The First Grrrl - by John Sealander


Lucille Sealander

My Mom was born on September 24, 1923. Things would have gone a lot better for her if she had been born forty years later. It would be taking the easy way out to say she was just another passive victim of her times. It wasn't that way at all. In her own way, Lucille Rehm Sealander was remarkable and unique.

She was smart, inquisitive and independent. She learned Chinese, read philosophy, carried on a long correspondence with Rosa Parks during the early days of the civil rights movement and spent thirty-eight years studying the habits of the Three-Toed Box Turtle. This was for fun, mind you. She never graduated from college and when filling out applications for everything from credit cards to library cards, listed her occupation as 'housewife.'

How someone with so much potential, someone who encouraged each of her children to challenge everything and take big risks, could spend the last years of her life completely beaten and wishing to die is a tragedy. I suspect it is a common tragedy though. As unconventional as she was in some areas, she was completely a product of her times in others.

When she married my Dad, she left her religion, her dreams and giant chunks of her past behind to become the perfect faculty wife. She raised kids, served June Cleever style meals on TV trays and never let anyone, including my Dad, know that she had been married before.

I never suspected that anything was amiss until a holiday dinner during my first year of college when she suddenly slumped forward into her plate of food and had to be whisked away to the hospital in an ambulance. This 'illness' was never explained. And neither were some telltale bandages around her wrist that appeared several years later. Gradually a story began to unfold that my Mom was manic depressive; that she had a 'chemical imbalance of the brain.'

I visited her in the hospital after one of her early 'episodes' and found her underlining bible verses with a felt tip marker in a King James bible. I didn't know much about mental illness at the time, but instinctively I knew that this wasn't going to be the answer.

The great experiment had begun. For the next fifteen years, what began as a search for a 'Christian' psychiatrist, gradually escalated to Elavil, Thorazine and finally electroshock therapy. The years took their toll. Other drugs were prescribed to counter the side-effects of the powerful antidepressants she was taking. All these drugs were debilitating and addictive. Her speech began to slur. Entire years disappeared from her memory. She ground her teeth so severely that she had to wear a rubber retainer every night. Her bladder began to fail and eventually she had to have a colostomy.

During this time she became terrified she was going to be committed to an institution. During most of her adult life my Mother was a champion of the underdog. She voted for people who were destined to lose. She became a fierce advocate of civil rights in an era when these issues just weren't talked about in the deep South. Later, she turned her considerable energies to championing the rights of the disabled. When she became the underdog, she fought just as fiercely to save herself. One of her doctors said she was no longer mentally able to provide meaningful information on her physical condition and wanted her to sign a power of attorney that transferred control of her future treatment to my Dad and her medical team. She fought back. And the letter she finally produced from an eminent medical specialist proclaiming that "Mrs. Sealander's ability to make appropriate judgments regarding her personal affairs is still quite intact." was one of her proudest moments. She never was institutionalized.

How she could be so much of a survivor and still fail to see the obvious, I'll never understand. Towards the end of her life, she told me that there was something important she had to tell me. She said she had gotten married in Mexico to a Navy aviator before she had met my Dad and that she had never told him. That the first husband disappeared after several months and she was never sure whether the marriage was legal or not. She said she wasn't a virgin when she married my Dad and he still didn't know that either.

My first reaction was "so?" After all, none of her three children were exactly virgins by the time each of us had gotten married either. Nevertheless, this revelation was a huge deal to my mother. She said, much to my surprise, that she was Jewish before she met my Dad and that she converted to his Lutheran faith to please him. Evidently enough was enough though. The real purpose of this summons was to tell me that she had always hated the Protestant notion of hell and that, at the age of fifty, she was returning to Judaism.

Jesus H. Christ! At that instant it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was what the fifteen years of Elavil and Thorazine and electroshock were all about. She was consumed by guilt over something inconsequential she had kept secret from my Dad for over thirty years and was convinced for most of her adult life that a wrathful Lutheran god was going to send her to hell because of it.

I told her that I supported her decision completely. What I didn't tell her was that if she had come to this conclusion thirty years earlier, she would still have her health and that in all likelihood, none of this would have ever happened.

Although her body was ruined by this point, my Mom's decision to become a Jew again seemed to restore some semblance of dignity and purpose to her life. She remained religious, but as she told me many times "surely god did not make this world just for Lutherans." She resumed her habit of writing me weekly letters full of cockeyed and profound advise on how I should live my life. No longer did the letters badger me to become a priest or to vote a straight democratic ticket. They contained little snippets like the following:

    To laugh is to risk appearing a fool.
    To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
    To reach out for another is to risk involvement.
    To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
    To place your ideas & dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.
    To love is to risk not being loved in return.
    To live is to risk dying.

A couple of years before her death, the local newspaper published a full page article chronicling her long-time work with turtles. One of her turtles, Ms. Dee, became a local celebrity when she restored it to health after someone had driven a nail through its shell. Mom became known as 'The Turtle Lady.' and she was quite proud of the moniker. Even though she was in poor health, she was asked to speak at area schools about protecting animals. Young people liked her and she became a role model for more than a few young girls who admired her independence. Mom enjoyed her small triumph. "I think your Dad is jealous," she would tell me with a smile.

All she really wanted was to live life on her own terms. In some regards, she failed miserably. In the end though, her efforts to regain her own identity against long odds became the way she was remembered. For the fact that she managed to show the mental health community that she was sane and her treatment wasn't, she will always be my hero. Nevertheless it was all such an incredible waste. She died tired and in great pain from the cumulative results of the very drugs she had been given to save her. She just lived in the wrong era. I will always think of her as the first grrrl.


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