Lizzie Prensky by
(319 Stories)

Prompted By What's in a Name

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My grandmother in 1902

I don’t know when she came to this country from Kovno, Lithuania. She married Sam Sarason in 1895 in St. Louis, MO at the age of 19. Her name was Freya Leah Prensky, but she was called Lizzie in this country. She was very beautiful with dark hair and eyes. Sam loved her the moment he set eyes on her. She was a boarder at his sister’s boarding house, the oldest of five siblings. Her parents were also in the country, but again, I don’t have any information about when any came over. They all settled in St. Louis, but I don’t know why. I know her father was a depressive and died relatively young.

I believe the Featured photo dates from around 1902. She is still quite beautiful, but would already have been the mother of several children. Eventually she had eight. My father, born November 23, 1913, was her youngest.

Baby Kenny, early 1914

Lizzie began showing symptoms of bipolar disease some years before my father was born. Indeed, she had her last two children to “cure” her, as she was less manic with the increased progesterone levels in her body. There was no known treatment at that time. She was in and out of mental facilities by the time my father was eight, permanently institutionalized when he was twelve. I’m certain he never fully understood why, nor dealt with the trauma of being separated from his mother at such a young age. An older sister was called home from college to care for the two youngest children and the household. Though Sam predeceased her, we found in his will that he left instructions to care for his beloved wife and to say Kaddish (the prayer recited for the dead) for her. We also discovered that her very successful younger brother Meyer (who changed the family name to Prentis in 1925 to avoid the rampant anti-Semitism in the auto industry; he was Treasurer of General Motors, which is how most of the family wound up in Detroit – Uncle Meyer found them jobs) paid for Lizzie to be in a private sanatorium. (Uncle Meyer)

My cousin Mimi (Mary Elizabeth) and I are are named for our grandmother, who died in 1947, five years before I was born. My mother told me that my father wept in her arms when he heard the news of her passing. Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European descent) don’t name offspring after living relatives so that, according to legend, the Angel of Death won’t get confused and take the wrong person when coming for her prey.

I always liked the name Elizabeth, but was NEVER called Lizzie. From the day of my birth, I’ve been called Betsy, unless my mother was angry at me. Then it was, pointedly…”ELIZABETH ANN!” My pediatrician teased me and called me “Princess Elizabeth”. That was okay too.

As I grew older and learned something about my namesake, I worried that I might follow in her mental footsteps. I remember rehearsing for “Arsenic and Old Lace” during 11th grade. I played Elaine, the love interest. I dated a boy who played Jonathan, the evil Boris Karloff character. We sat outside the rehearsal on hall patrol desks, chatting. I told him I worried about my grandmother’s illness being hereditary and that I would also “crack up”. One of my favorite lines from that show was, “insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops”. I could relate. But I was being melodramatic.

I traced the history of bipolar disease throughout four generations of the family. I worked on my mental health. I watched and worried about my younger child, who does suffer from severe depression; she has a Bipolar II (without mania) diagnosis. The worry never goes away, but she is grown now and I can only listen, lend support and remain an optimist.

Lizzie’s grave, outside of St. Louis, MO

Nothing focuses one’s mind quite like seeing your name on a headstone. May she rest in peace that eluded her during her life.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving


  1. John Shutkin says:

    A really moving story, Betsy (plus a great line about insanity form “Arsenic). And one I can particularly resonate to. As I illistrated in a story a few years ago, I, too, located a headstone with my family name on it. I found it creepy, but your last two sentences are beautiful.

    Also, one of my daughters is named Elizabeth and we originally called her Lizzie. But she chose to change her nickname to Libby when she was about nine; not becasue she didn’t like her name, but because there were two other Lizzies and one Izzie in her class and she was tired of “sharing” her name. And, bless her, it has stuck.

    And, as always, I am struck by the family pictures you have included that so well illustrate and illuminate your story. Lizzie is indeed beautiful. Methinks that, happily, you inherited her looks rather than her mental condition.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Elizabeth is one of those names with SO many possible nicknames, John (including Betty, Beth, obviously Betsy, Libby, Lizzie, Lilibet, etc). All appropriate, just a matter of preference, family and personal taste. I don’t have my grandmother’s coloring (on either side of the family; both had dark skin and eye color), so an am amalgam of looks, but thank you for the compliment. As I mentioned, I’ve worked on mental health. Talking with a friend at lunch the other day, she commented that she thought many with an “artistic temperament” do so, successfully (we are sensitive people). And she’s a therapist by training!

  2. Betsy, it is sad to know that your namesake suffered. She was indeed beautiful but she even posed unsmiling in the photo, quite unlike you in your photo!

    I have a friend named Mary Elizabeth who is called Ma’lis which I think is lovely!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I think photos took long exposures in those days, Dana, so people were often unsmiling and stiff. But I agree, it is sad that she had no comfort or relief from her chemical imbalance. I am grateful there is help these days!

      Ma’lis is lovely!

  3. Suzy says:

    Betsy, I just wrote a comment to you on MY story about how envious I was of the name Elizabeth because it had so many nicknames, as you have now listed in your reply to John. Thanks for this story about your grandmother, for whom you are named. Sad that she suffered from an illness with no treatment at that time, and good that you are taking care of your own mental health.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, lots of nicknames for Elizabeth, Suzy. After reading “Little Women”, I went through a short-lived “Beth” phase. I think we must all look out for ourselves, one way or another. Having never known Lizzy, I think of her as a tragic figure.

  4. Marian says:

    Beautiful photos and story, Betsy. My niece is Elizabeth, and as a child she was called Lizzie and is now Liz most of the time. It is sad and frightening about bipolar illness, and I feel for your grandmother and understand your anxiety and focus on mental health. There is bipolar illness in Dick’s family, apparent in his mother, his former wife, and one of his daughters. It’s a cruel and arbitrary roll of the dice for those affected, but these days the daughter is on modern medication and does very well.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Mare. Tracing the mental illness across the generations gave me pause. It affected at least one of my dad’s brothers (maybe a second, who we didn’t know well; he was off in certain ways, but perhaps not bipolar), one of that brother’s daughters, one of my dad’s first cousins, one of my first cousin’s sons…yes across many generations. But as you rightly point out, there is treatment for it now.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    What an empathetic portrait of you Grandmother Lizzie—she was indeed beautiful, the love you grandfather retained for her touching, and the suffering she endured so sad. I can understand how you might think a name could carry other implications for your own mental health, but fortunately not the case for you. And I hope those on the family who do struggle with mental health issues (oh so many do in the world) find a way to manage through them. My sister’s middle name was Elizabeth, and a great niece is Eliza—lots of company in that name in various forms indeed.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      There is treatment for the disease now, Khati, but it can be brutal. I hope the research continues to find better treatments.

      No lack of nicknames for Elizabeth. I do love the name but always found it a bit too grand for someone as petite as me. I’m perfectly happy to be Betsy.

  6. Princess Elizabeth,
    There is a lot of life and resilience in your family story. Sad that your namesake suffered with the bipolar, without modern treatment options (her treatment was to bear more children), and how it progressed until she was confined (lost) for life. I like how you reflected on how your father may have dealt with his missing mother, and how you reflected in your teens as you rehearsed in Arsenic and Old Lace about the inherited potential. I like how Uncle Meyer was a star (with a changed name). It seems your family hung together and rallied around.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Rally they did, Jon. One thing I’ve always admired about my father’s family, no matter what paths they took in their lives (and believe me, they were varied), they really looked out for one another and hung together. I took that lesson very seriously and am friends with all my cousins (I am the youngest of this large generation) and try to know their children as well. They know that I am the family historian and wear that title with pride.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    My husband and I have similar stories in our family trees. I always wonder what their lives would have been like had they lived in modern times.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Modern medicine has made great strides, Laurie. I think life would have been so different for my grandmother in this era, but now we can be only be grateful for how far we’ve come and take advantage of it.

  8. Hah! I don’t think many of our younger readers (who join Retrospect 20 years from now) will have a clue as to what a “hall patrol desk” was! That is the kind of “side detail,” unnecessary but very pertinent, that makes reading these memoirs fun for me.
    On the whole it was not a light-hearted or fun exploration, of course, but a very thoughtful and thought-provoking dive into the subject matter. Thanks.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Indeed, Dale, “hall patrol desk” is a dated reference, but that anecdote took place first semester of my junior year in high school – 1968, when I, too was a relic! The rest is not a happy story, but started well, and now we have effective treatment for the chemical imbalance that plagued my grandmother and runs through my family. I take some comfort from that.

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