Professor J's Place

10 May, 2010

Mothers, Daughters, and War

Maria Butcher (my grandmother) with Mary (my mom)

I resisted writing my usual sappy mother's day post yesterday, but here I am doing it today. The above photo always blows me away. It could have been taken in the 1980's, I think, except for Mama's bathing suit. Instead, it was taken in 1928. My grandmother, Mama told me, was a flapper. 

My grandmother was also depressed. 

She killed herself on December 13, 1941. Actually, she took poison on December 10th and died on the 13th. After years of my mother's annual depression and anger around the 13th, I finally asked mom what year it was my grandmother died. 


"It didn't have anything to do with Pearl Harbor, though, right?"

"It was because of Pearl Harbor. It was because she knew we would soon be going to war with Germany."

Everybody knew that Roosevelt was just waiting for an excuse to go to war in Europe. War on one front served as a gateway to war on another. Sound familiar?

My grandmother was a German. She met my Grandfather during WWI, when his regiment was staying at my Great grandmother's home. She traveled to America at the age of sixteen. She had four children, one of whom was to die in WWII. She was unhappy with my grandfather, and left him at least once. That's about all I know of my grandmother. It was, of course, early on in our understanding of mental illness. She was thought of as having had a nervous breakdown--what we now call a psychotic break. 

My mother was 16 when she watched her mother die horribly. 

It made her who she was. 

You might say it made me who I am, as well. 

I grew up with a mentally ill woman who was emotionally unavailable and full of rage against her mother, herself, God, and the German people. I remember Mama talking about how Germans were treated during the war. I remember her admonishment that a German heritage was "Nothing to be proud of." I remember that internalized racism. I remember her prejudice against the Japanese. 

And now we are at war on two fronts. What are the wars we're in doing to families now? Are there Persian Americans who hate themselves? How many mothers are dying? How many children will grow up with self-hatred? 

And now we are checking the papers of people who are brown. I already know that there are many people of Mexican heritage who hate their brown skin--hate their accents--hate themselves. What do the new immigration laws do for those children?

I suppose it is the human condition. I suppose we will always hate what is different. I suppose we will mostly hate that in ourselves which betrays us as different. 

I wish we could learn to love instead. 

I wish we would build schools and hospitals in Afghanistan instead of bombing it. I wish we could learn a new way. 

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