Depression is one of those plagues that weaves its’ way through generations in families, sort of like alcoholism. My mom was depressed, her mom was depressed before her, and my sister struggled with depression even as a teenager. I was depressed in my early twenties, and it hit me hard again when I began to have anxiety attacks in my late thirties. When I began researching my family’s history, I found there was some serious depression that ran in my family in earlier generations, too.
Some of these stories had been whispered about in my family for years, but if I openly asked about them, I was shut down in a second. My grandparents are still from a generation where family secrets are just that – secrets. Nonetheless, I set out to validate each taboo story and try to learn more about the details of each situation. My grandma’s mother, or my great-grandmother, was born in 1915, the youngest of three children. Her oldest brother I’ll call Max and the middle child, Eric. Their father died when they were all young, which would be only the beginning of a great deal of suffering and tragedy for the family.
As an adult, Max left Kiel, where they had grown up, and went to Milwaukee. He worked as an auditor, and seemed to enjoy city life. He wrote his mother regularly, and occasionally his little sister, too. He told stories of the people he met in the city, described his efforts at finding a job, and one of his letters to his sister described a girl was quite smitten with.
I still have 20 some dollars in the bank. If you can get it, I will send home the checkbook and you can withdraw it and pay your debts. And, for God’s sake, have your tooth fixed. I will send home some money if I can.
Give [Eric] the flannels, I don’t care.
[H] and I have been out all last week. We have put in about 20 applications. We are going out tomorrow again.
Well, sister, last Friday I had my first date. I took her to the Wisconsin. She is from Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Her dad is mayor, vice president of a bank, and he owns a construction company. He also has something in a paper mill. She is the nicest girl I have ever met and she likes black wavy hair. So, there you have it.
Write as soon as you get this so that I can send the book home.
P.S. I tried to have her teach me how to dance, but she can’t because she stays with 4 aunts and 4 cousins. If you can get the money, pay my insurance.
Max had black, wavy hair. At some point, he ended up in the service – the Army, I think. No one in my family is sure why he joined, how long he served, or what he did, but he hated the experience. He complained in his letters home to his mother.
Fort Sheridan, Il.
August 16, 1938
Monday and Tuesday we were at the rifle range, but I did not make marksmanship. My shoulder was blue a little from shooting. Next Monday and Tuesday we hike to the Great Lakes Naval Station, a distance of about ten miles, coming one day and going back the next. We have to carry thirty-pound packs, rifle, mess outfits, and cartridge belts on the way.
Please write soon! Tell [G] and [E] to write too. I have only gotten one letter so far from [S]. That’s a heck of a business. Some men are getting as many as three letters a day and I just have to sit there. This is the address. Don’t forget some of it as they get letters up here without even names on them or without the company.
C.M.T.C. Co. F
Fort Sheridan, Illinois
He was discharged at the age of 29, near the end of 1941. In early 1942, right after he turned 30, he received a telegram instructing him to report again for duty immediately. He hung himself instead.
Although I didn’t doubt the truth of this story, I found newspaper articles that confirm the details. In my grandma’s stack of papers, I found a Western Union telegram that was sent by the authorities in Milwaukee to the authorities in Kiel, giving them the details to pass onto his mother. The family was devastated.
From the Milwaukee Journal:
Former Kiel Man is Found Dead
Milwaukee (AP). [Max], age 30, an auditor, was released from the army last November because he was over 28. Wednesday he received notice to report immediately for further military service. Yesterday his body was found hanging in his rooming house. Police said he formerly lived in Kiel, Wis.
This sad story makes me grateful for my life – grateful that in my many periods of darkness, I have never wanted to end my own life. It also makes me grateful that those close to me in my family who have battled with depression never went so far as to write their own endings. My grandma remembers little about her uncle, except that he was a sweet man. She was eight when he took his life. Whenever he came home to visit, he always had a small present for her. Unfortunately, after his death, he became a family secret. No one discussed him or his life any longer. Perhaps it was because they felt shame about what he’d chosen to do when faced with a major obstacle in his life. Perhaps it was because the pain of losing him was so deep. Perhaps it was because they understood the temptation themselves, and knew it was best to keep it at bay by refusing to acknowledge it.