Legacy of Grief

The power of syntax, rage, and intergenerational trauma

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

In Becoming Myself, Irvin D. Yalom recalls a late night when he was fourteen: his father had a painful heart attack, and he waited with his mother for the doctor to arrive, since they still made house-calls in those days. When his mother was frantic with distress, he writes, she reverted to “primitive thinking,” needing to find someone to blame. “You killed him, you killed him!” she let the boy know as he cowered from her onslaught, her “volcanic rage” raining down on him .

His father recovered and lived another twenty-three years. I think about my father and his mother. I think about immigrant ancestors, syntax, and rage.

My father told me his mother hated him. From what I had seen, Farmor, his mother, became giddy with pleasure when he telephoned her, which was almost never. Her home, two-thousand miles away in the American Midwest, was a shrine to her two boys, alongside her devotion to the King of Sweden. Farmor’s English was passable, but she read only the Swedish newspapers and Swedish books, and I suspect Uncle Oscar picked out the English language greeting cards she sent her grandchildren. Words were sometimes inadvertently reversed or rearranged when she spoke, well over sixty years after her 1914 arrival at Ellis Island.

In You Will Never Be NormalI relate my father’s conversation with me. “It’s the God’s honest truth, I’m telling you,” my dad insisted. “My brother Oscar must have been about one year old and he started choking on some food, he turned blue one day, and my mother, she started screaming and running around yelling ‘Leopold, Leopold, do something!’ I was seven years old and she scared me, I didn’t know what to do. Then she picked him up and he started coughing and he spit the food out and started crying. My mother looked at me with such hatred, then, as she held Oscar to her. She said, ‘Why couldn’t you be the one to choke?’ and I knew she hated me from that day on, for the rest of my life.”

I could see his rage and the deep sorrow on his face as Dad finished his story and gulped another drink. He never spoke to his mother about that incident, about what she said when she was terrified. He told me he knew what he knew, that she hated him. 

Granted, these terrified women reverted to blame, but were they actually, unwittingly, blaming themselves? No one ever challenged them, no one ever asked Did you really mean to say that?

Was it syntax? Did she mix up you and I? Was Farmor speaking to Leopold in Swedish? Was it my dad who mixed up the syntax? In school, he was held back and repeated kindergarten in order to learn English; he struggled with two languages as a seven-year-old first-grader.

In the 1890’s, when Farmor was a little girl living in Sweden, she was nearly two years old when her newborn baby brother died, and she was one year older when the next baby, a sister, died. Farmor then lost her only friend and playmate, her five year-old brother, when she was four years old, and her mother must have been even more inaccessible and remote in her grief: three deaths in three years. It is no stretch to imagine that Farmor re-enacted what she witnessed as a young and lonely child, probably unconsciously, and in deep pain: It should have been her.

When my mother was dying in the hospital in northern California and my father refused to visit her, we children were constantly with her. My sister had medical power of attorney, consulting with me as the family RN. When a morphine drip was started to help with my mother’s suffering, she no longer cried out incessantly in pain. When she cried out now, it was for Leo, her husband. “Where is Leo?” Instead of “Help me, help me,” it was now “Leo, Leo, where is Leo?”

I phoned my father from the hospital cafeteria to tell him that Mom was on continuous morphine for pain, that she was asking for him, and we had family members to drive him the ten miles to the hospital to see her.

“She was crying day and night with her pain and nothing was helping, Dad, that’s why they started the morphine drip.”

“You’re killing her, she doesn’t need morphine. You’re killing her, Catherine,” he said loud and clear. I felt like he’d whacked me in the head. From behind. What the hell?

“You’re killing her, Catherine. You’re killing Momma.”

He repeated this accusation for six years, up to the time of his own death, even though we had many calmer conversations about how morphine drips work on pain. Did he really believe I would kill my mother? Or that I had an impossible influence at their hospital? Or was he stuck in his own stubbornness after he’d uttered the words in the first flush of his terror and rage that she was really going to die? I never asked if my truth-telling seemed lethal to him. 

These are very distinct scenarios; different motivations for assigning blame in moments of fear and rage, complicated by histories of enduring, unacknowledged grief. 

However it works — these variations of primitive thinking, syntax, rage, and the stamp of pain this emotional abuse leaves on generations of children — a particular echo catches my attention throughout all these times and locations: It should have been me.