I’m lying in a feather bed in an upstairs bedroom with my great-grandmother, Blanche. Lights from the highway sweep across the angled ceiling above the bed as she begins to whisper the stories of her life, her teeth in a jar by the bed. I’m eight and she’s eighty and it’s the first time I’ve met her. She’s my grandmother’s mother–I live with Gram since my parents have not been able to take care of me. My mother left when I was four, and today, I find out there is a huge family I’m related to–Gram’s brothers and sisters in Iowa, friendly folk who smile and pat me on the back, surrounding me with a web of family.
Born three years before Custer’s Last Stand, Blanche begins to tell me the stories of her life in the mid-19th century. She was the first of six children, doing the back-breaking work of farm women–raising gardens and children, canning and baking, serving the farm hands, washing clothes in a pot in the yard.
“I delivered the babies too, and I’ll never fergit”–she says it like that–“the first time I heard a voice over a telephone. I cried. And the radio–the first time…” her voice dims while she stirs her memories. I prod her to go on, trying to understand who she is, and where we came from. “You’re Gram’s mama? Did you know my Mama?”
“Lands sake, girl. I’m Lulu’s Mama, all right. I knew your Mama–Jo’tine we called her–when she was a little girl, sweet thing she was.” I think about my beautiful mother I miss so much, her dark eyes and pretty face, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to see me. “Lulu’s Papa, Louis was his name–we got married on a snowy New Year’s Day, 1894, and two months later he died of pneumonia.”
I could see it–the snowy day, the squeak of saddle leather on the horses, the crunch of hooves, Blanche’s face smooth and young, as I try to imagine the woman I know as my grandmother being a little baby. There is so much to know.
“It was all so long ago. We worked hard, we women was midwives to each other, and there was all the cannin’ and the bakin.’ Sweatin’ at the cook stove. Things was different then. Land sakes.”
In the silence I realize she’s the mother of the mother of the mother, and knows everything. I have to find out what she knows–why did my mother leave me and why did my grandmother leave my mother? I want to understand the birthing of babies and the canning in the summer and how you light a fire in the wood cook stove.
Blanche seared into me a curiosity about the past. Knowing the past held some kind of magic, in the past was answers that could explain and even change the present. Over the years, I pursued my family story, searching in libraries and dusty courthouses for documents that proved the stories to be true–or not. I spent seven years, an hour each year, trying to track my mother’s childhood through old newspaper snippets where the family name was mentioned. I wanted to get to know her story, so I could understand my own.
Our history is alive in us, it is part of us–our blood, our cells, and the silent, secret history that has shaped the family and each person in it. When we unlock these stories, we release knowledge and wisdom, the gifts and transformation that wait for us to discover them.
PS Blanche is holding the car tire in the photo, and my mother is the little girl in the center.
I’m going to speak with Dan Curtis of the Association of Personal Historians Friday, June 15 at 11 AM. Join me there for a rich conversation!