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Monday, September 2, 2013

47 Years

I wrote a few months ago about how the Memorial Day Holiday weekend has taken on additional meaning for us. Last year, Trent was notified during that holiday weekend that he would be receiving a kidney transplant. What I seldom mention, however, that long before I ever even met Trent, there was another holiday that often had double meaning for me. On September 2, 1966, my mother died, just about a month before her 42nd birthday. That year, Labor Day was on Monday, September 5. Whatever date it falls on, though, this holiday tends to remind me of my mother. 

A short newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, Sept. 3, 1966, took about twenty lines to announce the end of my mother's brief struggle to stay alive. In the very early hours of Thursday morning, my siblings and I responded to our mother's screams to find her in her blood-soaked bed, in horrible pain, and clinging to life. Although she had said, in that extreme state, that I should be kept out of the room, I of course went in and saw everything. I didn't realize until I was an adult that her concern over me seeing her in that condition was a beautiful expression of her love for me. I was seven years old. Liz was thirteen, John was fourteen, and Margit was sixteen. And our father had left us alone to find her. 

According to this brief article, my father, who had turned himself in at the Police station, had been charged on Thursday with aggravated assault. He had told the officers that he woke up to find that he was "hitting her on the head with a hammer." After her death later the next day, the charges were changed. I am not sure what the exact charges were, but I know that he was found guilty of manslaughter, and was out of the State Penitentiary in Menard, Illinois before my twelfth birthday. The price he paid for my mother's death was less than five years. It still makes me angry to think about that, because it makes me feel that there was too little value placed on this woman's death. 

Fate, Karma, whatever you want to call it, did catch up with my father, though. I think he was dead for a couple of years before any of his kids realized it. I have come to a point in my life at which I am able to feel a bit sorry for him, albeit in a slightly detached way. It is sad to think of a person dying and not being missed. Nobody even knows his exact date of death, only the month. There was a time when I felt that he deserved it. Time has softened me a little. Thinking of him just as some man, instead of my father, has allowed me to see some sadness in the manner of his passing.

I am still in conflict over Mama's death. I loved her, and still do. To me she is a symbol of undervalued and abused women everywhere. I miss her. I wish her death hadn't been so agonizing. I wish all of her children hadn't been so affected by the violence committed against her. I wish I had learned to make more Hungarian dishes, and I wonder what she would think of my cooking. I wish I could sit and speak with her, switching from Hungarian to German or English. My abilities to use those languages died with her. Would she be proud of the person I have become? Or would I be a strange creature to her? What would she think of her youngest child, a woman who forms strong opinions and has started to learn not to fear sharing them? Would she weep when I told her that for a few years after her death, I prayed fervently every night that I could die before morning and be with her, away from the ugliness of my life?

Sadly, there are no answers. And I know, and here's where the conflict arises, that her death opened up opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise. Knowing that is a guilt I will always bear. Although her death left me open to many years of physical and emotional abuse, it also allowed me the chance to live a different life. I had the chance to become educated, and was lucky enough to be discarded and end up in the care of someone who helped me learn to have an independent mind. In Chicago, I can imagine being pushed either into an early marriage or life in a convent, after my father encouraged me to do whatever his friends desired to make them happy. Liz remembers being instructed to do this when she was ten years old, so I have no doubt my turn was coming. In fact, I often suspect that this type of abuse may have already happened to me, but it is, mercifully, buried deep in my brain.

There may be some of you who think, when I write about these things, that 47 years is a long time and I should just get over it. It sounds easy, doesn't it? Thinking of me as someone who is clinging to the wounds of my past is a simple choice that some folks might make. But trauma forms and perhaps deforms us in many ways, and when that trauma is sustained, it changes who we are. No, I don't sit around all day crying over my losses and experiences. But they have been instrumental in the formation of the personality I have today, and some of my problems, as well. My greatest dream would be that no family should ever again experience what mine did. Unfortunately, that dream will never come true. But if we can help each other through this sometimes-scary journey called life, perhaps we can help repair one another's damage. Please share your love for others today. Time passes quickly, and we never know what tomorrow will bring.