While I can say they had their moments, it is more accurate to state that my mother and grandmothers were not cut out to have or raise children. Mostly, this is not their fault but the consequence of being surrounded by traumatized, abusive men and cold parents of their own.
Mother’s Day like too many other ‘holidays’ becomes one to simply endure. Sure, people tend to post shout-outs now on social media to people with complicated mother relationships. That’s nice. Not really nice so much as an effort that is a few tiers above the ‘magical memory’ approach to life.
I’ve tried to connect with my ‘mothers’ by exploring the family history of my 2x great grandmothers. Their lives give me insight into the lived experiences of my grandmothers and my mother, but they are far enough way from my own life to create an emotional buffer. It has been eye-opening and heart wrenching, but also impressive as hell to understand their lives.
I wrote these nearly four years ago and my genealogical research has brought to life new facts that haven’t made their way into these posts as updates. Yet.
All of the 2gg’s were born between 1852-1874. Their deaths ranged from 1898-1960, the shortest life span stretching just 25 years and the longest to 96 years. That time frame covers the Civil War to the Vietnam War. But their collective lives overlapped by only 24 years (1874-1898.)
Three of these women were born while slavery was still legal with several being directly related to people who enslaved human beings. All of them lived during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
All were born without the right to vote. Five lived to see suffrage extended to women, mostly white women. None of them lived to see full enfranchisement via the elimination of the poll tax and other voter suppression tactics that had impacts on their families and neighbors.
Most of my 2gg’s lived without indoor plumbing, electricity, or similar conveniences. They lived in cramped quarters, heated with wood, and walked everywhere for most of their lives. None lived in affluence, even the one (Caroline RItter Pryor) whose brother went on to become a multi-millionaire after her death. They were all very much working class women, the daughters and wives of farmers and coal miners and steel workers and a few ne’er do wells, living on next to nothing with very little resources.
That’s not to say there aren’t important differences between their experiences – Anna Gottheld spent most of her adult life in one home on the Southside whereas Jennie Tarleton was seemingly always on the move as both of her husbands pursued work around the region. Five of these women were widowed, some more than once. The other three died with young children still at home, left to be raised by their fathers, stepmothers, and extended family. Jennie sailed across the sea while Alice Jenkins traveled across the United States and back by train. Regina Kramer is not know to have traveled more than a few miles from her home in Butler County.
It is easy to romanticize this period of time, but the reality is that most of us – even in our toughest times – had a far better quality of life. Better housing, sanitation, food, healthcare, nutrition, education, and individual autonomy. I should clarify that for *me* this is true. No matter how hard things have been, I am aware that their lives are tied to the good and bad in my own life.
I see little glimpses of myself in their stories – like Jennie, I live with mental illness. Like Sadie, I try to sow good into the world through empowering women. Like Caroline Ritter, my brother’s star has far surpassed my own. Like Anna, I am not in touch with my family of origin. Like Alice, I’ve lived elsewhere but travel home in the end. Like Sarah, I now live in Pittsburgh’s Northside (then Allegheny City.)
Unlike them, I have chosen not to have children. Unlike them, I *have* that choice. So I will never be someone’s 2gg. I am okay with that – I can’t stop all of the generational trauma from continuing into future generations, but I can put a plug in this particular branch.
There women are my ancestors. I don’t revere them, perhaps I should, but I honor their realities. I’m grateful to know their stories. I do believe if their truths had been more overtly entwined in the lives of their children and grandchildren, we’d all be better off for it.
- My Family Story: The Hidden Legacy of Caroline Feil (1858-1936)
- My Family Story: The Long Life of Regina Gallagher (1864-1960)
- My Family Immigration Story: The Tragic Life of Jennie Tarleton (1868-1944)
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