Thursday, August 18, 2011

Family trauma and its ripples

This past spring my only living grandparent, Abbot Yid's octogenarian mother Bubbe, fell and hit her head. In the last few months, she has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers. This culminated in her being flown across the country to California to a nursing home near L.A., where Uncle Milt and his family live.

Everyone in the family has been struggling with their feelings about this. On the one hand there are certainly feelings of family obligation. At the same time, Bubbe is just about the least friendly or warm person you'll ever meet. And there's the longstanding baggage of Zayde's craziness and abusiveness towards his kids that Bubbe, by all accounts, never really protected them from. At best, she was oblivious. At worst, she was an enabler. So there's a lot of conflicting emotions going on. (The fact that none of the siblings get along has not been helping things.)

I can sympathize with Abbot Yid and his siblings. I have never felt all that close to my grandmother. I "love" her inasmuch as I know I'm supposed to, and I care about her well-being. But the reality is I have not felt any real feeling of closeness to her (or from her) since I was a small child. Her general pattern has been to shift her attention to each new grandchild in turn, usually getting bored with us as soon as we start developing our own interests or stop being cute. (An example: Bubbe is really into arts and crafts, something I have historically been supremely incompetent at. Guess who hasn't been invited to do anything with Bubbe in 20 years?) Bubbe is just not all that good at reaching out to, or interacting with, people.

For a long time, I found the whole dynamic with Bubbe very frustrating. I tried to interview Bubbe on occasion  to find out more about her family, her life with Zayde, etc. She shut me down every time. She wasn't interested in introspection; she claimed she didn't remember any of the things I was curious about. She absolutely refused to discuss any "emotional memories" that I asked about. For a family historian, this was, to put it bluntly, hard to swallow. And there were times where I felt very angry about this. I was trying to connect with her the best way I knew how, and she wasn't interested.

Last year, however, something changed. Bubbe seemed to sense that her memory was going and that if she wanted to tell me anything about the family, it was getting to be now or never time. And one of the things she told me blew my mind:

"I was the oldest, but my sister was born right after me. My mother couldn't handle raising an infant and a young toddler at the same time, so she gave me to my grandmother to raise. I spent most of my time with her, going to the markets, chatting with the older folks. I even took vacations with her to the Catskills when my mother and sister would stay behind in Brooklyn."

I was floored. We all knew that Bubbe's grandmother lived with her three daughters in a 3-story house in Brownsville, but no one had ever known that Bubbe was actually raised by her grandmother, not her mother, for most of her childhood.

This couldn't explain away everything of course. Bubbe and her sister have fundamentally different personalities-- her sister is warm, emotionally engaged, and just generally a positive and fun person to be around (all the things that Bubbe, in general, isn't). But for me, the revelation that Bubbe's mother had not acted like her mother, and consequently had not taught or shown her how to be a mother, was powerful, and I started to process a lot of our interactions and my frustrations through this prism. If Bubbe's emotional connection with her mother had been that bifurcated, maybe that went a long way towards explaining her ambivalence with her children and grandchildren. (To say nothing of what emotional and family models her Old Country grandmother may have passed along to her.)

This model of mothers "abandoning" their children came up again for me recently when I found a new  genealogy record online for Mama Yid's Hungarian grandmother dating from 1888, the oldest record we have for the family in the United States. In it, the grandmother and two of her siblings (aged 6, 10 and 3) were being admitted into the Hebrew Orphan Asylum by their mother. Under cause, it said, "Widow, unable to bring up children."

The interesting thing is that we have a 1900 census record for the same family showing them all together, so the mother must have been able to get them out after a while. But still, the fact that Mama Yid's grandmother, a woman she could never feel any attachment to, and who engaged in some fairly dirty tricks with her siblings, in-laws and grandkids, had an extremely traumatic childhood, first losing her father in Hungary (according to family stories, from a farming accident) and then after making it to America, being given up by her mother to an orphanage.

Of course, all these tidbits really amount to is background information. I don't mean to imply that based on these new discoveries that I condemn the mothers who made these hard decisions, or that hard childhoods immunize the daughters from criticism. But it's hard for me to look at either my paternal grandmother, or my maternal great-grandmother, in quite the same way.

Trauma and alienation seem to have a way of repeating themselves. I hope I can do better.

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