I'm getting together a group of pictures for the wall behind my desk at the office. It's been a deeply moving, startling, illuminating, reassuring experience.
Not too long ago, I came across a picture of my great aunt, a Christian missionary in Africa in the early twentieth century. She and her husband, the Reverend Smith, stand tall in the jungle among the bare-chested natives; he in a wool, three piece suit with the stiff Victorian collar of the day and she in a long white lace trimmed dress with a lace trimmed picture hat, reminiscent of suffragettes of the time. As I looked at her and the steely resolve of ambition clearly in her eyes, I thought of the picture of her youngest sister singing at the Met in New York, fifty years later. I couldn't help but think of who lay between. And beyond.
Certainly, their sister /my grandmother and their mother/my great great grandmother, came to mind. I recalled that great picture of Grandma Belle hanging diapers on the line in front of a magnificent pepper tree, grown only in Southern California. She was smiling delightedly. I thought of that picture of mother's grandmother and her sister looking exactly alike in their middle age. They were short, petite women yet had the huge hands of bale buckers and were not slim-hipped by any definition. They stood side by side, holding immaculately swaddled twin grand daughters. Grandma and her sister wore mutton-sleeved blouses, white, long, crisp, lace-trimmed aprons and high button shoes, and stood on a muddy dirt road in front of a house with a picket fence and a palm tree. They were laughing and happy, these two sisters.
My Aunt Winifred flashed into my head; she was that grandma's granddaughter and a Red Cross nurse in the 1930s. She smiles proudly in her graduation picture, jaunty in her cap and pin. It was with her that the women in this family began to become educated. These days Aunt Winifred's granddaughter has a PhD from a highly prestigious medical school and works with the criminally insane. She does emotional, important work with people that no one even wants to think about. Another niece of mine is the director of one of the largest heart and lung transplant programs in this country. Her job each and every day is death and life, life and death. Somebody dies. Somebody lives. Every day. All the women of this part of my family, then and now, are faithful, devoted and determined.
I thought about Nana who washed my father's diapers in the icy cold waters of the St. Joe River. Nana was a woman who literally could do anything: she could paint with exquisite technique and interpretation; she could oh Lord could she cook; she could sew clothing that was wondrous in every stitch; she could hunt and fish and laid hardwood the entire length of her upstairs when she was in her 60s. I thought about my Great Aunt Clara, who kept books for the family's business as she became of age, a proud first generation German American. She says in one of her letters, "They told us they did business with us because we were German and they could trust us; besides, they knew we would work hard for them."
And so it is. This part of my family has been in business on the main street of one downtown or another in this country ever since they came here; wide ribbons of hard work, trustworthiness and ambition swirl in our gene pool yet. We are tradesmen and vendors, purveyors and proprietors, blacksmiths, merchants, architects, engineers, accountants. I realize it's not something we aspire to be, it's simply who we are.
My grandmothers all bathed and fed their babies; taught and disciplined their children; kept house, cooked for, and nurtured their families following their deepest desires and strongest convictions. My great great great grandmother moved her family here from Prussia despite her mother's and sister's heartfelt protestations. She never saw them again but as she did not want her five sons to be "fodder for the czar's war", moving to this country gave her assurance of her sons' futures. A tough, fiercely courageous, principled housewife and mother.
I am amazed and humbled because I do not see myself as a part of this line up. I see myself as diligent, sturdy and average; certainly not determined, sterling and astute. And yet, as I study the pictures of these determined, sterling , astute and accomplished women and read their letters, I know that these are my people and that I am them.
It's cloudy and cold today and a dozen shades of gray softly stripe the sky outside my window. I sit at my desk and wonder about the latest conundrum or the latest crisis as a part of my job here and I wonder, too, about the past and present women in my family. I realize they literally have my back.
Life is unbelievable sometimes.
The 'Kan EWA