Thursday, September 14, 2017

Leave It All Behind

by Giselle Renarde

For more than 50 years, my grandmother was married to a man with unchecked mental health issues.

My grandfather didn't believe in doctors. I want to say he hadn't seen one since WWII, when shrapnel was embedded in his lungs (where it remained until he was cremated), but I think I'm romanticizing the past a bit. Because in the late 1950s my grandfather was incarcerated for committing a violent crime against his family. Since he was institutionalized in psychiatric correctional facility, I suppose he would have seen doctors then.

I can't imagine that helped matters any.

Point being: my grandfather didn't see doctors if he wasn't being forced to. But he did self-medicated. With alcohol.

I spent a great deal of time with my grandfather, in my youth. I remember him very fondly. After his death, my grandmother revealed to me that he'd been abusive toward her in every way possible.  I was shocked to hear this. It didn't sound at all like the grandfather I'd known and loved. In fact, it sounded more like my father... who was also institutionalized after committing criminal acts, in what's now known as a forensic psychiatric hospital.

When I started working in the domestic violence sector, I learned more about the cycle of violence that plays out through the generations. That's when the pieces started coming together. My mother was "daddy's little girl"--her words. So she married a man just like her father. She saw no reason not to.

When my grandmother began speaking more openly about the family violence that had taken place throughout the years, my aunts started talking too. Not my mom. My mother doesn't like to talk about unpleasant things. She says the past is in the past. It isn't, and perhaps one day she'll come to that realization, but she hasn't yet and it's not an issue that's easy to push.

Throughout my childhood, my mom's two younger sisters were an endless source of funny family stories. I remember taking the subway with them when I was six or seven years old and saying, "Tell me another story about when you were kids!" I couldn't get enough.  I loved their hilarious stories about my aunt's pet rooster and the family of ducks that lived under their house.

So when the darker stories started coming out, I was really amazed. All those sunny family stories were still true. They'd just left out the unpleasantness until now.

My younger aunts told me about coming home for lunch on school days. My grandfather did shift work and he was home during the day. My older aunts were in high school, and their lunch period started a little earlier than the lunch hour at the elementary school. So my younger aunts would walk home together, and on certain days they'd find my older aunts leaving the house. No words would be exchanged. Only a frown and a shake of the head. That was enough to inform the younger kids that it wasn't safe to go inside. On those days, my aunts didn't get to eat lunch.  They went into the field across the road, and they played or gleaned grains for their pets.

The new stories, the dark stories, don't go into detail the way the sunny ones had.  But they don't have to.  I know now that my mother grew up in much the same family environemnt I did. There are so many nuances to the type of fear a child experiences growing up in a household that could spiral into violence at any moment. You can feel it all around you. The air is too still.

My grandmother once told me about a book she read some time in the 1950s. It was a novel about a woman she identified with, a housewife with a whole bunch of kids. Not a bad mother, but not a happy housewife. A woman who'd had enough of the pressures at home.

The character in this book packed a suitcase and left it all behind. Left her husband, left her kids. Took off and had adventures of her own.

I remember my grandmother telling me how much that book meant to her.  That character was her hero, because every day of her life she wanted to do the same thing: pack a suitcase, leave it all behind.

But my grandmother... she never did leave.

Giselle Renarde is an award-winning queer Canadian writer. She was nominated Toronto’s Best Author in NOW Magazine’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards, and her book The Red Satin Collection won Best Transgender Romance in the 2012 Rainbow Awards. Giselle has contributed erotica and queer fiction to nearly 200 short story anthologies and written dozens of juicy books, including Anonymous, Seven Kisses, Bali Nights, In Shadow, and Nanny State.

Visit for free erotica and exciting new releases.


  1. Though Momma and I suspected mental instability in our respective families early on, it didn't have any impact on our decision to not have children. Only after a lifetime has gone by do we now realize that we really made the right decision. My maternal grandmother committed suicide, as did my brother and Momma X's brother, seven years apart to the day. Bipolar also runs in my father's family.

  2. I wonder how many women have secret fantasies of packing it all in and leaving. Sometimes it isn't even a matter of violence, but just the pressures and frustrations of domestic life and too many responsibilities and problems with no viable answers. My fantasy was a cabin in Montana where no one could find me and I could just write. The responsibilities couldn't be evaded, though, and eventually things worked out more or less all right. I do still sometimes get nostalgic for that Montana cabin that I never saw, though.

  3. One wonders whether your grandmother *could* have left it all behind. I mean, if she'd packed that suitcase and went off to live her own life, would she have escaped the psychological consequences of her marriage?

    (Is this the same grandmother with whom you discussed religion?)

  4. So sad that she never discovered how her life could have improved.


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