Grandma K was delusional, depressed, and vicious just months before my parents were to be married. Was it mere coincidence? Or did the thought of losing her only child to marriage tip her already irascible, easy-to-anger personality into the world of psychosis?
It was the summer of 1942. My mother and father were happier than they’d ever been before. Her diary entries were my link directly into her love-struck mind and inner thoughts when she was twenty-four years old.
On August 15, 1942, in a small spiral notebook, Mom began a “Case History,” recording her mother’s frightening behavior.
I reproduce a portion of her detailed notes here. Mom had generously arranged for a trip to Wisconsin with her parents, hoping the open air and Lake Como, Wisconsin scenery might soothe her mother. It didn’t.
Mom had started writing in a diary at the age of 10, in 1927, and recorded both the wonderful things her mother did for her, and her mother’s rage at minor mistakes and incidents. Today we’d say my Grandma K (her last name, Koroschetz) had “anger-management” issues.
Mom often told me: “My mother was so good to me;” and then, “I was afraid of my mother.” It didn’t seem to strike my mother as odd to be “afraid” of her mother. Here’s a sample from Mom’s childhood diary showing the “good to me” relationship with her mother. She records how thrilled she is with her mom’s (my Grandma K’s) graduation-from-grade-school gift:
I suppose a little fear of a parent’s displeasure, disappointment, or anger isn’t bad–so a child learns appropriate behavior. But to state as often as my mother did, “I was afraid of my mother,” seems sad and even damaging to me. How did a little girl, an only child, growing up in a household with unreasonable anger know anything different?
I write about this paradoxical combination of fear and love in my upcoming book Redlined: A Memoir of Race and Change in 1960’s Chicago. The “change” part refers not only to the racial change in our community, but also to the changes, conflicts, and upheavals that my parents confronted during their years on the West Side.
But among the greatest challenges to my parents’ marriage was coping with Grandma K’s mental illness, which began with uncontrollable anger that so often exploded at Mom, whom Grandma also loved and doted upon.
No wonder Mom felt conflicting emotions toward her mother: fear & love.
When you think about your relationship with your mother, have any of you felt “afraid” of your mothers? In what ways? Are you ok with that?
NOTE: If you or a loved one is suffering from anger-management or any other behaviors that are beyond the normal ups and downs life draws out of us, please contact NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to get help and understanding.