(This post is part of a serial blog. Please see previous post: Generation One: Me)
My mother, Donna Lugg, was born on the first day of summer in 1930. If the weather that day would serve as a foreshadowing of her life, it would have been full of the promise of warm days, ripening fields, open-air laughter and running around barefoot. Yet, there would be a certain electricity in the air; a hint of a coming storm, the smell of thunder and downpours, of mud gathering where the sidewalks meet the grass.
During the first decade of Donna’s life, these world events were taking place:
- Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; vanishes five years later
- Air conditioning was invented
- The Lindbergh baby was kidnapped
- Pluto was discovered
- Scientists split the atom
- Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany
- The Loch Ness monster was first sighted
- FDR launched the New Deal; assassination attempt on his life
- Prohibition ended
- Monopoly board game introduced by Parker Brothers
- Social Security was enacted
- King Edward VII abdicated the throne in England
- Hindenberg disaster
- “War of the Worlds” Broadcast
- Kristallnacht in Germany; all German boys must join “Hitler Youth”; Anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws enacted
- World War II begins
It was a time of exciting scientific discoveries, aviation feats, and the birth of social programs in the United States that would go on to benefit citizens to this day. However, increasing political unrest in Germany and throughout Europe would lead to what would come to be known as World War II.
During this time, my mother was running around the neighborhood, climbing and hanging from her knees from the tops of billboards, surreptitiously picking hairs off the backs of people’s heads in church and collecting them in her hymnal, and probably alternately playing and fighting with her brother and sister. She grew up in a house on Folger Street in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; her parents remained married until death parted them in 1964.
This is where the story gets mushy, because in order to talk about generation two, I also need to talk about generation three: my grandmother, Ruth, who died (wrongfully) just shy of the age of 52.
Ruth had manic-depression, as it was called then. I don’t know what age she was at the onset, or if the severity increased as she grew older. All I have are stories from my mother about the cycle of mania returning once a year as faithfully as the seasons. The mania must have been severe, and quite frightening to a child. My mother and her siblings hid under the kitchen table while their mother raved. There was some story involving waving a pickle around, and also about singing under a nursing home window in the middle of the night.
These stories frightened me, first-hand and once-removed. I can only imagine how scared and rudderless they must have made my mother feel as she lived in them. The only reliable thing about her mother was that once a year she would become absolutely unhinged and unreliable, and have to be carted off to what was then Northern Hospital for the Insane. Did she go willingly? Did she have to be coerced? I don’t know.
I can only imagine the teasing my mother must have been subjected to from kids at school. She was extremely sensitive to the term “looney bin,” so I can only speculate that her classmates tormented her with pointing out that her mother had been sent there.
In 1951 at the age of 21, my mother married my father, William Pape. They set up residence in the small “former two-car garage” that my father had purchased. At some point, my mother was diagnosed with depression and began seeing a psychiatrist. This could have been after the births of her first children: a set of fraternal twins in 1955. Three months premature and without the modern neo-natal care or equipment, my brother David died after only a day. My sister Diane, weighing only 2 pounds 15 ounces and residing in a hospital incubator for the first three months of her life, boldly staked her claim on this earth and has never stopped asserting it since. She fights when she needs to, and lets things roll right off her back when she doesn’t. And she’s wise enough to know the difference.
It would make sense that a dormant depression would be awakened by a traumatic birth and loss, and months and months of tense caring for the premature, tentatively surviving infant. I remember a story about Diane having pneumonia at a few months old and nearly dying, and how the local pharmacist delivered medicine to the house in the middle of the night. This story was told more than once (and I’ve probably still gotten the details wrong), but it goes to show how frightening the experience must have been. I can relate to that fear, being a mother myself of a child for whom we had to call 911. That luxury hadn’t been available in those days.
But wee Diane survived and thrived. She had a beautiful singing voice and was the featured soloist and star of many childhood plays and community performances. This is one thing of which the next child to be born, Janice, was very jealous.
Janice was two years younger than Diane. She began having fainting spells upon the onset of menstruation and was diagnosed with epilepsy. She was a miserable person (see Once Upon a Bedroom for more information about her). I’m not sure when she, like our grandmother Ruth, was also diagnosed with manic-depression, now called Bipolar Disorder. By the time I was born 13 years after that, Janice had long dropped the -ice from her name and insisted upon being called Jan. If anyone called her by her legal name, she became almost hostile. I wouldn’t understand the reason for this until I was fifteen years old.
Here’s where Jan’s trauma became everybody’s trauma. After the birth of her second child, Jan began having flashbacks of being repeatedly sexually abused. She began to remember each rape and sodomy incident committed against her by her fourth grade parochial school teacher (who, naturally, called her “Janice”). She would fall to the floor as if possessed, writhing and screaming and crying. Our mother moved in with her, her husband, their daughter and the new baby. Soon it became evident that the children had to be gotten out of the house. My niece, who was five at the time, came to stay with us. Her new baby brother came too. But when he began crying in the family cradle in the middle of the night and no one went to comfort him, I realized it must be my responsibility. I woke my dad up, crying, and we went and got the baby. The patriarch of the family sat with his crying teenage daughter and crying infant grandson and tried to fix everything. He called my mom in the middle of the night and I’ll never forget the sad yet firm way he said, “Donna, this is not going to work out.”
It wasn’t long before the baby ended up in foster care for six months. Meanwhile, Jan’s flashbacks continued. She claimed to be seeing the spirit of our dead grandmother, Ruth. Poltergeist-like activity was reported to happen when Jan was around. Sleeves of coats braided themselves in the closet. Writing appeared on mirrors in lipstick. Cassette tapes flew across the hair salon and unraveled. My mom, sister, and brother in-law claimed to be the vessel for messages from the beyond via “automatic writing.” Rocking chairs rocked by themselves. Lights shot through the living room in the night.
In short, Jan’s trauma was driving everybody batshit crazy. Most of all, our mother.
For years I only looked at Jan’s trauma through my own eyes. I was scared out of my wits with the unpredictable crazy stuff that was going on. I was pissed that she had taken my mother away from me. I was appalled that as a teenager they expected me to take on the role of mother to two young children (although my five year-old niece and I had such a strong and special bond it was actually secretly a pleasure). But I wanted nothing to do with having to mother a newborn baby at age 15!
I got to a point where I tried to look at the trauma through Jan’s eyes. But her miserable outlook on life, her bipolar disorder, and her general unpredictability and tendency to embarrass me clouded my vision considerably.
It wasn’t until many years later – – quite recently, in fact – – that I began to look at the trauma through our mother’s eyes. One of my mom’s oft-quoted sayings was, “A mother is only ever as happy as her unhappiest child.”
As a parent (a mother, especially), our greatest hope is for our children to grow up safe, healthy, happy, and have a good life. My mother must have felt like such a failure! How could her daughter have been sexually abused and she not even so much as have intuited it? She hadn’t been able to protect her; she hadn’t even known! And now when the flashbacks were coming, there was nothing she could do to help her, to ease the terror and pain and shame. She herself completely unraveled.
Everybody was able to come home in June or July that year, as I recall. The newborn (now six months old) and his sister were able to return to live with Jan. My mother came back to our house. And so did I (I moved out for a few months, living with a family down the street for whom I did babysitting).
It was shortly after this that my mother “took to the couch.” There is just no other way to sum up where her life went after the trauma. She complained of back pain, and lying down was the only thing she wanted to do. She couldn’t clean the house or cook any meals or go anywhere because of the back pain. She tried all manner of pills. When Diane and her family would come visit from the Twin Cities, she wouldn’t leave the couch or participate in any activities with her other two grandchildren. She wouldn’t come out to eat with the family, merely requesting we bring her back a hamburger. She did not attend my high school graduation, or musical performances I took part in my first two years of college. She stopped visiting Diane and the grandchildren in the Twin Cities. She stopped attending writer’s gatherings. Her friends stopped coming to the house.
She went to all manner of doctors and specialists. All but the unscrupulous ones told her, “There’s nothing wrong with your back.”
That’s because she was depressed!!! Her spirit was broken! How could I not see this until recently?!
She remained in this state of depression pretty much until the end of her life in 2015. After several years on the couch, she did experience two manic episodes, which were extremely frightening for me to witness. (According to psychiatry, you need only have one episode of mania to be officially diagnosed bipolar.) I rode with her and my father to take her down to Milwaukee to see an osteopath about her back. I remember being afraid she might jump out of the moving car onto the interstate. She raved the whole way, and in the waiting room, and to the doctor. I remember pleading with his eyes, “Please, please, please! Can’t you see there is something wrong with her? Can’t you do something?” He didn’t. Not for her mental health or for her back. On the way home we stopped at a McDonald’s to use the restroom and she was telling everyone in there how she was a famous author. She made me go out to the car and get one of her books to prove it. I remember the way those women looked at me, hurrying their staring daughters away.
Another time, her back pain was miraculously cured! See! She could do the hula hoop! She actually left the couch and the house, and went with her friends for a week to the School of the Arts in Rhinelander where she used to teach a children’s writing class. Word on the street was that she was asking for cigarettes up there (and she never smoked a day in her life). When she came home she mixed toilet paper into my dad’s salad because she thought it was funny.
I didn’t even mention what a trauma it must have been to lose her own mother suddenly, through negligence and malpractice. But I’ll get to Ruth’s story later.
These are the traumas of which I know. I’m sure there were others – – before my birth but never spoken of, and after my birth but hidden from me. How did these traumas affect the DNA that was passed on to me and my sisters? And my nieces and nephew? And my son? What genes have been switched on or off because of residue from these events?