June 8, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Depression Childhood Syndrome is still alive and well

Cynthia DewesThere’s a condition going around which only persons of an advanced age will recognize. It’s not cancer, heart disease or diabetes, although they’re probably familiar with them, too. No, it’s called Depression Childhood Syndrome.

Younger people are often amused or mystified by what makes older folks laugh when they’re socializing with other Social Security recipients. And they’re clueless about references that the older folks make to certain people, places or events they’ve never heard of.

Perhaps, in this age of instant information, the youngsters are even a bit miffed not to understand what’s going on. After all, everyone knows it’s not they but the old codgers who are technologically challenged!

It’s just that the “kids” are simply too young to remember the Great Depression and other olden days whose memories create the syndrome. And what triggers those memories can range from anything from seeing a picture to smelling a cooking odor to hearing a snatch of melody from an old tune.

Food is very important in setting off the Depression Childhood Syndrome. Or lack of it, considering that many people were hungry during the Great Depression and deprived of certain rationed foods during World War II. As a result, syndrome sufferers simply cannot waste food. Not the merest scrap.

In response to this impulse, many families still eat a lot of creative combinations of leftovers. These are euphemistically called “casseroles,” but do not appear in the pages of women’s magazines or on cable TV cooking shows. In fact, it would be impossible to duplicate them.

Sometimes they don’t even work. For example, if we tried (as some have) to combine leftover squash with a few raspberries, a bit of pasta and a small hunk of meatloaf. On the other hand, my mom was a genius at making small quantities of food stretch. She often fed three people well on one can of corned beef hash, doctored up with extra potatoes and onion.

The smell of blackboard erasers triggers the syndrome with all kinds of conflicting memories for its victims. My friends who went to Catholic grade school tell stories about the religious sisters who taught them, often including the cracking of knuckles with a ruler or steely looks that chilled the soul, but also including sweet holy cards for work well done.

Public school kids fared no better in the discipline department back then. An attention-getting smack was a generally approved teaching method at the time, and promotion of students’ self-esteem was not an educational priority. Kids were simply expected to perform as well as they could without reward. However, the intangible rewards of actually learning something or behaving oneself might be accompanied by a smile or a kind word from Teacher. Maybe.

Hearing certain songs played on the radio, in movies or on television triggers the Depression Childhood Syndrome immediately. Nostalgic music takes sufferers back to 1942 or thereabouts, and they’ll sob over “We’ll Meet Again” or “The White Cliffs of Dover.” They do this even though they might have been youngsters when those songs first came out because events like WW II create powerful memories, including subliminal ones.

Each generation has a syndrome based on its own insistent memories. I suppose the Victorians’ memories were as mysterious to their early 20th-century children as the Depression Childhood Syndrome is to young people today. This is not only an interesting phenomenon, but also an illustration of the beautiful complexity of the circle of life created by God.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

Local site Links: