January 9, 2014

Salutogenesis Factor #2b: My Ithaca Family of Origin

My brother Roger (at left in this photo) and I are the last survivors of our original nuclear family. His terrific wife Gail is gone now.

I was born in Hudson, NY, in May, 1929. My dad, a tool designer, worked there until the October, 1929 stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. Dad's search for work then led us to Philadelphia and New York City during my early, largely forgotten years.

I wish I'd sat my dad down for a recorded interview on the family history. Too late now.

Dad ended up with a job in Ithaca for a company that designed tools to clean railroad tracks. After a few years, he took a job with the Morse Chain Company, which manufactured transmission chains for the auto companies. The Morse plant sat atop Ithaca's South Hill.

Parkinson's House?
My parents rented half of this house on South Hill where I lived from ages 7 to 26. The Slattery family owned the house and lived in the other half. Dad walked up South Hill to his Morse Chain job every day.

I discovered last summer that the toxic chemical trichloroethylene (TCE)  -- used by the Morse Chain to de-grease metal parts -- had contaminated large parts of South Hill. A 2011 study I found online indicated that people exposed to TCE are six times more likely to develop Parkinson's.

I also learned that my childhood chum Joe Slattery, son of the house's owners, also had developed Parkinson's and died from it last year. 

Two boys living in the same house during the years of TCE contamination, and both develop Parkinson's. Coincidence? Seems unlikely. For more, see http://bit.ly/1c6FWkG

Back to the Ithaca Family
In my earlier salutogenesis posts, I talked about the importance of learning early in life that you can survive adversity. My father, brother and I learned that lesson. My mother and sister didn't. Was it a coincidence that the males survived and the females didn't?

My Parents

My parents met when they were working in New York City and married in January, 1928. This photo shows them on their honeymoon in Lake Placid, NY.

My father was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1895. My mother's grandparents immigrated from Ireland.

My Dad
A textile dyes expert, my dad's father worked in Zurich. Around 1890, he came by himself to America. His expertise won him employment at a textile mill in Paterson, NJ. His success there enabled him to buy a nice home. My father remembered HIS father keeping a shotgun handy for protection there during the six-month 1913 silk strike in Paterson. (I wonder what he would have thought of his grandson and wife becoming union activists. But at least with Diana and me it was the Newspaper Guild, not the Wobblies.)

John Gustav Schappi
After he got established, my grandfather sent for his family, but his wife didn't want to leave Switzerland. After a few years, she was persuaded to let my dad, about six at the time, come to the U.S. He arrived at Ellis Island with his uncle.

The woman I knew as "grandma" was my father's stepmother, She had also immigrated from Switzerland. I think they had at least one son of their own. I have a vague recollection that dad said his stepbrother(s) got help with college expenses, while he was expected to make it on his own.

Dad went to Cooper Union in NYC, which then granted full scholarships to all students. I think he graduated from a two-year program in draftsmanship.

I remember my dad always trying something new, obsessing about a new hobby for a few years, then moving on to something else. He went to the movies several times a week. He took up tournament bridge and achieved some sort of master level ranking. He taught my brother and me to play chess. For several years, he spent time with the shortwave radio he built in our cellar, and would proudly announce he'd just talked with somebody in a faraway country. 

In later years, his obsession was golf. Since he didn't learn to drive a car until he was much older, my dad would happily walk the four miles to the municipal golf course almost every day, weather permitting.

I've often said I'd like to die the way my dad did. After yet another day on the golf course, he died of a heart attack while sitting in a lounge chair in his backyard with an open book. He was 83.

I inherited my father's competitiveness and his addiction to trying new things. When I was a kid, I made fun of his obsession with that ham radio in the cellar. Now, here I sit in my upstairs den blogging away on my computer.

Like many Swiss-Germans, dad was private, reserved, and conservative. He had difficulty dealing with authority. He was quick to anger when crossed and didn't like losing whether at work or golf or our kitchen table fights over FDR. He was not a warm, loving father in a demonstrable way but the love was buried within and I knew he would always  "have my back.".

Most of all, he was adept at ignoring the elephant in the room.

My Mother
Mom grew up in New York City. Her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland; that's all I know.

Jean Gleeson Schappi
I'm embarrassed that we have practically no information about  mom's family and background. Her deep depression -- that elephant in the room -- is, sadly, what I recall best. Every photo of my mother shows the same blank, joyless expression. In this picture, I'm doing what my dad, brother, and sister also did -- look away.

My dad never spoke about mom's depression. When I was in college, it got worse. Almost every afternoon when I came home, she'd be waiting at the kitchen table to tell me the same story: her explanation of what caused her depression.

Here's what I heard so often: When I was an infant, she was taking care of me and a cousin about the same age. Mom looked away for a moment, and the cousin had a bad fall that required medical attention. A year later, that cousin died from spinal meningitis. Mom was convinced that the fall had caused the meningitis, and that God was punishing her for being negligent.

Since I'd just been born, I wonder now if post-partum depression played a role in this sad story.

When I left Ithaca in 1955 to start a new life in Washington, I escaped from living under this cloud. To his great credit, my dad tried the best he could. For several years, my parents vacationed at Lake George each summer. But mom's depression worsened and dad's awareness of treatment possibilities increased. She spent much of her time during her last years in the Willard Psychiatric Center, a state institution. I Googled it and wish I hadn't; the place sounds like something straight out of Dickens. But my brother visited mom there, and thought she seemed more at ease there than at home.

Mom died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 67.

My Siblings

Carol, John (then Jack), Roger

I  called my brother Roger last Sunday on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had just finished shoveling the 16-inch snowfall from his long driveway.

Yesterday when I spoke with him, he was dealing with a cold and considered skipping his regular Tuesday night bowling game. He decided to go, since one of the bowlers was celebrating her 80th birthday. Roger bowled three games -- in the 270s and 280s. If he'd been feeling up to par, he might have matched or exceeded his all-time high score of 299.

In warm weather, which Ithaca enjoys a few months each year, Roger performs equally well in his golf leagues.

I'm a big city boy, but sometimes when the urban rat race got to be a bit much, I'd envy (briefly) the idyllic, smaller-town life that Roger and Gail led. They were both born in Ithaca, spent most of their lives there, and kept friends from childhood. Cornell and Ithaca College bring many special cultural attractions to the town of 30,000 residents.

Ithaca -- with its setting on Cayuga Lake, surrounded by hills -- is both gorges and gorgeous.

But for me, Ithaca's biggest attraction was Roger and Gail. When they got the repartee going, it was better than a TV sitcom. The put-downs might sound a bit rough, but you knew they came with good-humored love and warmth. With Gail and Rog, I found all the happy, family closeness that was missing in our early life with our parents.

Gail's death -- and her painful last months --were very rough on Roger. But when I saw all of their friends at Gail's memorial service, I knew Roger was going to be OK. And he is.

We talked during our several calls this past week about the isolated, lonely life our parents led, and recognized how fortunate we both are to be surrounded by family and friends. And, I'll add, to have each other.

But there's one more family story. The saddest of all.

The youngest child, Carol had the most trouble finding her place in the family. As the first-born, I always thought I was mom's favorite. My academic achievements won approval from both parents, as did my determination from age 14 to never ask for financial help. Roger's athletic achievements pleased dad. Roger also didn't carry the alcoholic and neurotic baggage that made Carol and me more difficult.
Carol Schappi

Money was always in short supply, but dad managed to put Carol through the University of Michigan. When she was just one credit short of getting her degree, she left school and moved to the New York City area. She found a job, but suffered a breakdown within a year and Dad brought her home. 

I've talked with Roger several times in the past few days, but neither of us can remember more than this bare outline. Communication was not a family hallmark.

When she returned to Ithaca, Carol began the life she would lead until the end -- staying in her room at the family house, drinking heavily, writing gibberish, and surfacing periodically to berate my dad for causing mom's depression.

I hadn't seen Carol for several years when I took a business trip to Ithaca. I stopped at the house and was shocked by what I found. Carol was drunk most of the time, and clearly mentally ill. I didn't have much time to spend in Ithaca, but I found a psychiatrist who sounded suitable. I gave Carol his name and made her promise to contact him. I understand she met with him at least once. 

About a month later, dad called to tell me that Carol had taken her own life.

When I went back to Ithaca for her funeral, I went through the writings stashed away in her room. Most were unintelligible. But it was clear she was struggling as an alcoholic and frustrated lesbian.

That call from dad about Carol's suicide was the worst moment of my life.

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