On Jan. 23, 1943, my uncle, Frank Ebner Gartz, (photo in uniform, above) reported to the draft board in Chicago to start his training for WWII. So began the correspondence between him and family & friends, comprising almost 300 letters going both ways. I’m posting many of these World War II letters, each on or near the 70th anniversary of its writing. To start with his induction, click HERE.

This blog began in Nov., 2010, when I posted a century-old love note from Josef Gärtz, my paternal grandfather, to Lisi (Elisabetha) Ebner, my paternal grandmother, and follows their bold decision to strike out for America.

My mom and dad were writers too, recording their lives in diaries and letters from the 1920s-the 1990s. Historical, sweet, joyful, and sad, all that life promises-- and takes away--are recorded here as it happened. It's an ongoing saga of the 20th century. To start at the very beginning, please click HERE.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More than I could stand

Lil and Fred professed their love to each other on May 17, 1942 ( See He Really Loves Me!They were happier than ever as they entered that summer.  Lil’s parents knew that she would soon be married--that Lillian would no longer be living with them for the first time since her birth. I believe her engagement was a tipping point that unhinged Lil’s Mama’s already unstable personality. 

“Mama,” as Lil called her mother, had always had a volatile temper that could be triggered by Lil’s slightest misstep -- like forgetting to return her mother’s comb or accidentally throwing out a scrap of fabric left on the floor. It was like living on an active volcano, never knowing when Mama would erupt.

But it was in June, 1942, that Lil first noticed signs that her mother’s behavior had progressed from mercurial to bizarre. Separate from her diary, Lil created a “Case History,” on August 15, 1942, recording what she had observed since June, 1942.

First indications of abnormality noticed about 2 months ago. Mother would look out the kitchen window in the morning and ask why they made those "doves" fly around in the alley. Actually was paper being blown about. She thought someone made these "doves" fly about to aggravate her....

She refused to cash any more checks or go shopping saying everyone at the bank and the stores was watching her...that the women in her building were "immoral."

Mama manifests no interest in my approaching wedding.... 

Last week she said I was "Miss America  and therefore, Fred is Mr. America and she is Mrs. America." When I explained this was impossible, she counters that maybe I'm ashamed...and should be proud of the honor.

Lake Como, WI, from Lake Como Facebook
That August, Lil arranged a vacation with her papa and mama to the southern Wisconsin resort of Lake Como, hoping the country air and peaceful surroundings would soothe her mother’s nerves. It turned into two nightmarish weeks--a dizzying sense that Lil had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole where the world was topsy-turvy and no good deed went unpunished. Even as they prepared to leave on Sunday morning, August 9th, Grandma sat sullen and silent in a corner chair as Lil and her Papa scrambled to pack and load the car. When she finally spoke, she said, “If we don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to hit you over the head with something!”

After arriving at their cottage and opening the door, the distinctive odor of gas enveloped them. “They’re trying to kill me!” Grandma screamed, backing out the doorway. 

Lil’s heart clutched at her mother’s paranoid conclusion and dashed to the stove to turn the knobs. “No, Mama. It’s ok. The last guests just didn’t turn the burners all the way off.”

Mama often woke at night, demanding that Lil "tell her the truth," but wouldn't explain what she meant.  She told her husband, "to get out of her sight, he was crooked to her, etc." 

Lil wrote:
One night she woke up and jumped out of bed, yanked on the light and glared at me, saying, "You can't fool me any longer!" She pulled the covers off Papa and accused me of hiding pills in his bed and said to me, "You crrrooook, you!" again for no reason. 

Mama often sat morosely in a corner, head in hands, mouth hanging down. Lil and her papa coddled Mama, taking her for walks, car rides, anything to make her happy, but every attempt was fruitless.“I feel as though nothing I can do will please her,” Lil recorded.

If she or Papa tried to make pleasant conversation, she assailed them with “You’d be better off with plaster in your mouth.” Or “Keep your big mouth shut!”

“It was almost more than I could stand,” Lil wrote.

These are just a few of dozens of bizarre incidents Lillian recorded about that "vacation." 
“I think she’s having a nervous breakdown,” she wrote to Fred back in Chicago. By the end of the trip, Lil, unable to endure any longer the fourteen stressful days of trying to cope with her mother’s unraveling mind and delusional, baseless accusations, fell into tears, sobbing, “You have made these the most miserable two weeks of my life.

After returning home, Lillian continued with her wedding plans, but she had no mother to help or  support her––nor to show even the least enthusiasm for the most momentous, joyous event of Lil's life. To understand more about Lil's mother, it might help to go back in time, and learn a bit about her childhood and what I know about the family dynamics back in Austria. 

Next week: the Müller and Woschkeruscha families.


Debi Austen said...

Wow, what an incredible view you have of their lives. I'm so sorry about Mama and hope things improve for all of them.

Nancy C said...

How very upsetting and disappointing for your mom to be so happy with Fred and their marriage plans and to have that joy crushed with worry over her mother's mental health. I have been wondering whether your mom was an only child, and this makes me think she was. What a burden for her to have to hold both joy and fear in her heart at the same time.

Marian kurz said...

There is no rational to mental illness which makes it even harder to cope with and in those days, the options were very slim for care.

Anonymous said...

Oh my! What a disaster... I should say it was "more than (Lil) could stand". - Naomi

Patricia Greber said...

Mental illness is not easy to cope with. The people who have to deal with it cannot understand what is wrong. A diagnosis is often a relief.
What a hard time it must have been for your mom.

Anonymous said...

Another gripping episode in your Mom's life, ably written. Interesting that the idea of putting Mama in an asylum did not cross your Mom's mind. After the two weeks at Lake Como, that is what I would have been thinking! Katy

Kathy Reed said...

You've left me wanting more once again -- I always want an "explanation" for mental illness and usually can find none. It had to be hard on Lil and her father. I want to know how they handled it over the long haul and whether her mother ever got a diagnosis and treatment. I'll be watching.

Anonymous said...

Wow! It's starting to become a cliff-hanger. I, like Katy, wonder if anyone took on the task of institutionalizing Mama, chiefly Papa, on whom that tough job should have fallen rather than Lil. So, you've left your readers dangling; that's a writer's job.

Adrienne said...

Very poignant, indeed, to reconstruct from their own recollections the hurts our young parents suffered.

Leonard Grossman said...

The strum and drsng makes me so grateful for my mother's calmness in the face of adversity. Beautifully told.

One of the rewards is all the things we learn as we tell our mothrs' stories.


Jasia said...

Very nicely written. You managed to convey the emotion and confusion so very well. Mental illness is a difficult topic to write about so kudos to you!

Linda Gartz said...

Thanks to all for your sensitive and empathic comments. Dealing with mental illness is always difficult, but back in 1942, when little was known, no medications existed, and virtually no one supported or understood the family's trauma, it was especially difficult. Institutionalization was a frightening option--places of neglectful and even abusive staff. It was not an option that would have been considered immediately, especially after an initial incident like this one. Perhaps it was just a "nervous breakdown." Who could know? Maybe it would pass. That would have been the thinking. Also, my grandfather was an immigrant, unsophisticated in mental health issues at a time when American-born people would not not known what to do. This took place seventy years ago. An ancient time in the understanding of mental problems. I so appreciate hearing from all of you.