depict the dereliction of the building, demonstrating the way the edifice had decayed because the state had stopped taking care of the brick-and-mortar structure. The photographer took great pains to show details by using light and shadows within the building, and I closed my eyes, trying to imagine what my grandmother’s life must have been like when she lived in a place like that until her death in 1972.

The hospital in Jamaica Plain was closed, then demolished in 2003. The last time I drove by, it appeared that a housing development was about to be built. I began to think about the residents who walked the grounds, peering into our car. If new houses are built on that land, will their spirits put their ghost-like hands on the windows and look in at families as they eat their Sunday dinners and celebrate birthday parties? Will their wispy hair blow in the wind as they watch children living in a place where they once walked? Will they want to go to Dunkin’ Donuts for jelly donuts?

""Wanda Fischer has hosted “The Hudson River Sampler” folk music show on WAMC in Albany since 1982. She’s retired from her “day” job in PR/marketing and has just released her first novel, EMPTY SEATS. She’s an avid baseball fan and tennis player. She and her husband live in Schenectady, New York.

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