Cecelia Brabender Bollenbeck was my aunt, one of my dad’s older sisters, who lived a tragic life, spending more than a half-century in mental institutions before she died at age 85. It was no secret that she was hospitalized, but it was seldom talked about in our family so I know little about her. If I could still write to her, this is what I would ask.
Dear Aunt Cecelia,
Though I’ve never met you, do you mind if I call you Aunt Celie? That's a name written on some of the family photos I have of you.
I’m your nephew, Wayne, one of Hebby’s six children. I’m writing this in the master bedroom where you were born, Nov. 26, 1906, here in the old Brabender house. The bedroom is now my office. I’m researching our Brabender family history and I have so many questions for you.
I know your life started with much promise that November day over a century ago. You were the fourth of Hubert and Ursula’s 13 children. The first born, Ursula, died in this room at birth, but three healthy babies followed: Margaret, George, and then you. You were baptized at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Ashton and named Cecelia, after your godmother and grandmother, Cecelia Klein Brabender, wife of Christian. Together Christian and Cecelia started this farm in 1858 and built this house in 1865.
The 1910 census lists your name as Zezilia with two “Zs” – those census takers never could spell! You were three then. Three years later you attended St. Peter’s Catholic School, where you were taught English. Did you struggle learning a second language? I took German, your native language, in high school, but found it difficult.
By the 1920 census you were 13 and had eight surviving siblings, four brothers and four sisters (another brother, Jacob, had died at age 1 in 1911). Soon after came another brother and sister. Is that why you only finished sixth grade, because you stayed home to take care of your younger siblings before they went to school?
(Click on images to enlarge.)
At age 21, you were house keeping for Mrs. Pyre – it says so in the Feb. 16, 1928, Ashton news briefs of the Waunakee Tribune. Is that when your accident happened? My dad said you were riding in the open-air rumble seat of a car on State St. in Madison when it crashed. You flew out and hit your head. I couldn’t find news about the accident in the local newspapers, but a month later, March 22, the Waunakee Tribune reported: “Miss Cecelia Brabender, who met with an accident, has returned home.” My dad said you were never the same after that.
At age 23, you were a maid in the home of Frank Fitzgerald, 125 17th St., Milwaukee, according to the 1930 census, taken on April 9. Frank is 71, president of a poster and advertising firm, born in Ireland, and owner of a radio and a home worth $12,000. His wife, born in Germany, is age 60, and his daughter, born in Wisconsin, is 22. Both are named Frances. Neither of them works.
Eight months later on Dec. 27, 1930, your license to wed Joseph Bollenbeck, an Ashton bachelor farmer and former Catholic seminarian almost 20 years older, was announced in the Capital Times. The next day it was confirmed in the Wisconsin State Journal. Fr. Peter J. Hildebrand married you less than two weeks later, Jan. 7, 1931, at St. Peter’s in Ashton. You don’t look happy in your wedding photo. I’ve heard your farm life with Joseph in Ashton was difficult, in spite of some lighter moments recorded in the Waunakee Tribune – hosting a variety shower “for a large crowd of friends and relatives” just days before your younger sister Julia’s marriage to Hilman Schroeder on May 8, 1935; celebrating your 30th birthday during a Nov. 22, 1936, party with a “number of relatives and friends”; and taking the consolation prize at the card game of “500” during neighbor Christ Dahmen’s large “namesday” party on Dec. 19, 1937.
After that, your paper trail goes cold, until I find you in the 1940 census recorded on April 18, my dad’s 26th birthday. You’re a patient in the Columbia County Insane Asylum and Poor House in Wyocena, Columbia County. At 33, you’re the youngest female of 301 patients in the insane asylum, not including the 38 residents in the poor house.
How did you end up there? Did you become friends with any of the 17 staff members? Two attendants, Jeanette and Mary, and the bookkeeper, Daisy, were much older than you and widowed. Were they kind and understanding? Did they take you under their wings because you were so young? Did they treat you as a daughter?
Did you walk the asylum grounds with Merwin, the gardener, or William, the farm foreman? Did the farm remind you of your home in Ashton? The asylum superintendent, Harold, and his wife, Olga, the matron, lived there with teenaged sons, Harold Jr. and John. Did the boys remind you of your brothers? Since you never had children, did you ever dream of adopting them?
Did you make friends with other patients? They were born in at least 15 different states and 17 countries, including Russia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Scotland, Norway, and Syria. Most were single or widowed. Most were in their 50s and 60s, though several were in their 70s and even one in her 80s. Did you know her? Did you know Matilda? She came from Germany. Perhaps you spoke German together.
By 1949 you had been moved to Mendota State Hospital in Madison. Joseph had divorced you by then. Mendota is where my dad last visited you. He said the visits ended when you raged and cursed at him in German. He never told me what you said. Who wouldn’t be angry?
Later you were sent to the Dane County Asylum in Verona, where you died on the first day of spring, March 20, 1992, at age 85, after more than 50 years in mental hospitals. Were you consulted on where you wanted to be buried? St. Mary’s Help of Christians Catholic Cemetery in Sullivan, Jefferson County, is a long way from home. Did you really want to be reunited in death with Joseph? Your tombstone doesn’t reveal your divorce or your many years apart. Does it feel strange to lie next to him again?
I attended your funeral with my dad and four of your sisters. It was a gorgeous sunny day. It was the only time I saw you. You look relieved lying in your casket, so pretty in your bright floral dress. Your hair was still remarkably dark, with beautiful streaks of gray. You had that prominent Brabender chin. A wedding photo of you and Joseph rested near your head. A rosary was wrapped around your folded hands. Your funeral card featured the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
Fr. Nicholas Feyereisen, St. Mary's priest later said, "The gathering of the people for this funeral was very uplifting to me, because of the very nice response and faith of the people present. Very noticeable to me."
After your funeral, we ate lunch together and talked about your life. As I write this nearly 30 years later, I regret that I did not take better notes that day. I have another regret. I had a chance to meet you a few years before you died. I called the asylum in Verona to ask about you. I talked to a young lady who was taking care of you. I asked about the possibility of visiting. “Yes, she would love a visit. She’s a sweet lady,” was the reply. As you know, I never did visit. I’m sorry, but I have not forgotten you and I hope you now rest in peace.
P.S. According to historical records, the Wyocena asylum was originally a hotel with two acres of land and a barn. The first residents moved in December 1858. The asylum was razed in 1975. A marker now shows the spot of the asylum’s cemetery. Erected in 2016 by the Wisconsin Historical Society, it reads: “This plot of land, locally known as ‘Potter's Field,’ served as the final resting place for nearly 250 residents of the Columbia County Asylum. Indigent asylum residents left unclaimed by family members were buried here from 1871 until 1971, nearly all in unmarked graves.”
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.