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.
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.”
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.