How does imitation turn into envy?

Imitation is obviously a natural behavior that promotes the acquisition of ptactical information and promotes social cohesion.

I was aware for a long time that my mother was very imitative. It facilitated her acquisition of new skills. An early example she often related during her long life (98 years) was her acquisition of pattern-making skills to facilitate her employment in the ready-to-wear Clothing industry. As she told it about her first job after arriving in Los Angeles in 1949, she did not like sewing and vowed she would have the pattern-maker’s job within a year. And so she did.

I do not know what actually happened to the pattern-maker. Within about two years she was moved to San Francisco and within another year she was back in L.A. and planning to emigrate to Chile. That adventure, prompted by her desire to copy her German friends, lasted less than a year and, because shipping along the west coast was stalled, she accepted the suggestion of her Jewish friends and we headed to New York.

I am reminded of all this by the injunction to remember the Holocaust. I do not remember the Holocaust, but I suspect that in a weird way it accounted for my mother decamping to a vacation spot in the Austrian Alps, perhaps because she had been given to understand that the Jewish people for whom she had been making clothing, were being sent to spa communities like Auschwitz because they did not leave the country when they were told–something she wanted to do but was denied an exit permit. So, she got herself with child and decamped to Austria until we were deported after the war.

While her attitude towards the Fluechtlinge, who arrived from the east was uniformly negative, I considered it no more significant than her oft-expressed distaste for her mother’s habit of associating with lower class people. She, of course, always associated with the “superior” kind. In fact, she had no real friends since she did not stay anywhere more than a couple of years.

However, her imitative habits did make her amenable to some suggestions, like buying a house lot in Florida, sight unseen, because a dentist had given her tickets to a “free” cocktail party in a New York hotel. Then, when I decided to move to D.C. after college, she moved there ahead of me and after I was married, she moved back to New York, which she did not like. Then, since I had married a university professor, her response to the suggestion she look for a housemother position at a college was agreeable. So, she spent a few years at UCon and then Smith College.

When we moved to Ithaca, New York, my mother was ready to retire, but she wanted nothing to do with raising three grand children and bought herself another house which we had to help fix up. Then she left for the house she had had built in Florida.

As it turned out, a University professorship opened up in North Florida a couple of years later and, after we moved to Gainesville, I visited Cape Coral, once and vowed never to return. So, my mother said she would move to Gainesville and we found her a house nearby. She bought another house in a redevelopment area and relied on us to help with turning it into two rental units. In 1989 we bought a bigger house with a separate section for her. But, after two years she announced she was moving out. I decided to sell the house and moved to Georgia, leaving my mother behind.

I am slow. I did not realize that her purchasing a house in the redevelopment area, which I argued against, was both imitative and an exercise of one-upmanship; not until I received reports that she had written insulting letters about a neighbor’s achievements she envied. So, when she expressed a desire to move to Georgia, I facilitated that and prepared to institute restraints. Even at age ninety she was capable of plotting to injure those who disappointed her expectations. Perhaps the impulse to destroy is part of envy.

But how does imitation become perverted? That I do not know.