Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Cassandra Lineage


Whenever my uncle led the aged, utterly mellow cart horse out of the barn to be harnessed, my mother’s mother would come out of the kitchen and stand watching, her hands on her hips.

“This horse,” she would say, shaking her head, “is going to kill somebody one of these days.”

Like my grandmother, my mother worried constantly about potential catastrophes. “When your father and I married, and then you were born,” she confided to me years later, “I was happier than I’d ever thought possible. But even in the middle of so much happiness, I always felt that God was somewhere up in the clouds, with a big stick in his hand, waiting to hit me on the head.”

More years have passed, and now that I am my grandmother’s age I too spend way too much time looking out for murderous cart horses and wincing in anticipation of the next blow to rain down from heaven.

My grandmother’s and my mother’s persistent intimations of disaster were rooted in their experience of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. My grandmother was in her late thirties then, and my mother in her teens. Since they lived on a farm, they did not starve. But my grandfather, the village vet, sometimes had to hide from the bands of anarchists wreaking havoc in the countryside, and the family would frequently leave their beds in the middle of the night and crouch in a ditch to escape from bombardments.

“We all wore a little stick tied to a string around our neck, so that when the bombs came we could bite down on it and the shock waves would not burst our eardrums,” my mother remembered. The terror of the anarchist raids; the nights spent cowering in the ditch to escape the bombings; and, at the end of the war, the fear of the retreating soldiers left a mark on her psyche that lasted the rest of her life.

It’s not hard to see how those three years of living in constant fear would lead to my mother and her mother’s hyper-vigilance; their feeling that, if they let down their guard for a single moment, disaster would strike; and their bone-deep conviction that life was, at bottom, a tragic affair, and that passing moments of happiness were simply accidental flashes in the enveloping darkness, and not to be relied on.

My first decade passed against a chorus of cautions and warnings.

“This child isn’t eating enough.”
“Look! She has a fever again!”
“She’s pale. She should spend more time outdoors.”
“Don’t let her out of the house in the middle of the day. She’ll get sunstroke!”
“Quick! Shut that window. She’s standing in a draft.”
“Take that book away from her. She’ll get indigestion if she reads after lunch.”

While my mother was alive, I put a lot of energy into countering her apprehensions. When I was a teenager and she had her second child, I watched her live in fear that my vigorous little sister would waste away, and I tried to convince her of the basic sturdiness of babies. When my own children were born and she warned me against germs and other potential threats, I showed off my casual trust in their aptitude for survival. When she tried to talk me out of moving to a rural part of Vermont where hospitals are few and far between, I ignored her and did just that.

But now that both my grandmother and my mother are gone, my ability to put on that tough-woman act has deserted me, and I often shudder at the prospect of imminent doom. I envision endless tragic scenarios, ranging from a flat tire on a deserted dirt road to civil strife, fires, floods, and the extinction of honeybees. It is as if the rose-colored glasses that we all need to wear in order to function in the world have been suddenly ripped off my face, and life appears in all its meaningless gloom.

Just as, when passing in front of a mirror I sometimes think I’m catching a glimpse of my mother, I find myself reenacting the Cassandra role that she and her mother played so faithfully. But why? I didn’t live through the war. I didn’t have to cower in ditches in the middle of the night, or hide from anarchists, like my mother and her family. I didn’t starve, like my father and his family.

How, then, did I become infected with the Cassandra virus?

For years I assumed that my predisposition to see the dark side of things was something I had inherited from my mother and her mother, like my brown eyes and curly hair. But studies of the descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic events such as the American Civil War point to a different explanation.

Though still controversial, these studies suggest that the trauma undergone by individuals of one generation can change the way their genes are passed on and expressed in their offspring, even if the parents do not discuss their own traumatic experiences and the children lead normal lives. The most common manifestations of this trans-generational trauma are anxiety, depression, and lack of resilience.

I don’t remember my parents and grandparents discussing the war in front of me. There were passing references to my father having to stay hidden for three years to avoid execution, but he never talked about what it felt like as a twenty-two-year-old not to be able to go outside, or play the violin, or have enough to eat. Likewise, other than the story of the little sticks on a string, my mother did not say much about that time.

But whether unconsciously, through her own anxiety about my welfare, or through epigenetic transmission, she passed on to me Cassandra’s gift of foreseeing disaster, and I often tremble in anticipation of whatever blow the universe is about to deliver next.

There are many depictions of Cassandra in ancient Greek vases, and she is always shown with brown eyes and dark, curly hair.