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. 


K. said…
Me, too.

Love you.
Oh, yes. Oh, I agree.
Jen on the Edge said…
I wish for those things too.

Beautifully written!
Zenmomma said…
Beautiful Karen.
Christina said…
Wow, good thing I read that. Mom did not tell me everything, she told me she had found our grandmother; and she never told me she knew why. As for war, she told me it was because of Uncle Buddy that she had issues. I do recall going to peace marches as a child and seeing posters of the Vietnam War and how horrible those images were. I did not learn that Mom had a predjudice bone in her body until I got married and she made a comment that knocked me off my feet. Mom kept me sheltered from a lot and to this day I wish she had not but a part of me is glad she had as I have never been predjudice.
Mrs. G. said…
Yes ma'am...what a beautiful way to bring it home.
Liberrian said…
I wish along with you, Karen.

This comment has been removed by the author.
The effects of war AND love are truly global and multigenerational, aren't they? What a beautiful Mother's Day message, Karen.
Karen, I've been thinking about your grandmother and mother since I read your haunting, beautiful post earlier. I've been thinking that, sometimes, it seems like our mothers and grandmothers show us what we don't want in our own lives, something for us to push against. It's their gift to us. It's made you sensitive and compassionate and loving, seeing or hearing about how they suffered and wishing that things could be different for others who might suffer because they are different, because they're ashamed of their heritage. Your grandmother's and your mother's experiences made you who you are, and you're a wonderful person, Karen. Is this how learning a new way happens? We imperfect humans see what we don't want, what doesn't work, and move toward something else?
Professor J said…
Thank you all for your sweet comments. I think you're right, Laura. Learning a new way happens by moving toward something else--however slowly and imperfectly.
Jodi Anderson said…
Amazing post, amazing story, amazing women. And, the photo is such a treasure and, I imagine, even moreso because of the lives of the people in it.

Thank you for sharing. :)
Sojourner said…
Wow, Karen. I don't remember hearing about your grandmother, before. This is very powerful! Thank you so much for sharing it. And I, too, wish along with you.
Ginaagain said…
Thank you for sharing this with us Karen. I too wish we could learn a new way.
phd in yogurtry said…
Thanks for the personal account of the devastation of war. It tends to go on for generations after. And I agree, that photo looks like it could have been taken recently. Your grandmother's hair style must have been cutting edge in those days. A flapper tells me she had an independent spirit.
Ulrike said…
That is a wondeful post and I so agree with you.
Cha Cha said…
I'm late to the party but just have to thank you for sharing that amazing photo and for writing such a lovely post. This is so powerful.
Janet said…
My grandmother was prejudiced, too...for example, she'd tell me to walk on the other side of the street from the new (and only back then) Chinese restaurant in town so they didn't kidnap me and sell me into white slavery.

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