Death of a Blythe Spirit
From Whence They Came
While alcoholism (and possibly borderline personality organization) is a generational and family affair often associated with battering, battered women, in general, do not come into their relationship with their batterer with a predisposition. They are always surprised when they get hit, and, more tellingly, if they escape from the relationship, they are unlikely to repeat the mistake. In other words, being battered is not like being co-dependent.
Rather, battering probably involves both “learned helplessness” and intermittent reinforcement. Learned helplessness is a response to the battering itself.. Martin Seligman performed several frightening experiments in 1965. Caged animals would receive electrical shocks at random intervals to that they would learn they had no control over the shocks. Pretty soon they became apathetic and depressed. Then the experimenter would open a door in the cage. Unfortunately, the animal had now “learned helplessness,” and was unable to react to the presence of a means to escape. The only way they could be re-taught to escape the shocks was to be repeatedly physically dragged out the door.
An even more shocking experiment reveals how learned helplessness is generalized to effect helplessness in related activities. A mouse would be grasped tightly until it ceased to struggle, and then released. The struggling reflex was disabled by learned helplessness. Next, the mouse was dropped into a container of water where he would sink immediately to the bottom and drown—his very survival instinct had been extinguished by learned helplessness!
Intermittent reinforcement, on the other hand, is a response to the seduction of “the good times,” the return of the man you love. Like the lure of the slot machine, the bliss of the honeymoon is a powerful attraction.
So who was this Freide kid, destined to be a battered wife, and where did she come from?
Like many Americans before and since, Mother was an emigrant. She was born and raised in Germany, and when she was 13 years oldthe same age my daughter Regina is todayshe was brought kicking and screaming to meet her destiny. She was brought by her mother, Kate. I have always believed that when I die, it will be my grandmother Kate who will come out of the tunnel of light to escort me to heaven. Tough, gruff, practical Kate. When, in 1963, I wrote telling her I was an unwed mother, she cautioned me not to let the guy get away with anything.
The summer I was 18 I spent with her and her second husband, Pop," in New Jersey. My daughter and my sister Deedee take after her in one respectshe would never leave the house unless she was well-groomed. She always wore makeup, perfume, and earrings. She loved German sausage and pork chops fried in butter and Boston terriers and wrestling. Up in her attic, where I slept that summer, she stored boxes of presents, many articles of clothing still in their cellophane, that she had received from friends over the years. When she died, mother found paper money hidden everywherein books, in jars, in pockets. This hoarding instinct was probably a legacy of World War I which she spent in hunger and fear in Germany, a wife with two small children. Mother remembers that her brother Joe, probably around seven at the time, kept wanting to run outside to watch the bombs falling.
Kate was born in Gross-Hausen (Big House) which was across the river from Little House. The story goes that Little House was Catholic and Big House was evangelical. Kates mother, Elisabeth Maurer, was from the Catholic side of the river, but when she was found to be pregnant (and unmarried), a husband was found for her on the Protestant side of the river. The child, a girl, was born, but later had to be sent away because Franz Joseph Ihrig had unfatherly designs on her. The only other thing I know about Elisabeth is that, after a lifetime in Gross-Hausen, she called a priest to her deathbed, and he refused to come.
Franz Joseph owned a tavern. What in the U.S. would be merely a bar, in Germany was a family gathering place. Nevertheless, Germans take their beer seriously, as anyone who has attended an Oktoberfest can attest. Yet, for Kate, a tavern in Gross-Hausen just wasnt good enough; she wanted out. She wanted out badly.
Poor, unsuspecting Leo Raab came through Gross-Hausen on a walking tour (what Europeans did for vacation in those days) and stopped at the Ihrig tavern to slake his thirst. Like her daughter after her, 21 year old Kate must have been determined to catch this good looking young man. Twenty-six year old Leo had been born on a country farm, but due to an accident in which he lost a thumb, he was no longer fit to work the farm and had to find a trade in the city.
Hunfeld, June 17, 1910
Im sure I still have relatives in Germany; my brother, Bob, spent time with them when he was stationed with the Army in Geisen. As far as I know, Kate continued all her life to send luxuries like coffee to her sisters.
Leo was a travelin man and apparently a ladies man as well. When he came down with gonorrhea, Kate actually divorced him and took off for America, leaving her very young son and daughter behind. She got a factory job (and worked the rest of her life) and looked around for a new husband. In Rudolf Miller, another German immigrant who had won a medal fighting on the German side in World War I, she found her life partner. Pop was probably as different from Leo as Kate could find. He was a loving, gentle, caring man, a baker turned carpenter, who every Christmas sent us a stolen (German Christmas bread) he baked. Kate had one pregnancy with Pop, but her time came in the dead of winter and they were so snowbound that they were unable to get her to a doctor in time.
In 1946, when Mother received word of her father’s death, she wrote
“Mother is all broken up and she cried all over the phone and under the circumstances she can't show it much, but I really think she feels very bad about it. For some reason those two have never ceased to be interested in each other and to her the shock and grief is just as much as if he had been her husband all these years. “
I always felt a rapport with Kate. I think she was a very modern woman, very "actualized," as they say. Not only did she divorce Leo, but she worked--always. She kept a store for awhile, but Mother said she was too soft-hearted and kept giving things away. Because of Kate's genes, her granddaughter Deedee never leaves the house without wearing makeup and jewelry, we all know how to knit and crochet, half of us love animals, most of us have always worked, and 3/4 of us have been divorced. Those must all be recessive genes, however, because Mother certainly didn't take care of herself like Kate did!
That summer of 1963, I stole something from Kate, and she stole something from me. I took a book. In a little bookcase up in the nook where I slept I had found a mystery novel from the 30s that took placewonder of wondersnear my home town in California. The heroine actually got off the train in MY HOME TOWN, Belmont, California. I just had to have the bookbesides it was a great mystery!!and I guess I didnt want to take the chance that Gramma would not want to give it to me. I rationalized that she wasnt a reader and could probably care less if I took the book.
Kate took a ring. My mother had given me, as a high school graduation present, her own opal ring; I guess I had left it in the bathroom when I washed my hands, or something, and Kate confiscated it without telling me. I looked everywhere for that ring, and it was with some shock that I saw it with the rest of my Grandmothers jewelry when we sat down to divide it up after her death. I still have it; and since my daughter, Gina, is also an October baby, she might want it one day. Then again, since Gina inherited Kate's "prissy" gene, she might not. Afterall, Mother did NOT inherit the "prissy" gene. She preferred jewelry that you wore all the time, including while washing dishes and digging ditches. After a lifetime of that, the opal ring has pretty much lost its beauty along with some of its diamond chips.
A picture of my mother as a little girl shows a fragile, helpless little waif, and that is exactly what she apparently was. Mother worshipped her father. We always knew that, but it was only a few months ago that she mentioned that although she loved him so much, HE never knew she was alive. This was said casually, as though of no consequence. I think she had a lot of ambivalent feelings. In 1946 when she got a letter from him, she wrote to my father, ”I suppose I am glad he's alive, after all, I did love him with all my heart when I was a little girl…” Then later, when she got word of his death, she wrote, “Personally I don't feel anything at all, and maybe I should…”
After Kate left him, Leo Raab kept his son but sent Elfreide to a convent school, and there he promptly forgot her. He always forgot to pay her fees, so the nuns invariably confiscated (on account) the little bit of pin money that Kate sent. On visits home she was supervised by a neighbor lady. This neighbor was once commissioned to take her out to buy a dress for some occasion or other. Its ugliness was the subject of one of Elfreides letters to her mother. Poor Mother still remembers how she hated that dress.
In 2005 my daughter, Regina, had been studying jazz and tap dancing since she was four years old. Every mother knows what this meansevery week you drive the kid to lessons, wait, drive the kid home, get the kid ready for photographs, sew the sequins on the kids costume, line up at the crack of dawn to get tickets to the kids recital, clap and whistle when the kid gets on the stage. At that time Gina aspired to be a professional dancer, so about a year before she had decided to get some training in classical ballet. Thus my Mother happened to mention that as a child in Germany, she had studied the ballet; she casually noted that the dancing master thought she had potential, but she had had to give it up because, she guessed, money was tight.
Mother had also told us of the summer "tour" she was put on with no spending money, no change of clothes, nor even a toothbrush. She washed out her underwear each night. For Kate, the last straw was when she was put on a train to return to school with a ticket that expired short of her destination. This poor, little 10 year old girl was put off the train that night some 50 miles distant from school. Luckily for Elfreide, some college students happened by on a bicycle tour; up on the handlebars she went, and they gave her a first-class ride to her door. When Kate heard THIS horror story, her kids were on the next boat to America!
My mother was a very stubborn lady, and she did not WANT to leave her adored father and come to America. She hated poor Rudy ("Pop") and would have nothing to do with him. However, she says, when she came down with rheumatic fever, it was Rudy who lovingly nursed her back to health. That took care of that. He was “Pop” to her from then on; he died an old man in her care, and she loved him 'til the day she died.
She was a lively young woman, though, and had lots
of friends. She told us the "Russian dancer" at left was a beau! I think family activities centered around family gatherings
with the myriad of German friends. There were vacations at a lake, I know.
Pop, although trained in Germany as a baker, worked as a carpenter. Kate
always worked, too, I think. I believe she worked in a factory. They were
very blue-collar people.
The fourth man in Mother's life--after her
brother Joe, her adored father Leo, and her beloved "Pop"--was
her friend Adelaide's big brother, Jere. In 1930 she wrote to him
at a CCC camp--Citizens’ Military
Training Camp at Plattsburg Barracks, N.Y. She was 18 years old. Young
Jere responded thusly to a letter from the pert miss who he would be marrying
in four short years.
Letter from J at Citizens Military Training Camp, Plattsburg Barracks, N.Y., to F
My father was bornJeremiah John Joseph Casagrande in the Hells Kitchen section of New York City in the Spring of 1910. He was the oldest of four but so unlike his brother and sisters that our family joked that they probably did not have the same father. After all, his mother, Adelaide, was English-Irish, not second generation Italian like her husband. In 2008 a search of New York records revealed that Adelaide was indeed eight months pregnant when she got married.
To us kids, Adelaides picture looked like Ozs wicked witch of the East, not the grandmotherly type. None of us have any memories of her. We never saw her and could only assume, as children are wont to do, that she didnt like us.
Almost everything we know about her we learned from our mother, and since poor Adelaide could never forgive Mother for taking her beloved son away, she cannot have been the most loving of mothers-in-law. My parents eloped; they married over the objections of both sets of parents, and both sides disowned and newlyweds. It was years before Adelaide would have anything to do with her eldest son and his wife. When her first grandchild, yours truly, was born, she is reported to have said Dont expect me to baby-sit. They relationship eventually became estrangement; the only reason Father learned of the death of his mother was that the State of California stopped dunning him for a portion of her support.
Adelaides own mother, Clara Barton, is reputed to have been from a wealthy home. She ran away with an Irish traveling salesman and died in childbirth. Adelaide was raised by two aunts. Poor Adelaidethe stuff of novels!
How did this Irish-English rose get involved with Jeremiah John Joseph Casagrande whose father had emigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy? In Hells Kitchen this wasnt as strange as it appears. Richard OConnor,, in his 1958 book Hell's Kitchen, says that there was a lot of intermarriage between the various ethnic groups. Perhaps they were united in the way they were required to endure the poverty and brutality of the worst slum in the city. From as early as the 1870s the coldwater flats in the row house tenements in this section of New York City had been host to crime, ignorance, despair. During the roaring twenties, when my father should have been in high school, there were more speakeasies than children on the street. Alcohol had always been the only refuge in Hells Kitchen. After laboring up to 16 hours a day, the men folk would pass through the doors of the pub into Elysium. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, was also born in Hells Kitchenbut 10 years after my father. Mario wrote living in the heart of New Yorks Neapolitan ghetto, I never heard an Italian singing. None of the grown-ups I knew were charming or loving or understanding. Rather they seemed coarse, vulgar, and insulting. Father talked very little about his childhood. I remember only his mentioning having seen a horse-drawn fire engine when he was a little boy.
For whatever reason Adelaide ended up with the senior Jeremiah, a waiter, she apparently found his alcoholism unacceptable. After her second child, Adelaide (later called Joan), was born, she kicked him out and earned her living as a seamstress. After about 10 years, the local priest talked her into doing her duty, and Jeremiah came home to sire two more children, Albert and Laura.
Altogether, it must have been difficult for little Jeremiah. Family legend has it that he was a genius. (When I was 13 and asked for something to read, he handed me a copy of the classic satire Penguin Island, saying “I read this when I was your age.” There certainly couldn’t have been many louts in the neighborhood with whom he could discuss Candide.
Page last updated on 05/17/2007
©2014 Camille E. Flores