My Grandmother Was A Radium Girl - Her Life Was Anything But Normal Afterwards
During World War II, my grandmother worked in a factory as a Radium Girl, even though the practice was known to be toxic. Her life after the fact was impacted by the dangerous material.
The story of Emilie Golembiewski is not one of glamour, but one of hardship and overcoming adversity.
I never met my grandmother. All I know of her is from stories I was told, pictures I've seen, memories passed down, and from my phone calls I had with her when I was growing up while she lived in Florida. Emilie Golembiewski was born to Polish migrant parents in 1921. She was one of 13 children, only 11 surviving past infancy. Needless to say, she came from a large family.
Some background on Radium Girls
Radium Girls were women who worked in factories in World War I, using radium-based paint to paint the dials for planes and other machinery. The substance glowed in the dark, which made it ideal for night travel. In order to make the lines and numbers finer, they would put the paintbrushes between their lips, in a process known as "Lip, Dip, and Paint." At the time, no one was aware of the dangers this caused. Not until it was too late, of course.
But the radium caused these women to start to deteriorate. They practically melted away. Some had tumors and aggressive cancer, others saw their jaws falling off. Five workers from a factory in Orange, New Jersey, charged their employers for damages due to occupational diseases caused by the radium paint, but it was settled out of court in 1928. At this point, people knew that the paint was dangerous, but there was no alternative at the time. Radium paint was still used up until the 1960s.
World War II and beyond
Around 1940, my grandmother worked for Sperry Gyroscope in Brooklyn, New York. According to my mother, she had said that they didn't wear gloves because it wasn't deemed necessary. By the time she would go to lunch, there was paint all over her hands, as only so much would wash off. She and her coworkers were regularly consuming radium right alongside their ham and cheese sandwiches, despite the companies knowing how dangerous it was - whether the workers knew, however, is unknown. They didn't have the internet like we do today, so this information wasn't as accessible as it is now.
Sometime after World War II, Emilie met her husband, Anthony Sanacore, who was a decorated war veteran. Together, they had four children, the youngest of which being my mother Laura, and eventually settled in Massapequa, NY.
Over the course of the following years, my grandmother's mental health problems developed. She heard voices, had hallucinations, and paranoia. She had what we would call paranoid schizophrenia. In the 1970s, Sperry Gyroscope contacted the workers, my grandmother and her sister being two of them. They wanted to conduct tests since the use of radium paint had only recently been outlawed to see if there were any harmful side effects from their work. Her sister went, but she did not. In talking with my mother, she believes that her schizophrenia had been a result of radium poisoning, but she never got any definitive answers. She recalls living with Emilie's mental illness firsthand.
"I do know that I was only 13 when my mother was having her worst episodes," she recalls. "Also when I was 16 and 17. And 19. She had some really frightening episodes of schizophrenia. When I was 19, she installed deadlocks on our house in Massapequa one day while I was at work. This way she could lock us in the house. 'They' being the people in the basement. Two of which were President Kennedy and a family friend's father.
"Then eventually she would get hospitalized, and would get kind of 'normal' again."
My mother also recounted a time where Emilie locked her inside of their house, and crashed her car out of fear the "voices" would get her.
"I jumped out the window and drove to the hospitals and received the [house] keys," she remembered. "And [retrieved] my mother. She was uninjured and wandering, so the cops brought her to the hospital."
Meanwhile, my grandfather Anthony was dealing with his own personal turmoil. Following the events of World War II, he suffered from what would today be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, back then, the name for it was "shell shock." And there was no treatment for it. Due to this, he had no way of controlling his emotions, and took it out on his family.
"He was physically abusive," my mother recounts. "He threatened us with a rifle. Plus an axe, a hammer, whatever was available. Nobody knew about PTSD back then."
In 1975, Anthony passed away on the operating table during open heart surgery. My mother recalls how Emilie reacted when finding out her husband was dead.
"She was very calm," she said. "I was cleaning my room, my sisters were out. The phone rang, and I heard her say, 'Oh. Really? Well thank you.' She hung up the phone and called out to me, very nonchalantly, 'Laura? He died.' She might as well have been saying 'Dinner is ready!' I walked into the kitchen and she was calmly leafing through the phone book. 'Now I have to find a funeral home...would you make some coffee?' Just like that.
"I felt a flood of relief. Plus guilt, for feeling relieved."
With her husband deceased, Emilie and her family were now free from an abusive home. But her own inner turmoil continued, as well as her own health issues that were yet to come.
As she got older, Emilie's health deteriorated. Women who had contracted radium poisoning often contracted diseases such as cancer, and they were not very long-lived. Emilie contracted breast cancer, and beat it. She contracted it again, and beat it again. She contracted it yet a third time, and beat that again. It was as if she was telling life that she wasn't ready to go yet.
She lived to see her children have children. She eventually moved down to Florida to live with her sister Charlotte in the Tampa Bay area. I never personally met her. For a long time, my aunt's ex-husband told me and my cousins that she had died. I have no idea why, except maybe that she was Catholic and he looked down on them. When I asked my mother how my grandmother died, she looked at me like I had 20 heads and told me that she was still alive and living in Florida. That's when my mother dialed the phone and told my grandmother that apparently my then-uncle told me that she was dead.
"So, you think I'm dead?" Emilie laughed to 6 year-old me over the phone. "No, not quite yet. God has tried, but I'm not there yet."
I made a point to call my grandmother at least a couple of times a month, trying to catch up with lost time. She never told me about her past as a Radium Girl, her mental struggle, anything like that. She just wanted to know me. I wish I remembered more of these conversations. I wish I had known her more.
Emilie Sanacore (n. Golembiewski) passed away on July 26th, 2006. Not from cancer, but from a heart that just couldn't go on anymore (sorry, Celine). She was 84. I remember not knowing how to react when she passed, as I had never met her. But today, I only feel regret not ever knowing her. But in a way, I do know her through stories and pictures.
I suppose the lesson from this story is to take care of those that you love, as well as a bit of a history lesson about one woman who was a Radium Girl and survived well after what one may have expected. We have read about those factory workers who died, but we never have read about the ones who have lived.