Today as I got up and remembered that it’s International Women’s Day, I thought about the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with her stories from the 19th century, and the idea that hard work is a valued part of life; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me, who started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, an international traveler; my mother, Josephine, who had been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary and clerk in the early 1920s while her daughter lived back in Iowa with relatives. I thought about how I inherited their struggle to be women in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how much our history is the history of America.
In my new book Song of the Plains–a Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence, to be released in June, I investigate these histories–the personal and the cultural. The history of where we came from and what we lived through marks us all. I inherited broken links, missing stories, lost narratives, lies and pregnant silences. I felt each one of these gaps and psychic wounds in my body, each dark turn of the stories that you could feel but no one would talk about, the secrets and silences. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with visible holes i my body, and always 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.”
What do we do as women with these inheritances? I know that we all seek to find our identity, and since the sixties, women have had more permission to seek and find, rebel and re-define who they are. 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 was going on, what had happened that created the silence. 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 where I looked for clues to the lives of my family. The silences I had experienced were about the missing stories– when Lulu left Josephine behind, what happened to my mother as a little girl, and how it was that they fought and struggled with each other until the last day of Frances’s life. She died without any reconciliation with my mother. What was that about? Could I do any better with my mother, I wondered.
She was not an easy person to love, though I loved her with the desperation of a lost child who always hoped that she would at last treat me nicely, or 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, and the sad story is that my mother never was able to be normal, or about 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. I experienced a freeing of the dark silences as I embraced her with compassion and tears.
The search for my mother and grandmother and their history continued for the next twenty years, and finally, thanks to Ancestry.com, I was able to piece together their story. My story. The paths I took in this exploration are in my new book. I hope it will give hope to others who want to know the stories that are lost. By writing their stories, I healed my own story, and 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 basically set up not to respond to their needs or their dreams. I hope we can continue to bring awareness to new generations that we must all hold ourselves accountable for the rights of women now and in the future.