Blanche and Lulu, 1895 Lulu’s father died 8 months before she was born
Today is International Women’s Day. I reflected again on the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with stories from the 19th century; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me. She started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, who took ships across the ocean. And my mother, Josephine, who’d been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary in the early 1920s while her daughter lived in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle as women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much of their history is the history of America.
In my book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what others have lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, lost narratives, lies, and pregnant silences. I felt each of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, and the secrets and silences that always hovered underneath. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes in my body. I felt the shame of being related to my grandmother and mother, and judged by Gram’s brothers and sisters in the Iowa extended family as “bad blood.” Because they were different. Because they both dared to take a different path from the traditional farm woman who would sacrifice herself and die young.
Lulu, about 25
What do we do as women with these inheritances? We search for our identity. Part of my self-definition was to return to the origins of my family and sleuth out their pasts. For four decades, I talked to family members, who would clam up around certain subjects–so I noted the subjects where they were silent, and was even more determined to find out what happened that created the silences. I made my way to dusty courthouses where I lifted down huge tomes of records, each with hundreds of pages filled with names written in lovely cursive writing. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when did Lulu leave Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl. Why did they fight fought and struggle with each other until the last day of Frances’s life? She died without any reconciliation with my mother.
My mother Josephine was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped she’d at last claim me. When I was twenty years old, she told me not to call her “mother.” She was ashamed of being divorced, ashamed perhaps of being herself. The sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or able to love me or my children. But I was with her at her deathbed, and in those few days she could no longer prevent me from loving her. The silences lifted and there was a purity beyond the story we’d lived.
Josephine, about 5, in rocking chair with her new aunt.
The search for their history continued for twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I pieced together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are revealed in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By doing the research and writing their stories, I healed myself, and could offer a new legacy to my children and grandchildren.
Today I celebrate these women who had to live in a world that was biased, judgemental, and set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. We need to teach the new generations the histories that shape women and help them understand.
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It’s a question that people have been asking me: why write another memoir? This summer, I’m excited to be involved with book launches, reviews, and discussions about my new memoir Song of the Plains. I asked myself, what still needs to be said after my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother?
Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness
My first memoir is about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. It’s a coming of age story through a child’s eyes that begins when my mother left—I was four. The book follows the theme of mothers and daughters who were estranged, and struggled with their relationship. When I discovered that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl, I knew that something was wrong, that there was a generational pattern that demanded to be explored. The story takes the reader on a journey that shows how I coped with a volatile and rejecting mother, and my grandmother. She had saved me and raised me with great flair—sharing her passions about music, history, and literature, but she deteriorated as she got older into an angry, punishing person. My mother’s diagnosis of manic-depressive illness on her deathbed offered some insights into our family pattern—it often runs in families. Having a name for some of the crazy things that happened as I grew up helped me to understand the struggles I’d witnessed. Knowing that there was a mental illness explained in part what happened in our family and helped me to have compassion for my mothers by the end of the book.
Song of the Plains
The themes of this book had been whispering in my ear for decades, though the cadence grew louder last year, which reminded me that I’d been gathering books and quotes about the Great Plains for years. I was a history buff fascinated by archeology, geology, and the westward-ho movement that sent pioneers across America, not yet knowing how deeply that history was engraved in my DNA.
Growing up in Oklahoma put me in touch with western history—wild and reckless and “Indian country” until well into the 20th century. I had a personal relationship with the Great Plains—its huge spaciousness felt like a protection when I was stressed by my grandmother and mother’s conflicts. The beauty of the azure sky and huge towers of clouds offered peace and inspiration. And the wind has always been a character in stories about the west.
Since I was a child, I had a powerful curiosity to know what happened in the past, ever since my great-grandmother whispered her stories to me in a featherbed when I was eight and she was eighty. From that time on, I was a genealogist and a historian, always searching for more insights.
The voice for this book began to whisper in my ear, and there also was the familiar inner critic voice: haven’t you said too much already? Isn’t one story enough about all those people? What’s new that hasn’t been said? Aren’t you writing too much about yourself?
We all have that voice, but there’s another voice that whispers invitations—have you heard it, too? It goes like this: What if…
My voice said:
- What if… you learned more about your grandmother’s life—maybe that would change your perspective about her.
- What if… you could find out what happened to your mother as a little girl—maybe that could explain why she was so angry and sad.
- What if…there are more stories about them you don’t know. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to find out?
These questions led me to do decades of genealogical research, which for years had still left me without a story I could piece together. The “What if” questions are what drove me to the courthouses and graveyards for the last forty years as I tried to discover the hidden stories about my family. I found a treasure of information in the small town newspaper in Wapello, Iowa.
For seven years, I searched for our family names in the microfilm archives, and luckily was rewarded by finding pieces of my mother’s story—when she was born, where she lived. It was exciting to see my mother there as a little girl, and my grandmother, when she was only twenty-one years old. Suddenly, people who had a story in the misty far past became real and in focus. They came alive to me, proving that history is not only something that happened long ago. History is a living story, lived moment to moment, and when we can follow the breadcrumbs, we can find to a deeper understanding.
My book weaves the themes of history, of land and people, and hope and failure. Hard work and adventures across the sea. It’s bigger than me and my story—and I’m happy for that. I hope my book encourages you to look for your roots and celebrate your heritage. Perhaps you will even want to write about it!
I’m excited to announce the pub day for my new memoir, Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence. As I look at the cover of the huge sky and golden earth, I marvel at how ideas and stories are born into the world. It’s amazing to see the scenes and stories that have been locked in my memory show up in a book! And it’s surreal to see in print our family history that goes back more than 100 years. I think all memoirists feel both awe-stricken and a little panicked when their book comes out!
My new memoir was inspired by an obsession to learn more about my family, especially my grandmother and my mother. I wrote about our three-generational pattern of mother-daughter abandonment in my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother through the point of view of a child, but now I wanted to explore the story through a longer lens and from an adult perspective. Decades after they died, I was still getting insights and deepening my compassion for them. Most of my life, I didn’t know the details of what had happened to my mother as a little girl.
My grandmother raised me after my mother left when I was four, and when I was very young, my great-grandmother Blanche told me that my grandmother had left her daughter, my mother, behind when she left to work in Chicago. I first met Blanche when she was eighty and I was eight. Together on a featherbed the first night I met her, Blanche whispered the stories of the times she’d lived, life in the 19th century—her marriage in 1894, the death of her husband two months later, unaware he was going to be a father. Blanche told me about midwives, baking bread in a wood cookstove summer and winter, feeding a family of nine, and the hardscrabble life of farm women. She told me about my mother, called Jo’tine when she was young, and how sad it made her that my mother and grandmother didn’t get along. That night, I stared at Blanche in wonder—she was a walking history book!
After that, I was forever hooked on stories—I’d eavesdrop on the adults’ conversations, ask endless questions about who and why and when, eagerly searching for the layers of truth and lies. I believed that these stories were clues to why people acted the way they did. I thought that if we understood someone’s history, we could put aside our differences. We could tolerate and even love each other better. Of course, that does not always happen, no matter how much we know.
This book is bigger story than just my family. For forty years, I continued the genealogical research I’d started as a child, searching in dusty courthouses and finally on Ancestry.com for clues about my grandmother, who had rebelled against the expectations of her family and society by eloping when she was seventeen, and later leaving her daughter behind to work in Chicago, away from the farm work she hated. I learned about the permissions neither of them had to explore their world freely, to become a whole person. I saw that our family’s past revealed the history of America, a story bigger than we were. The history of the Great Plains is woven into our own history, a land where the blood and bone of family hearken from and where we are released. The song of the plains I listened to as a child comforted me in times of strife, woven through with the sounds of birdcall, and the wind. The swish of the wheat in June, golden fields as far as the eye could see.
I was surprised as I wrote the book that all these themes wanted to become part of the story. My friend and colleague Brooke Warner says, “Listen to what the memoir is telling you it wants to be.” So I did!To read more about Song of the Plains, please find my author page lindajoymyersauthor.com.
Please join me at my launch events: Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, CA, June 24, 6:30 PM
Please read this post about Gallery Bookshop.
Book Passage, in Corte Madera, CA, June 30, 7 PM.
I would love to see you there and talk with you about your writing journey!
I was one of those children who found refuge in books—burrowing down in bed at night, the golden light of a flashlight creating an illuminated cave as the light played across the pages. Great stacks of books were piled on my night table, and I made my way quickly through them. Books were a refuge, they were my friends, and they helped me escape from the drama in my life that I write about in my two memoirs. There was a pattern in our family—three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. I am the third daughter who took it upon myself to investigate the history that made its way to me. Even when I was young, I knew I had to break the pattern.
I grew up with my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Though not formally educated, my grandmother was woman who was thirsty for knowledge. Her books were piled up on bookcases, desks, and side tables. I was grateful that we both shared a passion for books and stories. When my mother visited and their screaming fights broke out, I tried to understand why, but that would take years of research to piece together their history. Books however were wise, teaching me that people were complicated, helping me to stand back as an observer. Eventually, I became a narrator of our story, investigating our family history for ten generations. The layers of our story are in my new book Song of the Plains—A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence.
If you love books, you of course will find refuge and delight in bookstores. I’ve long been a bookstore lover. I love the smell of the books—I’m a self-confessed book sniffer, the aroma of ink and paper a heady mix. The rows of enticing new worlds on each side of the aisle always has been and still is wonderful to me. For nearly forty years, one of the bookstores I have loved and embraced is Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California. When I first started roaming the aisles of Gallery Bookshop, I would arrive hungry, often in the throes of emotional angst that was a part of years of healing from the dramas and traumas of the past. Just like when I was a child, I’d look for books where I could disappear for a while, books that would teach me something new about life. Gallery Bookshop always offered new treasures. I would find unique books, lovely literary novels, adventures, and psychologically intelligent books. And the best part of being at the bookstore is the people who work there. They know their books well, as if they were family members, books beloved and shared and hand sold.
The bookstore faces the sea, the sound of waves rumbling below the cliffs is part of the sound track of the store, inviting you to walk at the edge of the world. You can imagine how deeply I will enjoy talking about my new memoir at Gallery Bookshop on June 24, 2017. It’s like coming home to speak with other book lovers there as the white spray from the waves lifts up over the rocks.
Now, when I visit Gallery Bookshop, I remember all the years when it sheltered me, offering me hope and stories, and a vision for a life where writing stories might be possible, though for years I didn’t believe that I could write. Story by story, I developed my craft, and the permission to find words for my experience.
Books still feed me, as does this special bookstore by the sea, and I am more than delighted to be a guest on June 24. Please join me to share your own family stories, and how books have changed your life.