Article - Winter 2020

Changing Trains

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In Stuttgart, in 1943, my mother escaped bombs falling on the station. Has her terror expressed itself in me?

By Catharina Coenen | December 2, 2019
The Stuttgart station after the war: My mother
The Stuttgart station after the war: My mother "avoided train travel at all cost. I thought she was just scared of germs." (Alamy)

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Maybe it was the smell of slowing trains that drove my heartbeat up into my throat. The heating brakes, perhaps, the screams of steel-rimmed wheels, or the decelerating strobe of shadows cast by electric poles. I knew no word to describe the sudden narrowing and darkening of the world, the sweaty hands, the single-minded focus on having to catch my connection, the sense that anything—anything!—would be better than having to wait on a platform or inside a station hall, even in pleasant weather, even with a novel, even for an hour or less. At 20, when I rode three connecting trains back and forth from college two or three times every week, I would have named the feeling “changing trains.” Doctors, had I thought to consult them, would have labeled it “panic attack.” They would have deemed the cause “unknown.”

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When researchers waft cherry aroma through cages of young mice and then apply electroshocks, grandchildren of these mice shudder when they smell cherries, even though they were never shocked themselves. The scientists at Emory University who discovered this in 2013 can’t tell us whether the mice experience tunnel vision as they twitch. We can’t know what mouse thoughts course through brains as muscles jolt. If the grand-mice could confide in mouse therapists, no childhood traumas involving cherries would be found. They would be unaware that their grandfathers also shivered in response to cherry scent, because the reaction travels from one generation to the next not through learned behavior, observation, or stories told, but in the form of chemical marks that cling to strands of DNA.

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My mother blamed my post-train exhaustion, my silence, and my fuzzy-mindedness on the lamentable condition of the German Rail: the grime, the drafts, the perpetual delays. I knew she avoided train travel at all cost. I thought she was just scared of germs.

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