Monday, August 25, 2008

War's Legacy

There was a time in my life when I didn't know my family was normal...for the circumstances that created us. I thought the insanity lying just under the skin was some genetic affliction I was doomed to inherit eventually, like gray hair or wrinkles or conversations with dead people.

I spent a lot of time examining myself on the inside the way others examine themselves on the outside for telltale signs of disease. Was my alienation increasing? Or did I simply enjoy my own company more than that of others? Was my desire for silence becoming pathological or had I simply reached a point where the noise of cars, sirens, people yelling instead of talking, and constant blaring television sets interfered with the songs of birds, the soft music of the wind and rustling trees and leaves beyond my ability to accept it as something beyond my control?

It was a long list I compared myself against daily. It was a list I drew from the behavior of the people that raised me, people so destroyed by war that the word "normal" was almost an insult, a way of accusing them of having been through hell unscathed. They would never be normal. But I didn't realize that until I tried to measure myself against who they were and ended up realizing that war spans generations and infects the children of the children of the children. I had no more chance of being normal than they had.

A while back my sister brought me a CD of my mother talking about her war experiences. She's a stranger to me, a woman who never really was able to maintain any kind of closeness with her children and drove them from her with an almost mindful deliberateness. I listened to her accented voice with the kind of vague memory one has of having heard that voice before but not really being able to place it. The stories she told were the stories of most survivors of the Nazis, the Fascists, the groups of believers of one ism or another who insisted you believe or die. Listening to her talk was listening to how many ways one can cheat death and still call yourself human. I think the human part got left aside at some point and she never really missed it because it was weak, it was threatening and it almost got her killed too many times.

For women like my mother who left her humanity somewhere between the insulting existence imposed on her by Hitler and Mussolini and coming to America with a child and a new husband who lied about his age to enlist after Pearl Harbor and upon liberating the first death camps, thought at first that they were leper colonies because even though he had killed and seen death and suffered from war, the extent of other people's inhumanity still hadn't sunk in...until he saw the living dead.

These two people should never have had children. They had nothing left to give them. But society wanted them to procreate, to replace the dead and dying, to bring life into an existence where death was all they knew. Nothing took into account that whatever humanity they had before the war became a shallow shell of existence that left nothing for others. We were raised to survive and nothing more.

I accept that now. I have survived so in that sense I have filled the role set out for me. But at the same time it doesn't even begin to explain who I am, why I hate war so much, why I devote so much time to trying to make war become something that exists only in History books and not in the fragile spirits of another generation.

And in that I find my precious normality, the hatred of war that is passed on inadvertently to the children of war's survivors. It's not intentional. It's not something my parents set out to do. They didn't say to me ever to go forward and work for peace. But by being who they were, by losing what they lost, they made it an obligation that took seed in me and continues to grow. It is normal for me to promote peace as a healthy concept within all our reach and war as something that we've grown too much to ever accept as normal again.

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