Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mom’s Birthday

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 24, 2010

b: January 12, 1925..

Today is my mom’s birthday. It is hard to think about a birthday when the person who was born is no longer with us. Normally, I would wake up and call my mom and I would wish her a happy birthday and for many years she would say “well, it is better than the alternative”. Even though my mom passed away in 2008, I am still thinking about calling her.

My mom was born in 1925. She often told me that she was a depression baby. By that she meant that she grew up in the Great Depression. As we all know, the Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. In most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s. In 1933 the unemployment in the United States rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.  The depression originated in the United States, starting with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, but then spread to almost every country in the world. In today’s terms, we would say “it went global”.

The cause of the Great Depression is not clear, but two economists of the 1920s, Waddill Catchings and William Trufant stated that since the economy produced more than it consumed, there was an unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s, causing the Great Depression. The end of this economic downturn seems more straight forward. Most people think that the Great Depression ended with the advent of World War II. America’s late entry into the war in 1941, when my mom was 16, finally eliminated the last effects from the Great Depression. Unemployment rate went below 10%.

For years, when my mom described herself as a “depression baby” I had no idea what she meant. I knew that she grew up in poverty. I knew that when I went to visit my grandparents, her parents, I slept at night with my hands over my ears so that I would not hear the gunshots in the neighborhood. I understood that her childhood was rough. I also understood that she attributed her challenges to the economic conditions of the country. However, what I did not understand is whether other people, born in her era, saw themselves in the same way.

My dad, born in 1927 into a poor family, had a very different outlook. He saw himself as a very lucky young man. He served in World War II, went to college on the GI Bill, and poof, his life changed. My dad’s focus has been, and continues to this day, to be on how fortunate he was to be able to take advantage of this government program. My father often tells me how college was amongst the best years of his life.

So, as a psychiatrist I wonder how two people, born into similar economic circumstances, grew up to review their early years so differently. Clearly, there are many many factors which determine one’s formative experiences. My question though is why my mom attributed her challenges to the economy. My mom spoke about how poor people suffer in ways that affluent people do not understand. It is not that rich people do not have their challenges, it is only that people in different economic classes cannot really understand each other, even if they think they can.

I remember when I was little and the Pritikin diet had just hit the public’s eye. The diet promoted grains, with some, but not much protein. My mom laughed, saying that when the food is associated with poverty, no one wants any part of it, but now that some fancy doctor is saying it is good for you, everyone wants to eat like poor people.

My mom never wanted any presents for her birthday, but she did want me to call her. She wanted me to remind her that I was happy she was still here. At the same time, even though in her adult years, her economic life was characterized by booms and busts, her birthday seemed to be a painful reminder of her adversities. She understood that her childhood was challenging on many levels. Eventually, I began to understand that when she said she was a “depression baby” she was saying that the challenges of the country were woven together with her personal challenges of her family dynamics. I came to appreciate the wonders of the double meaning of depression: psychological and economic. This is no coincidence.

My mom taught me a lot. Today I appreciate her wisdom. In particular, I embrace her point that people in different economic circumstances do not really understand each other. The longer I live, and the longer I work with people who are suffering, the more I understand that she was right. Happy birthday mom.

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