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.
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.
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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