In the Past (Genealogy)

Ancestral Women

Do you ever stop and think about where you come from?  About what drives your spirit?  About the people who make up your past, especially the women?

I spend most all of my hobby time immersed in genealogy and find it to be so much more than just an enjoyable pastime.  In the process of poring over tattered family bibles and handwritten census and yellowed documents — as I stare at the faces in crackled, faded photos — while wandering through silent cemeteries and pausing beside overgrown or toppled stones, I think of them – of those who came before me.  Especially the women.

What were they like?  Did they laugh — a lot?  Did any of them find joy in gardening like I do or was it just a necessity essential for living and feeding a family?  Were they blessed to walk through life beside men they cherished and who cherished them in return – as I am?  Did they stare in amazement and wonder at their newborn babies just as I did?  Which one gave me my “unusual” eyes?  Were they strong in adversity? (undoubtedly)  Did they seek courage and rest on their knees in prayer?

Who were they?  What were their stories?  I want so desperately to know!

History has not been mindful with regard to the role of women in the past.  Unless there was the rare individual who created a pivotal moment or exclusive occurrence, they were just assimilated into the pre-determined sub-categories of wife and mother and, while I am in no way critical of those roles, (in fact, I admire them immensely) I am saddened that history has never truly acknowledged the unbelievable strength and perseverance of the “everyday woman.”  For while her individuality may have been sacrificed to time, her legacy lives still.

This is my great-grandmother and, in my mind’s eye, this is how I see her.

Edna McNew Holmes (1886 – 1960)

She was born in the Winter of 1886 To Scots/Irish parents and died just six months after I was born.  I would give anything to be able to sit and have a conversation with her…

She gave birth to NINE sons – and buried five of them — three before the age of two and two in their twenties.  How does a mother go on from that?  We are blessed to have professional photos of each of her boys, some with her in them.  She was a beautiful, young woman, but you can mark the passage of time in her eyes as life took its toll time and time again.

Edna McNew Holmes with 4th son, Woodrow Wilson Holmes (b. 12/6/1912 – d. 8/6/1913)

I’ve stood beside her grave often and stared at the stones of her little sons.  I think about her standing there as yet another of her babies is placed in the ground and I try to imagine how she must have felt.  I cannot, as it is an emotion exclusive only to those who have experienced it.

The thing is, everything I’ve been told about her does not reflect a life of grief.  She was funny and happy and busy and loving.  Though loss was a significant part of her life, it did not define her and I think that is the perfect illustration of the unbelievable strength and perseverance of the women who came before us.

Just a generation before her, women were preparing meals on wood stoves and a few generations before that, over fireplaces.  Wood stoves and fireplaces didn’t start themselves with the turning of a knob – they required time and fuel.  Fuel had to be gathered.  Food wasn’t available at the corner market.  It had to be grown/hunted, tended, harvested, prepared and preserved – day after day, with every season, year after year, or people simply starved!

Clothing had to be made from fabrics that had to be spun from sheep that had to be shorn.  Livestock needed tending and so did children – often, lots of them.  My great-great grandfather was one of TWENTY-ONE kids, the first eleven of whom were boys!  Like most families in the time before birth control was readily available and even accepted, children arrived like clock-work every two years.  Wean one, get pregnant with the next – repeat cycle.

Which brings us to the reality of child-bearing.  Do we realize just how lucky we are to have reached a point in time when we can look forward to the birth of a child with the knowledge that it is the rare occasion in which the outcome is anything other than a healthy baby and mama?  The women who came before us had no such reassurance and one only need read through old family bibles and walk the paths of forgotten cemeteries to mark the evidence of that fact.

How many of our long -ago ancestors labored in remote places far from assistance and encouragement or even a midwife?  How many lost their babies due to complications?  How many were lost themselves?

And what about mental health?  Was it even considered unless someone exhibited unusual or unacceptable behaviors?  Probably not.  There simply wasn’t time!  A woman could realistically have a houseful of little ones and not be much more than a child herself, as it wasn’t at all uncommon for girls of sixteen or seventeen to marry. 

Child rearing, cooking, laundry, cleaning, gardening, food preservation, sewing, milking cows, gathering eggs, supporting her husband, especially in farming or rural locations – all just part of every.single.day!  Consider the absence of electricity, refrigeration, running water, indoor plumbing, and sometimes even neighbors. Add illness, (which would most probably have run rampant through every child and probably her as well) a lean growing season, and pregnancy every other year.  Add the ultimate loss of a spouse.  It happened – frequently.

I think what inspires me most is that, in spite of the extreme challenges and experiences of our ancestral women, they somehow and by some means found a way to keep going – a way to put one foot in front of the other day after day, year after year and I would like to think that, even though life may have been hard, they found happiness and maybe even joy along the way.

Perhaps it was, in part, because they didn’t really have a great deal to compare it to.  It was what it was – expected – embraced.  Did my 18th century female ancestors really talk about “all of the advances” in medicine and methodology when comparing their experiences to those of their grandmothers?  We are able to see those advances in our time and thanks to historical resources.  They did not have the availability of so broad a window into the past and so I think that, while much more difficult from a physical and laborious perspective, life was infinitely simpler (NOT easier) and clearer with far fewer gray areas.   

Progression has its price and, dare I say, that sometimes and in in certain instances more choices complicate our lives and lessen the experience. (IMHO)

I sometimes question whether there is any way to even compare my life to that of my ancestral women.  It’s all so relative.  In the end, I think we can only compare the emotional part of our collective journeys because there is no question that the physical, material lives we live now don’t allow for us to experience the hardships they did.  They win in that arena – hands down!

Emotionally, however, I believe we have a connection.  Love, fear, grief, joy, anger, hurt, pride – these feelings are timeless.  It is true that those things that generate said emotions may be miles apart from one another, but they are the human experience that connects us to life and, as such, to one another.

My ggg-grandmother watched her five oldest sons march off to fight for the Union.  Only four returned.  I’m sure her prayers were no different from mine when my military son enters a conflict.  It’s just that hers were multiplied by five.  I know that my maternal grandmother lost a child pre-birth, as did I, and my paternal grandmother lost another shortly after birth.  I would guess that they, too, carried the experience deep in their souls and in quiet, unexpected moments, remembered with a tear, a bittersweet speculation of who he might have become, and a promise to never forget.  I’ve stood beside the man I love and felt unspeakable joy as we stepped into our life together as I’m sure my mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and others who came before me did as well. 

This is what defines us.  This is inherently who we are – our feelings, our emotions, our reactions to the experiences we live through.  This is what we share across the ages.

source of image unknown

I am a believer in a primal connection.  It beats heavily for me and I hear it and them – these ancestral women of mine.  I hear them call to me very strongly in the mystery of Celtic music.  I hear them whisper in Summer rains and in Autumn breezes as I stand in places they’ve stood.  I hear them when my hands are dirty from working in the earth and when I stare into an open fire.  I hear them when I ponder by their graves.  They are smiling.  I may even detect a hint of mischief.  I can’t tell you why I think of them in that way, but it’s the vision I have and it makes me smile in return. 

I, like all of us, come from a strong line of women.  I have roots that are Scots/Irish, Swiss, and German (that I have discovered thus far) and I absolutely love knowing that I am comprised of the genes and collective traits of each and every one of them – their physical characteristics, their personalities, their stories.  It empowers and humbles me at the same time and I find strength in their legacy. 

And, if I listen very closely, I can hear them singing to me — a message across the generations as they invite me to join them in the dance – a message offered with mischievous grins and heartfelt love…  

“The path you walk is yours, tis true, but we once left our footprints too. Remember this in all you do, for you are us and we are you.”

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother… and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. — 2 Timothy 1:5

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