I grew up knowing that left-handed women in my family go mad in their fortieth year. I’m not sure anyone explained this to me. The madness of the left-handed McKennedy women was a fact that settled into our knowing. The sun rises in the east, dogs bark, rain is wet, left-handed McKennedy women go mad after forty.
The last mad McKennedy woman was sent away the year I was born. I have no memories of her, yet Agnes feels like mine. She went mad my year. 1961.
Was it because of me? Did her madness begin on the day I was born?
These questions bloomed in my head before I learned to write, during those years when family forced crayons, chalk, and my toothbrush into my right hand, mumbling prayers about left hands, madness, and aunt Agnes.
The other “fact” I grew up knowing was that I should not use my left hand to eat, draw, or write.
“What’s the point in having two hands?” I protested once at dinner. I was six or seven and already burning to use my left hand because they told me I shouldn’t.
“Why?!” I insisted.
Mom and dad stared at each other across the creamed corn and smothered snap beans. Then my brother blurted out, “She’s already gone mad! She’s probably a lefty. You should send her away!”
They grounded Ronald, whose left hand was never restricted, for a week, but “lefty” became his whispered taunt, as I know you’re a lefty threats and See ya lefty! greetings.
I went through school using my right hand in public, especially around family, but in the secret corners of my days, I practiced spelling words in cursive, drawing trees, and brushing my teeth with my left hand. Through those years I asked myself Why do left-handed women in my family go mad? and Will I go mad?
The madness was on my mom’s side of the family: the McKennedy line. Mom’s not a McKennedy and her mom wasn’t either, but by blood they spring from the mad McKennedy women. As do I.
I grew up listening to old people debating how far back the madness goes.
Who knows how many women went mad before Lulie and Cora?
Someone should research our family history.
But no one came forward.
Our Family History
The mad history that was passed down to us began in 1905, with two sisters and a cousin: Lulie Dee, Hattie Jo, and Cora Rue. They were born within eighteen months of each other, lived on the same block, and grew up as a unit, running between houses. Here comes the gaggle of girls! Some of my great-great uncles called them The Triad.
A Note from the Teacher
Cora, the cousin, and the older sister, Lulie, were one year ahead of Hattie in school. Their first-grade teacher sent a disturbing note home to the mothers. In one sweep of her right hand, she admonished the parents for allowing this left-hand deviation and expressed sympathy to them for being parents of left-hand deviants.
What happened next depends on who tells the story. The news wasn’t received equally by the McKennedy sisters, the moms of Lulie and Cora.
Evangeline, Lulie’s mom, protested. “There’s nothing wrong with Lulie! She was born this way, and I won’t allow her to be tortured and retrained.”
Her husband disagreed, and Lulie arrived at school with Cora, where the cousins were instructed to wait at the door until the instructor tied their left hands behind their backs.
Unlike Evangeline, Cora’s mom Kathleen was apologetic. Her parenting anxiety spiked when she read the teacher’s note. To compensate, she greeted Cora at the door after school with the homework/dinner rope.
The spin off stories about The Triad are numerous and contradictory. One constant is Hattie. On the one hand, she’s remembered for her heroic efforts to heal The Triad. On the other, about thirty four years later, she would serve as the catalyst for the left-handed madness theory:
The Triad ate the same things, played in the same spaces, slept in the same beds. Since Hattie is right-handed, it stands to reason that Lulie and Cora went mad because they are the left-handed.
Cora dropped out of school after ninth grade. At sixteen she married Woodrow, a man whose indifference to the debate about the dominant hand allowed Cora to live her left-handed life without judgment inside the walls of her home, just two blocks down from her childhood home.
Lulie finished high school then left for college. Her mother coddled her privately, whispering damnations about the schools, society, and retraining measures.
“They have no business shaming anyone for their nature!”
I can only imagine Lulie’s stupor when in the next breath Evangeline encouraged her to keep up the right-hand ruse at school, around relatives, and especially at church.
They say Hattie knew. Surely that would give Lulie comfort, having a safe space to share her secret and small victories of resistance.
Judging from the consistency of the stories about the shock that shook the community, Lulie’s secret was well-kept for most of her teen years. The stories go something like this: Tommy, from around the corner, was at college with Lulie. He came home for summer break and spilled Lulie’s lefty beans.
Maybe there’s more to Tommy, but I don’t like him. He’s a traitor, especially since he witnessed the torment Cora and Lulie suffered from first grade on. He had to know his words would hurt Lulie.
The beans spilled at the dinner table, where he told his parents he saw Lulie taking notes with her left hand in biology class. His mom Bet told her sister Louise, who told her friend Lucile, who told the preacher’s wife… By Sunday church, the whole congregation knew: Lulie’s a lefty! This was before anyone strung together the notion that the left-handed McKennedy women would go mad.
The shockwave in the community pushed The Triad back together.
The threesome against the world!
Hattie started college the year after Tommy spilled Lulie’s secret. When Lulie and Hattie visited home from college, they spent most of their time at Cora’s. Lulie’s father barely looked at or acknowledged Lulie. He threatened to discontinue payments for her university courses. Somehow Evangeline managed to stop that nonsense.
Lulie and Hattie graduated, then moved away to take jobs and marry (it’s unclear which came first).
Cora bore Woody four children and worked as his bookkeeper for the family lumber business. Although Cora was shamed out of school, she was sharp as a tack, good at math. With her left hand! When Woody was called to serve in the Second World War, he left Cora with a fifth baby in her belly and a business to manage.
Woody didn’t return from the war.
The Madness of the Left-Handed Cousins
Cora’s madness was reported first. The news about Woody was hard on the whole family, especially Cora. Winona, Cora’s first-born, and Cora’s mom, Kathleen, made arrangements for Cora at a sanatorium.
I think Winny knew better. You don’t raise your baby brother as your own son if you expect your mom will return. Winny took over the lumber business.
The news of Lulie came a few months later, in September of 1946. Lulie and her husband had no children. Some blame Lulie, but who really knows? Maybe Cal was sterile. Maybe they didn’t want children. Cal returned from the war and after two months (and two days shy of her forty-first birthday) he had Lulie committed to an asylum.
The year of the cousins’ madness coincided with Abram Blau’s maddening publication, The Master Hand, which warned that left-handed children would suffer severe and life-long mental problems.
I doubt any of the women or men of the town read the treatise, but when they got wind of the theories, they stood, shaking their heads, forming a W with their arms, palms to the sky, whispering Cora and Lulie’s names.
And Hattie’s just fine, don’t you know.
In a family of Irish and Scottish blood, thick with legends and folklore, the story of Lulie and Cora sufficed to put the narrative of the mad McKennedy legend on the loom.
In 1956, Winona, Cora and Woody’s first-born, went mad. Like her mom, Winny suffered retraining in the schools. She went mad days after her fortieth birthday. Indisputable, was a word used after her breakdown at a church gathering, where she accused her cousin Fanny of making moves on her husband, Ed. Most blamed Cora for allowing Winny to use her left hand, and all of the family leaves out the part where Ed divorced Winny less than a year later. Winny’s family business and Ed’s attentions went to Fanny.
The next reported case was a year or two later, still in the fifties. We don’t know much about her history, except that she was a lefty, descended from McKennedys through Geraldine, mother of Margaret, mother of Bernice, mother of Harriet, mother of Suzanne. Susan? Her name varies depending on who’s telling it. Her birth year is also foggy. Some say Suzanne went mad in her fortieth year, others say she made it to forty five. Her family didn’t send her away at first, but then she nearly burned down the house.
It’s not safe to keep her.
Finally, in 1961, the year I was born, aunt Agnes.
My Left Hand
As I listened to these stories growing up, I would massage and stretch my left hand. I wanted to champion the left hand, to protect my hand —all the left hands!— from this family lore. I wondered if there were fewer left-handed McKennedy women now because they truly weren’t or because they trained themselves not to be. The matter-of-factness of the voices that told stories to perpetuate the legend incensed me.
I came out as a lefty after my first year of college. My mom’s sisters accused me of being a lefty on purpose.
“You’re not really left-handed. You’re just rebelling!”
My mom was clearly annoyed with me, a fearful You’ll go mad! stitched on her face. My brother made snarky remarks openly, and my dad had a permanent smirk on his face. Was he proud of me? After I came out, I understood that dad never embraced the family legend, and that mom’s family lore had probably driven a wedge between my parents. Were they taking bets on my impending madness?
I needed to escape. I remembered the graduation card from my mom’s aunt Deidre. She was always prompt with cards and gifts for special occasions. At the bottom, she wrote, “Come visit me anytime.”
“Does she mean it?”
Mom shrugged, still annoyed, then looked up her phone number. “Ask her yourself.”
Great Aunt Deidre
Three days later, I drove ten hours to aunt Deidre’s house on the bay.
I arrived as the sun was setting. My great aunt Deidre was on point.
“Drop your bags here,” she said pointing at a spot in the foyer as she hurried me through the house to her deck where two glasses and a bottle of wine waited for us. Surely she heard I came out, but we finished our wine and the sunset without talking about left hands.
Dinner was ready and waiting in the oven. Baked oysters, creamy shrimp casserole, and broccoli. I realized as I saw dinner come out of the oven aunt Deidre was my most exotic relative. That truth persists.
I honestly never suspected a thing. She hid it well. I may have never known if I hadn’t asked Deidre for her shrimp recipe after dinner.
The Shrimp Recipe
“Sure. Go fetch a tablet and a pen from my study.”
When I returned with the tablet and pen, she had refilled our wine glasses and was holding up the card from her recipe box.
“Is this OK?” I asked, offering her the pen and tablet.
“Perfect,” she said, pushing my glass to me and swaying around her stool to sit with the card and tablet.
I was taking a sip when through my goblet I saw her pick up the pen with her left hand! She started writing.
I paused a bit too long with the sip because she saw me see her. An amused look spread across her face, not unlike the smirk dad couldn’t wipe from his face when I came out. She brought the pen to her lips with her left hand.
“But how?” was all I could manage.
“I have my ways,” she answered with a hint that she might share her secrets. Then the business of writing the recipe occupied her. I stared as words spilled with natural ease from her left hand.
“Well, why then?” I asked, sensing she might never spill her secret hows.
“Oh darling, who wouldn’t? They would have driven me to madness long ago with their fear of me going mad.” My eyes were on her hand as she wrote more. “That’s how it happens, you know. You… they say you manufacture… no, that’s not the word… you make it happen…”
“Yes! Manifest! They’re madness manifesters! All their retraining and prejudices.”
“So you write with both hands,” I was in a state of thrill and awe.
“Not if I can help it. Honestly, you don’t write much in front of other people after you’re done with school. Checks. I practiced my signature a lot, but ‘practiced,’ isn’t what you think. It was to get my left hand to sign like my right hand.”
I needed more than a stool, so I staggered to the table and collapsed in a chair, calculating Deidre’s age and thumbing through my memories of her, not a single memory of her writing.
“But eating!” I exclaimed.
“If anyone called me out, I told them I favored European table manners, which isn’t untrue.”
I sat with this news: Deidre, also my most-traveled relative, was a closet lefty. How did she live so many days hiding her dominant hand from her family, especially from her meddling aunts, sisters, and female cousins? How many days? I began calculating her age.
Hearing my thoughts, Deidre announced, “I’m seventy one.” She handed me the recipe. “It’ll be easier for you.”
So they did tell her I came out. “Mom told me that she ‘just didn’t want me to live through…'”
“‘… all those hardships.’ Yeah, yeah. I told myself that for years. I hid my hand for years to avoid the ‘hardships.’ But you know what? That was a hardship. Maybe harder.”
I stared at the recipe without reading it, soaking in Deidre, her story, her grace, what later that evening she would call her grave error when comparing herself to me.
The recipe shook in my left hand, which tingled with something like fear. “I think I made a mistake.”
“Oh, honey, coming out was the right thing to do.”
“No!” The sting in my eyes pulled at my jaws. “I’m not!”
“You’re not what?”
“I’m not left-handed.”
“Because the stories made me so angry! I wanted to prove they were wrong, be left-handed and never go mad.”
Deidre joined me at the table and reached across with both hands.
“And this is how I failed you, isn’t it?”
I looked up, my cheeks wet now. I looked at her realizing she was right. If I had known, maybe forcing my hand wouldn’t have felt necessary.
“I just wanted to help,” I moaned.
Aunt Deidre came out as a lefty on her seventy-forth birthday.
“See, I’m not mad!” she exclaimed as part of her announcement.
This didn’t stop the meddlesome aunts from whispering otherwise. I wanted to tell them you drive us mad! I also wondered if mine wasn’t the madness, pretending to be left-handed to prove them wrong.
Deidre had another secret: her dedication to our genealogical history. She approached the project with a single-minded effort to refute the McKennedy madness, through personal correspondence, medical and school records, and news clippings. The year she came out, she published this family book, naming all of the left-handed McKennedy women she unearthed, the mad and the not so mad, proving that the left-handed madness lore was unfounded.
Predictably, the McKennedy legend lives on in some families, mostly as a weapon. One hissy fit from a left-handed forty-something wife and the husband exclaims, “See? She’s mad!” Or, should a forty-year-old mother who writes with her left hand get too heated in an argument, her son insists, “She’s got the madness.”
Yesterday I celebrated my seventieth birthday. I never undid my coming out. Some family members still think I’m left-handed, especially when recalling that day some thirty years ago at a family reunion when I had a fight with aunt Gladys.
We laid Deidre’s body to rest shy of her ninety-fifth birthday, her only madness the time and money she threw at refuting a family fable that won’t die. I have a collection of letters and notes from relatives about left-handed women now, because I inherited Deidre’s legacy: the copyright of her book. Many are petitions to update the book, which I disregard. The book is perfect as it is. I ponder the fates of Lulie and Cora. Winny and Suzanne. Agnes.
Did the retraining drive Lulie and Cora mad?
Maybe Lulie went mad because Cal couldn’t give her children? Maybe Cora went mad because Woody left her alone with five? By the time Winny, Suzanne, and Agnes came along, they were expected to go mad. What if they just had one bad day beyond their fortieth year and were hauled away because madness was expected?
I wonder especially about Agnes. I know my birth had no bearing on her lot. Deidre couldn’t prove she didn’t go mad, but there were circumstances to consider.
Did anyone consider her broken heart after her fiancé of eleven years bailed? Maybe she needed a friendly ear and a good cry, not a padded room.
I went back to visit Deidre several times before she died. We didn’t speak it or write it, but we forgave each other for whatever might be considered shortcomings. We understood we were on different paths to a common goal: to demystify our mad family history.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021 For more fiction (stories and poems), go to Stories and Poems.
I always thought left-handed people were smarter than us righties. After all, they have to figure out how to negotiate a world that is not designed with them in mind.
Absolutely brilliant, Pennie! What a treatise on family ‘traditions’ that can (and do) become part of the fabric of a family!