Curiosity about a long-lost aunt sent Susan Hadley on an odyssey that would unravel the truth about a decades-old tragedy and bring closure to a family fractured by a secret.

Curiosity about a long-lost aunt sent Susan Hadley on an odyssey that would unravel the truth about a decades-old tragedy and bring closure to a family fractured by a secret.

The Washington, D.C.-based psychologist came to Ohio recently to conduct research for a biography she is writing about her late aunt, Elinor Laughlin Del Vecchio of East Liverpool.

In 1936, Del Vecchio, a mother of two infants, was committed to the former Massillon State Hospital with a diagnosis of “post-partum psychosis.”

“It was a catch-all phrase when they didn’t know enough,” her niece said.

Del Vecchio would remain institutionalized for 41 years.

A mental illness

Hadley, who grew up in Wisconsin, said her mother, Del Vecchio’s sister, only vaguely mentioned that Del Vecchio had a mental illness.

Hadley’s mother died in 2006. She never talked about the past except to say that Elinor played the piano. “Perhaps because her own mother died when they were young,” said Hadley. “I think they had a difficult life.”

Hadley’s search for her aunt began in earnest after her brother mailed her their grandfather’s obituary, which contained a fleeting reference to Elinor.

“One of the difficulties is she was simply referred to as ‘Mrs. Del Vecchio,’ ” she said.

But once a person is born, not even silence or death can totally erase their existence.

“I’ve learned even though a person isn’t alive, there are traces of them,” Hadley said. “For years, I plugged her name in various (computer) search engines.”

Hadley caught a break when she learned of the existence of Massillon State Hospital. She caught a second break while going through her late mother’s effects, a piece of paper bearing a birth date for “Sarah Elinor” fell from an old family Bible.

With help from Massillon Public Library genealogy specialist Jean Adkins, Hadley scoured Massillon State Hospital patient records, probate court records and burial records maintained by the Stark County Health Department.

‘You are my sunshine’

In 2008, Hadley received a stunning phone call: An employee from the Stark County Health Department informed her that Elinor Del Vecchio still was alive.

Upon her release from Massillon State in 1977, Del Vecchio lived in a group home and, later, at the Colonial Nursing Home in Canton.

Hadley flew into town that next week to meet her.

“She was funny, amazing,” she said. “Colonial Nursing Home took such good care of her. She was able to remember who she was and where she came from. She was still playing the piano. Every night she played ‘You are My Sunshine’ before she went to bed.”

There was another surprise to come.

Del Vecchio’s husband, John Floyd Del Vecchio, a golf pro in East Sparta, died in 1937. The couple’s two children, John F. Del Vecchio Jr. and Sandra Del Vecchio Berkley, were raised by a paternal aunt.

Hadley said Randy and Kathy Heckert, co-owners of the bed and breakfast where she stays while in Canton, helped her find them.

A daughter's story

The news about her mother ended a painful mystery for Berkley that had overshadowed her life.

“It was a week before my 72nd birthday,” Berkley recalled. “Earlier, my brother called and said some woman called him and claimed our mother was alive. He didn’t believe it. He thought it was a hoax.”

Berkley took a chance and called Hadley, who confirmed that Elinor Del Vecchio was very much alive.

“It was amazing,” Berkley said. “I never thought I’d see her. I didn’t know anything about her. I never knew she had two sisters and a brother.

“My (aunt) never had one good thing to say about our mother. We were told to forget about her. But in my heart, I couldn’t.”

As a child, Berkley said she was led to believe that Elinor was dead. She learned the shocking truth at 13: Her mother was institutionalized.

“I was devastated,” she said. “And I was scared. I was told her illness was severe. I didn’t tell anyone. I told my husband, but I didn’t tell my kids. But they suspected something. They knew there wasn’t a grave.”

Berkley, who had become a nurse, assumed her mother was dead after her brother contacted Massillon State in the 1980s and was told Elinor had died.

Once she learned the truth, “I booked a flight as soon as I could.”

Berkley was met at the Akron-Canton Airport by her daughter, Amy, who had driven from Chicago to surprise her, and by Hadley.

“They looked like two angels,” she said, laughing.

‘I think she knew’

The next morning, the three went to the nursing home.

“We walked into the room where there were several women,” Berkley recalled. “Susan asked me if I could recognize her. I said ‘no’ because I had never seen her.

“When I found her, I knelt down and told her who I was. She looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘I think you’re a stranger, but I really like you.’ It was amazing to see her, to be able to touch her. I just needed to touch her.

“After a while, she put up her arms as if to hug me. I think she knew.”

Berkley was 5 months old when Elinor was hospitalized. She remains angry at her aunt, who died in 1993.

“I can’t tell you what I said when I found out my mother was still alive,” she said. “She wasn’t loving or kind. My father’s mother was wonderful to us, and he had a younger sister who was wonderful to us. But I wasn’t told about my mother. She was very talented. I didn’t know she was a trained concert pianist who played on the radio, KDKA in Pittsburgh.”

Berkley said Elinor seemed to have a special affection for granddaughter Amy.

“She loved Amy,” she said. “Susan (Hadley) told me that my mother told her that (Del Vecchio’s husband) ‘Floyd’ loved her, and that she had two children, ‘Johnny and Sandra.’ She still had her family in her mind.”

Elinor Del Vecchio died on Jan. 19, 2009. She was 95.

A memorial service in East Liverpool the following March doubled as a family reunion. Then in October, there was another big reunion, said Hadley. “We’re just getting to know each other. It’s fabulous.”

Hadley hopes other families can learn from their experience.

“The message of the book is about the transformation of suffering over the generations,” she said. “My mother’s way was to ‘cut it off.’ They didn’t have a way of opening up and dealing with the secrets and the pain.

“Elinor’s story is a story of abandonment and love. If you really love and care for someone in your heart, you really feel that connection, and you can find that connection.”

Berkley agrees.

“The person who raised me didn’t love me,” she said. “If you lose your parents or someone you love, you should always keep them in your heart and hope for the best. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid of mental illness, but I was. It’s totally different today.

“You should never give up. Love your family, no matter what and stick together. Don’t give up.”

The Repository