Tonight, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings in the last couple of weeks. I registered for a free series of classes about music. This is not music appreciation per se, but understanding music development, notation, harmonies, overtones, and beats. The presenter is a delightful musician, arranger and teacher. He also directs a band at the company our youngest son works for. It is impressive to find a company that actually provides paid practice time to the workers who play in the band. Tonight’s subject was Classical music and Jazz. As we listened to examples of concerts and enjoyed the richness of the performances, the instructor explained the structure of a concert, which consists of movements, with usually a few seconds of silence between them. He told us of a time when he attended a concert and his cellphone had a jazz tone ring, which happened to go off during one of the silent intervals between movements.
I almost burst out laughing. Many years ago, the music department of the University was located 10 minutes’ walk away from our home. Friday nights in the early spring we would eat fairly early, put the children to bed, and walk over to listen to a concert. My mother was visiting us, and the performance that evening was a new composition for brass quartet and tape recorder by a student we knew. The piece was fascinating, but in spite of the loud brass sounds my mother fell asleep. As if it was meant to be, my mother uttered a loud snore in the midst of the silent break. The audience could not contain the loud laughing, and my mother woke up, realized what happened, and took a bow. The audience clapped, and there is no way the brass musicians could continue blowing into their brass instruments. That was pure jazz improvisation!
Looking back at my mother’s response made me realize how much courage and poise it must have taken to reach such a state of self-assurance after suffering a life full of trauma. I have no information of her early-life trauma, and in fact as the eldest in a well-to-do family in the beginning of the 1900s in Europe, she probably had a fairly decent childhood. She was raised by a German nanny, and later sent to a convent school to be educated. There she received her Jewish education, when the nuns insisted that the Jewish girls study with the Rabbi while the other girls received catechism lessons. She became one of the few women who went to university, and graduated as a pharmacist in 1922. I suspect the First World War years were fraught with hardship, but she never talked about it. The hard times came after she married my father, who was starting to establish himself after being an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the war. Apparently, they moved 16 times between 1925 and 1944. They lived for a while at her parents’ estate in the country when their third child, a daughter, died from pneumonia at age 8 months. My mother never spoke about it until I found out by discovering my little sister’s grave many years later when visiting my hometown. She blamed herself, since she took her for a walk on the nearby mountainside when a storm suddenly came and she felt she did not protect her well enough. Guilt is one of the most difficult feelings to rid oneself of.
In order to rescue her 14-year-old oldest daughter, she sent her on the last boat with a group of youth that left Constanza for Palestine. Pregnant and delivering another daughter in 1941 was not a picnic, to put it mildly. Fleeing during the war with a small boat full of other refugees to Palestine in 1944 with a sick husband who returned from a work camp and a 3-year-old and 15-year-old constitutes a fairly traumatic event, in my humble opinion. But after the hardships of having to adjust to life in a new place, where your documents are not recognized, and having to clean houses in order to make ends meet, the most traumatic event in her life happened. Her beloved and only son, my brother, was killed during the war of 1948 in Israel. Yet she tried to be there for everyone. She could not afford breaking down. Her strong belief helped her, as well as her natural resilience. On her own, after my father died and she no longer had to take care of him, she started looking after her own needs. She took courses at the university on archeology and even went on digs at the age of 70. She was a true inspiration to her grandchildren, and moved to be close to them. She certainly was an inspiration to me, and to her and my Dad I owe not only my genetic make-up but also my trans-generational memories and resilience. I took what they gave me and was able to build on it. I am still learning.
Today many studies point to the effect of intergenerational trauma in our life. It may explain why different people react differently to the same traumatic event. Events that our ancestors reacted to in a certain way, may be transmitted in a way that activates us to be prone to post traumatic stress reaction, or to growth. The study of epigenetics explains that sometimes the potential is there, but the genes might get triggered to be expressed only when trauma occurs in our life. So, trauma can affect us negatively even to the point of post-traumatic stress reactions, but evolutionarily, we also pass on resilience, strength and wisdom. Mark Manson, who studied trauma survivors, comments that about 50% of them would say they actually felt that trauma made them into better people. They had a deep and very powerful experience of what he calls post-traumatic growth.
Research suggests that compassion practice can act as a buffer against the harmful effects of trauma. It can help develop skills to approach traumatic memories without getting caught up in a threat response. I feel that besides practising compassion for myself and for others, what really helps me is the resilience and wisdom I received possibly epigenetically from my mother. Her memory lives on in me and guides me to remember her mantra for vitality – “every day that I learn at least one new thing is a day that I do not get older”. There is still soooo much more to learn, and to remember…