I grew up in a mental hospital in upstate New York. I wasn’t a patient. My father was a doctor. He was one of the many foreign-trained medical doctors who worked there. For immigrants, the acronym is FMG — foreign medical graduate. It was the 1970s and state mental hospitals like the one I grew up in were staffed with doctors from other countries — the only ones who would work in them.

“They needed doctors.” My father said, one year when I was visiting. I was in my twenties then still fresh my college and standing in the doorway in my old room when he told me this. “I was only going to come for a few years and then go back. But you and your brother were born and I saw that you ate ice cream and drank milk and I thought ‘where are you going to get that in the Philippines?’ So we stayed.” As he wandered down the brown carpeted hallway to his room, he scratched the back of his head and repeated it. “So we stayed.” It was an answer to a question I didn’t ask but which had lingered in the air for years. Why did you come here if you hate it so much?

The house on the campus of that psychiatric hospital is the first house (perhaps only) for which I have lingering sentiments. It seems now in memory like a huge victorian house. But who knows what it really was — it could have been built in the 1920s or the 1940s. A screened porched wrapped around half of the house and then another heated porched called a “winter porch” sat on the other side. There were black walnut trees in the front yard and a crabapple tree at the door to the porch. The driveway circled the house. To me, now, in a 2 room plus office apartment, the house remains in my memory as if it was a vast English estate. In some ways, it wasn’t far from it. It had amenities that are unthinkable now in suburban subdivisions. An apple orchard filled the acres adjacent to the house and I remember the orange light of October afternoons as I tried to knock Macintosh apples of branches. Lilac bushes lined the driveway and in June I plucked their purple flowers and sprinkled them across the lawn in circular patterns. There was an outdoor stone barbecue upon which my father grilled chickens marinated in soy sauce and garlic. A badminton court graced the front lawn. I and other local children, all the offspring of foreign doctors, batted a plastic birdie back and forth across the net until sundown. We were an assortment of Filipino kids with parents who passed plates of barbecue chicken and rice back and forth across the table while we ran back and forth across the lawn outside.

The house seems like a palace to me now. It had a walk-in pantry in the kitchen where cases of apples, delivered free from the hospital kitchens, were stored . The hospital laundry did all our sheets and table linen and we wrote our name in the corners of the sheets in black laundry marker. The hutch in the dining room contained rows of heavy silverware with ornate patterns on their handles. The furniture was made of heavy brown woods and upholstered in shades of brown and mustard. Everything in the house was owned by the hospital. The green banded plates and the silver belonged to the hospital. The dining room table and its chairs were owned by the hospital. My bed was owned by the hospital. Even the lamps on the end tables. The house and everything in it was rented by my parents every month for $75. We owned nothing except our clothes and the piano my parents bought one year, I can’t remember when.

The hospital itself – or the building that I associated with “the hospital” — was a brown brick building with yellow trim on the other side of the small creak (pronounced “crick” as people say in that part of the state) which divided the campus. When we crossed the small green steel bridge from our side of the campus to the hospital side of the campus, that’s when I felt like I was in some other land. I have dim memories of it. There was a post office and a bowling alley on that side where we would bowl once a week. There was a turquoise ball the right size and weight for my seven year-old hand. And I remember the soft leather of the red shoes I rented. I remember the patients very dimly. They are lump forms of grey and blue sitting in plastic bucket chairs the color of salt water taffy. I saw the patients rarely. Once, in a brave foray to buy candy from a vending machine in the commissary, I darted past the chairs and the people sitting in them, clutching a Heath bar, waiting for an adult hand to pluck me up by my collar. I made it out with who knows what playmate to eat candy in some place I can’t remember. The other time, vaguely, I remember a teen-ager coming to the door of the back porch on Halloween. It was past dark and he stood there wearing a football jersey and football helmet, a plastic orange pumpkin swung from his wrist. Did he say “trick or treat”? I don’t remember. I only remember retreating backwards and then turning and running back into the house.

Other than these two vague memories, life at the mental hospital was for me a childhood dated by the blooming scent of lilac bushes followed by the juicy tartness of apples. In between, I forget even winter in that house. What did I do? Did I draw? Did I play? I only remember watching Happy Days in the basement rec room. And then summer invades memory again and I see myself eating slices of watermelon on a paper plate next to Roxanne, another filipino kid whose parents also worked at the hospital. Juice drips down my arm and I lick it up with my tongue.

This is all I remember about those years at the mental hospital. I say this know because I saw recently a call for submissions for stories or essays about Western New York State, the place where I grew up, and I wondered if my childhood in that region would offer any stories. But I can remember nothing complete. Just features of it — architectural details — but no stories. People who know that I grew up at a state mental hospital tell me “It would make a great story.” I don’t remember stories. I remember only colors, smells, and tastes. And my father and his choice to stay leaves me with no sense of guilt for his compromise. He stayed. And I am glad.

Advertisements