My Mother: From Grace Kelly's Bridesmaid To Homeless Shelter

Photo by Bettman/Getty Images.
Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly sit before the altar during their wedding ceremony in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas April 19th 1956. Carolyn Scott Reybold sits third from left on the back row.
The photograph is so familiar to me that I can trace its shapes and faces with my eyes closed: Grace Kelly in her white gown, in the half-light of the cathedral in Monaco, on the day of her wedding. Prince Rainier is at her side, and behind her are her bridesmaids, her closest friends: Judy, Rita, Maree, Bettina, Sally and Carolyn. That’s my mother, Carolyn, to her other side, wearing the pale yellow dress and the wide-brimmed hat that Grace picked out for her. In the photograph, my mother keeps her eyes fixed on Grace. Sometimes I wonder if she looks concerned as much as happy for her.
My mother and Grace had first met when they were teenagers, both staying at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in Manhattan. My mother was just starting out in her career as a fashion model. Grace was studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Even after Grace became a famous movie star, their connection continued. After my mother married my father, they moved to an apartment building on 65th Street in Manhattan where Grace was also living. For a number of years, they remained neighbours, Grace on the eighth floor and my mother and my father on the 18th.
But the wedding day in 1956 was a pivot point in both their lives. After that, Grace left her life in New York, her American family and her career behind for a new life as a princess and mother. My mother, meanwhile, moved with my father and two older sisters to a house on Long Island. It was my father’s idea to leave Manhattan. He wanted more space, to build his "dream house" by the waterfront. But for my mother, the move meant leaving her social life and career. Out on Long Island, she was stranded.
I was born in 1959. I was a 10lb baby and my mother was only 5ft 4. She had to have a C-section in order to deliver me and then an emergency hysterectomy. After the trauma of my birth, my mother was never the same. She started keeping my older sister home from school, thinking she was sick. As soon as I was old enough to attend school, the pattern repeated itself. I remember days and months spent at home in my bed, not allowed to get up and play or go out. According to my school reports, there were full years where I didn’t attend school at all.
Growing up, I remember a mother who was always so distant and reserved, filled with a kind of unshakeable sadness. I remember always tiptoeing around her, terrified she might break if I made too much noise. It was only after her death that I learned my mother had likely been suffering from undiagnosed postpartum psychosis, a rare but devastating condition in which mothers experience delusions after the birth of a child. My mother was convinced I was sick. In fact, I was fine but my mother was not.
It was the early 1960s by then and no one knew what to do about her. The words "mental illness" were never used. There were no resources, and no support, only stigma and silence. My father was mostly absent, preoccupied with his work and his social life. As a result, my mother’s illness went untreated and her health continued to deteriorate. I’m told Princess Grace came to visit us at our home on Long Island when I was a baby and that she held me in her arms, but she lived so far away. During their years of separation, my mother wrote letters to Grace and she, in turn, wrote long letters to my mother, the envelopes arriving from the palace stamped with the gold and red seal of Monaco. Even so, Grace could have had very little idea of how impossible our lives had become as a result of my mother’s illness.
When I was 14, I escaped from home, moving to Manhattan to live with my sister, determined to attend school. Eventually, my parents divorced and my mother ended up following me into the city. But as the years went on, her behaviour became more and more extreme. She gave away the little money she had to evangelists she watched on television and lost the rest of it in bad investments. She became terrified of germs, dressing all in white for purity, and covered everything in her small apartment with plastic. Housing was a constant struggle and she bounced around from one apartment to the next. Then, my mother suffered two unbearable traumas in quick succession: the death of her daughter, my elder sister, in 1979, and the death of her friend Grace in 1982, both in car accidents. It was more than my mother’s fragile health could withstand.
In 1985, she began living at a homeless shelter after being hospitalised for a psychotic episode. The shelter was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, only a few blocks from where she had once stayed at the Barbizon with Grace. We tried to do whatever we could to help my mother and to persuade her to move out of the shelter and into housing, but she wouldn’t listen. She had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – and she was refusing all medicine and assistance. Eventually, she was legally required to move to an adult home due to a heart problem. When she died a few years later, of complications from cancer, my grief affected me so profoundly that I couldn’t be on my own for any length of time without being overwhelmed by tears.
There was so much unresolved between us, so much I still didn’t know or understand about her life. I began researching my mother’s career, trying to figure out what had happened to the beautiful and glamorous young woman, the person she’d been before my birth. Initially, I tracked down the magazines in which she had appeared as a model, searching for her beautiful features. But after my children got older and left home, I began to study her life in earnest. I retraced her footsteps, to Ohio, where she grew up, and to the Barbizon Hotel where she lived with Grace. I tried to speak to anyone still alive who had known her in her younger days. I met with medical professionals, learning that my mother had textbook symptoms of postpartum psychosis, not schizophrenia as we’d always been told.
As part of my journey, I decided to go to Monaco, to see the places my mother had visited, and the cathedral where she had stood beside Grace on the most important day of her life. The cathedral was smaller than I’d imagined from the photographs. Once inside, I tried to picture all the hundreds of guests packed into the aisles as Grace took the short walk from the entrance to the altar on her father’s arm, the church filled with hydrangeas, lilacs and lilies. I knew she was buried in the church, and after paying my respects, I walked back out into the bright Mediterranean sunlight.
And that’s when I saw it. Ahead of me was a large marker with the black and white photograph of the wedding on display. There was my mother by Grace’s side, watching her friend closely, making sure Grace felt loved and supported on the day everything changed. And there in the warmth of the sunlight, standing overlooking the wide blue waters, I had a feeling of rounding a circle. I knew I could never change the sadness of my mother’s life, but maybe, by learning and writing down the details of her story, I could find a kind of peace that would set both of us free.
The Bridesmaid's Daughter by Nyna Giles is out now.

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