Jon’s aunt has been asking me about my family tree.
She is a genealogy enthusiast who has managed to trace her own family back to BC. I gave her some information, and she was able to trace several branches of my family back, though she had some trouble with my Dad’s paternal side. So I’ve been working with my dad and aunt to try to trace the family back.
It’s not easy. My aunt had some information, but there are some things that appear to be wrong even in recent generations. I was able to find an ancestor listed from the late 18th/early 19th century, but the site did not list my forebear as his descendant. I did find some NC census data that supported the tie, though, as all were living on the same land tract for two censuses, when my great however many grandfather was a boy.
And then I went back, and found an indentured servant from Cornwall who journeyed to the Jamestown colony in 1620.
Oh, and then I went back, and found a Sheriff of Gloucester and Cornwall in medieval England , and a governor of Caen around the time of William the Conqueror. And then I saw the line “Descendants of Charlemagne.”
For a brief moment, it was really cool. Whoa, Charlemagne.
But who knows if it’s real? There weren’t exactly DNA tests to prove paternity back in the dark ages. Besides, go back far enough and everyone’s probably related to everyone through some branch of the family tree.
So today, I’m going to celebrate the little stories of family that I know about. Because there are so many good and inspiring stories about relatives I know I can claim.
Not Dark Age Kings, or aristocrats, or soldiers. Nope, instead I’m going to celebrate ordinary women who nevertheless managed to do things that I’m proud of, and whose lessons I want to pass on to my daughter.
Tante Helena, The Businesswoman
My mother’s father immigrated from the Netherlands as a teenager shortly before World War I. He came to eastern NC with his parents and siblings to farm, because land wasn’t that easy to acquire in the old country.
I think his parents were also concerned about several of their large family of mostly boys getting conscripted. They had several sons and one daughter, Helena.
We called her Ta’Len. (Tah-Layn) I remember her as the terrifying old lady who ran the family, because that’s what she was.
A family full of sons run by a matriarch.
She was the one who ran the business office of the family’s flower farm, sending shipments of fresh flowers up to New York and Philadelphia.
She made the deals in an age when women didn’t run businesses very often. She ran the office. She gave the orders. These are all things I didn’t really see as a child.
What I did see was that she kept the large multigenerational family together even though she never had children herself. She held court in her living room and serving anise-flavored cookies and hot tea, scorching the ears of unruly children who didn’t behave or meet her expectations.
Either way, there’s much to be admired by a tough old lady who ran a business and a family. I could use some of that toughness and business-savvy.
Margarethe, Who Traveled Alone
My mom’s mother was born in New Jersey, but my grandmother’s parents were Dutch immigrants, too.
My great-grandfather was a sailor who jumped ship when his eyes no longer allowed him to work at sea.
My great-grandmother was a seamstress who emigrated from the Netherlands…by herself. Not with my great-grandfather, not with her parents or siblings.
Nope, she came to America alone in the 19th century, when that just wasn’t the norm. She set out for a new life and a new country.
i don’t know why she did it, but it must have taken a heck of bravery to travel so far with no plan. How much faith that things were going to work out must it have taken to make that journey?
Margarethe came to this country, married and raised three strong independent daughters. Two never married, but took care of each other frugally on the family homestead, They bribed their nieces and nephews to church with candy. Never given the opportunity for formal education, they took correspondence courses to satisfy their intellectual correspondence. My grandmother baked homemade bread every week, knitted and sewed and made rugs and passed down a legacy of crafting to my mother, my aunts, and me.
Margarethe died before I was born. All the stories I have are passed down by family. But in my house, I still have the cabinet that she brought to store the materials she used as a seamstress. And I think of her journey, and what it must have cost her and what she gained, whenever I think about taking a risk.
Sometimes She’s Saint Louise and Sometimes She’s Sarge
My father’s mother was one of those southern ladies who mastered the art of getting people to do exactly what she wanted while never losing her femininity. She was sweet but steely. As my grandfather reflected “Sometimes she’s Saint Louise, and sometimes she’s Sarge!”
She had to be. She married her childhood sweetheart, a distinguished lawyer who never lost touch with the high spirited prankster he’d been in his youth.
Louise dressed in hand painted shoes with matching handbags, and always appeared carefully put together in matching ensemble, make up and perfectly coiffed hair. She taught Sunday School for decades, and was a mainstay of her church and book club. She learned to play golf with my grandfather, and went daily to play and spend time with him each afternoon. They traveled and
Louise was like one of those 50s and 60s Sitcom moms, brought into color and into grandmotherhood. Yes, there were really people who kept house in pearls and high heels, and she was one of them.
And yet my memories go deeper. Of all my grandparents, she was the only one I got to know as an adult.
After my grandfather died, I used to make a habit of going to my grandmother’s on Christmas Eve to help her deliver her presents to friends, spending the day visiting and chatting, listening to the love and respect they gave my Nana. In my late 20s, I spent long afternoons with my grandmother watching soap operas and chatting. Who knew my sophisticated Nana couldn’t get enough of Days of our Lives and General Hospital?
Little Bit’s middle name is Louise, named for my grandmother. Like Louise, Little Bit revels in all things girly and feminine. Maybe someday like her namesake, she’ll learn that she can be a leader while retaining a lifestyle of style and decorum.
Maggie, Who Lived Life to the Fullest
My mom, Maggie, died three and a half years ago. I miss her daily.
My mom and dad divorced in the 70s when my brother and I were small. She was a single mom who worked a variety of jobs she didn’t always love. She was also a single mom committed to working out the best for her kids with their dad. I’m eternally grateful that my parents (and stepmother) managed to keep our family relationships stable, even when they were not together.
Maggie was a volunteer for a number of organizations and active in her church, all while balancing a variety of jobs that she didn’t always love.
She was an artist and a crafter. She traveled alone to far-flung destinations like New Zealand, Australia, China and Honduras.
She took early retirement and moved to the mountains to fill her days with a new husband, book clubs, church, volunteer work, crafting and a hiking group called the Menopausal Movers. She took cross-country road trips, and hiking tours of France and Italy.She made friends easily and kept them close.
She enjoyed 8 years of a glorious retirement, filled with activity, before discovering the illness that took her.Even then, she realized that slowing down wasn’t her style. She still walked daily and hosted her friend’s birthday parties, still did all of the things she wanted to do.
She was a cheerful, upbeat woman who stayed positive to the very end, and then gently accepted that her time was at an end.
Maggie, my mom, lived her life to the fullest. No regrets. I hope I can do the same.
So Many Women, So Many Stories
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when I celebrate the women in my family.
I didn’t mention my terrific stepmother, and how she made a home for my brother and I and provides good advice and motherly support still.
I didn’t mention my Great Great Aunt Ethel, who took in my grandfather and his sister when their father died and their mother “ran off with Mr. Lee.”
I didn’t mention Jon’s grandmother, who went off to work in the factories during World War II.
And these are just the ones I know.How many other inspiring tales are lost as the oral historians of our family pass away?
Tracing genealogy is fun, but it rarely fills in the details about the amazing people in your family. What they were like, how they lived, and how they handled themselves and others are rarely recorded. So much has been lost to time, especially as each generation fades away.
Make sure the tales of the amazing women of your life don’t fade away without being told.
What inspiring stories do you have to tell about the women in your family?