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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

On Mothers and Family History

By: Liberate Zealot


I can't speak to the experience of mothers.  I have no children, and as I get older I actually feel less called to have children.  Which isn't to say I don't want them, but it used to be that I couldn't imagine a life without children and now I can.  Also the War on Women is makings me very scared of pregnancy, even though I live in a state that isn't restricting women's rights.

So this isn't about the experiences of mothers, or the relationships between mother's and children.  This is about the women in my family, many of whom happen to be mothers.  This is about their lives and experiences, the ways that they are amazing and average, how they changed the world, each other, and me.



Mary Sullivan, my great-great-grandmother on my mother's side was born in the late 1800s to Irish immigrants.  She lived through two World Wars, the Roaring 20s, and the Great Depression.  She lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. She had 5 children, two of whom were very unconventional. 
One of these was my grandmother Alice, who was born in 1916 and thus also lived through two World Wars, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the Moon Landings, The Civil Rights Movement, and so many other amazing events.  I wish we had spoken more, but by the time I was old enough to ask about her life and growing up, she was too senile to hold a conversation.  Alice didn't marry until her late 30s, to a man nearly a decade younger then her.  They met while on vacation at a race track.  Even after marriage she worked outside the home for 30 years.  She was perpetually late, often just sitting down for a cup of tea in her slip when it was time to leave for wherever they were going. When her brother Robert (a cartoonist) came out in the early 70s, her only surprise was that everyone else was surprised.  
She had my mother and my aunt, who are only a little over a year a part.  They're close but very different women.  My mom loved school, and was a bit shy, she knew how to look like she was following the rules while still making mischief and going her own way.  My aunt was louder, hated school, and always got in trouble, even if it was really my mother's fault, even when my mother confessed.  They both married, worked, and had kids.  Both of them were fierce advocated for their children.  Now my mom works and spends a fair amount of time involved in town leadership activities and political campaigns.  She's still happily married and comfortably upper middle class.  She still also likes to cause trouble.  My aunt had premature twin daughters, one of whom died after several weeks and the other was chronically sick for years (though she's better now).  This changed her, and her husband couldn't handle this or the attention my aunt gave her surviving daughter. Since the divorce my aunts struggled for money, working constantly while barely making a living wage.  Her children also have issues with money and employment and depend of her more than she can afford, but she still gives them everything she can and more. 


My father had a great-aunt, Verna Zimmerman, who was absolutely amazing.  She was a Mennonite, a dutiful daughter who also managed to carve her own (unorthodox) path. She was the youngest child of the family, closer in age to her nephew (my great-grandfather) then some of her siblings.  She (and her two older sisters) went to college.  Verna studied nursing and eventually went over seas to be a nurse in India and China during WWII and afterwards.  There was often a lack of doctors so Verna ended up doing many of the surgeries and treatments, she always talked about one she had done to save a person's eye.  Verna was in China during the Communist Revolution.  She didn't want to leave her patients and so stayed until where she was had been taken by the Communists and had to be smuggled over the boarder.  This happened several times before she left China for good. She returned to the US to care for her sick and elderly parents, and when they passed she moved to Indiana to help found the nursing school at Goshen College in 1952.  She taught there and served on the board until she retired in 1975.  
My father's mother is also named Verna. She was the daughter of Mennonite farmers and became a farmer(wife) herself.  She (and her husband) never went to college.  She was a dutiful help meet to her husband (even if she often disagreed with him) and raised 5 independent children. She's social, enjoyed quilting and gardening and antiques and historical home pieces.  She knows more of the family history then anyone else, and is the one who told me about the elder Verna.  I think she wishes she had picked a similar path.  As they've aged my grandfather has become mean and she's become more isolated while caring for him.  She never got to travel the way she wished (it was always for religious work and never to see new places).  She loves her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, she loves being the center of the family, and the family story keeper. But I'm not certain she would have chosen this path if she could do it all over. 
Her daughter Joan also married at a young age and before attending college.  But Joan eventually did get a college education and works outside the home.  In fact, she's now the CEO of the company her father started. Joan is warm and earthy, the most relaxed and outgoing of her siblings.  She and her husband, and their children, love to laugh. 


The girls and women who are my cousins range in age, personalities, and interests.  They're doctors, college professors, cheerleaders, waitresses, vet techs, chefs in training, nurse practitioners, they have cognitive/learning disabilities, mental illness, emotional disturbances, they're mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, golden children and black sheep. 


These women have taught me so much.  The importance of helping others, but not sacrificing yourself. They taught me the rules, and how to break or bend them. They've been trailblazers, unconventional, and traditional and conservative. They've taught me about history and family and the connection of these two. They taught me how to love and hate at the same time. They've inspired me, and have been a warning. 

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting. It's fascinating to think about how little aspects of so many different splinters of the family tree shape the person that you have become today.

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