Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother’s Day: What Mothers Hand Down to Their Families

My family may be like many American families. I
cannot count my ancestors with any knowledge past
a few generations back on either side. When my
people came to this country, they came to leave
things behind.

My German ancestors left princelings who insisted
on drafting them for interminable wars. My Welsh
and Scottish ancestors left an English crown that
occupied their land. The English imposed laws
banning their language. My Welsh Quaker forbears
also came because the English laws barred them
from ownership of land and closed professions to
them if they did not belong to the Church of
England. None of my ancestors wanted to
remember where they came from. They shook the
dust of previous homes from their feet.

Many families pass along proud names, or silver
heirlooms, portraits or lace tablecloths. My family
had none of these things. And yet, I have received a
full inheritance, from both my mother’s side and my
father’s side.

When my grandmother on my mother’s side was
dying, she told us things none of us had known.
Her mother had lived with their family in old age,
and terrified the three girls, my mother and her
sisters. She was a grim and fierce old lady in the
photographs I have seen, a lot like the wicked witch
of the West in Wizard of Oz. My mother’s
childhood memories were of an unbending, self-
righteous, bigoted woman who could be bitter-
tongued and harsh. And yet, what my grandma told
us unfolded a different picture.

My great-grandmother grew up in the Arkansas
Territory, where her family was homesteading on
the frontier. Her mother, we now heard, had been
kidnaped by Northern Cheyenne Indians. When she
returned some months later, she was pregnant, and
it was not clear whether the baby was by her
husband or by an Indian rapist. This baby was my
great-grandmother, who grew up in a time, place
and culture where being half-Indian would have
been a very bad thing, indeed.

Shortly after the baby was born, her mother
apparently decided to leave with a band of
Cheyenne who were camping near the homestead.
(Why? We do not know, but it is tantalizing to
speculate, isn’t it?) She asked her older daughters
to raise the baby as part of the German-American
family, since she thought the Indians were doomed.
She left only a piece of bead-work for her daughter,
and went away. When my great-grandmother spoke
of her mother leaving, it was with great bitterness
and blame, though she always told my mother and
her sisters that her mother was kidnaped or killed
when she disappeared the second time.

When she married, this young woman moved many
miles away from her family, to southern Indiana.
She brought the acorn of a prairie oak with her, but
otherwise, I do not know of her returning to visit.
Perhaps she did or wrote letters to her sisters and
father. In Indiana, she had a very large family and
kept a farm with her new husband who was also a
cabinet-maker. Her husband, and many others in
this town were German-Americans, so it must have
been comfortably similar in many ways. But after a
number of years, her husband hanged himself in the
family barn. My grandmother was 10 years old and
was the one to find him.

In my great-grandmother’s life, it must have felt like
a series of appalling rejections. The most important
people in her life abandoned her. Furthermore, as a
widow, she had some very practical problems in
raising her children and keeping the farm. She lived
in a time when women really had few options for
education or supporting themselves or their
families. I had always been very critical of her
bitterness and judgmental nature. If my own mother
says something like, “Nice women don’t dye their
hair,” I know that she is channeling her
grandmother. I do not like those aspects of my
great-grandmother, and can see why she frightened
her granddaughters (and probably everybody else).
But I am reconsidering things.

What my great-grandmother did was to hold her
family together, keep people fed and clothed and get
them through school despite her husband’s death.
My grandmother not only finished high school, she
went on to the Kellogg’s Institute of Nutrition in
Michigan. The other children were also well-
educated and able to get good jobs, if they were
men, or well-married if they were women.

I always assumed that my own grandmother’s
gentle, kind nature was an amazing triumph over
her mother’s bitterness. But perhaps that is the
wrong way to look at things. Perhaps my mother
and her sisters saw a tired, achy, embittered woman
at the end of her very hard life. Maybe what they
saw was that she used all her strength to lift her own
children up and off. She may have felt very alone,
after being abandoned twice. And maybe she felt
nobody gave her any credit by the end. What a
terrible bunch of burdens she carried, and so many
in secret. Whether she was kind or gentle, she was
certainly strong and indomitable, and that is a
worthwhile inheritance.

Her daughter, my grandmother, must have gotten a
good share of strength of character, too. She was,
after all, the one who found her father hanged in the
barn. I never met a kinder or sweeter person. One
of my best memories is working in her garden
together, my mother, my grandmother and me. I am
glad to hand gardening along to my own daughter.

My grandmother on my father’s side was a strong
character. She rose from extreme poverty, had
thirteen children, and managed to raise eleven of
them through the Great Depression to adulthood.
Most of them have done well, establishing

My father remembers his mother going to his school
to fight the principal and all the authorities on his
behalf, like a little avenging angel with a fourth
grade education. Some other child broke a window
and he was being blamed. She would not let him be
punished unfairly. She was always a small person,
and had to leave school shortly after completing
third grade. By the time I was 10 years old, I was as
tall as she was, and better educated, but not nearly
as smart or as wise. She taught me how to do basic
crochet one afternoon. She could make any pattern
after looking at it.

These extraordinary grandmothers, and great-
grandmother of mine had no family crests or silver
for their children. Instead, they gave their courage
and indomitability in adversity. Through their
toughness, hope, and belief in their children, they
lifted their families out of poverty and into the
middle class.

So, what do I hope to give my own daughter? I
won’t have a silver set to give her, or an heirloom
portrait or furniture, either. Like my grandmothers,
I will give her courage, and indomitability. I hope
to give her a full share of kindness and sweetness; a
sense of justice and fairness. And lots and lots of

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