Some time ago, inspired by the nonfiction book “The Grief Club” by Melodie Beattie, I began to research my female ancestors. Beattie recommends going back a couple of generations, enough to give you a sense of where you come from. I knew back to my great-grandparents on both sides, so figured I’d delve two or three generations beyond them.
I became fascinated by the beauty of their names, these sadly faceless women whose blood runs in my veins. Hextilda, Rohese, and Albreda. Gwaladus, Eschyna, and Angharad. And the usual run of Margarets, Marys, Elizabeths, and Katherines.
Common family history holds that my mother’s line comes from Britain, my dad’s from Germany, but in my walk backward through time I discovered France, Italy, Norway, Finland, Turkey, and Armenia, among others. Truth is, if you go back far enough, you find that we’re all damn-near to being related. There were only just so many families to marry into way back when. (And much fascinating reading about “Mitochondrial Eve” and the idea of seven mothers from whom we all originate, should you care to dive into that particular pool.)
I found Maud De Greystoke (does this mean I’m related to Tarzan?), of French descent but born in Palestine. The three warring factions amid Scottish rule–Comyn, Bruce, and Baliol–all make an appearance. There are O’Tooles, O’Briens, and even some Bacons. (How many degrees from Kevin am I?) And I laughed long and loud to find myself descended from Alfhild Gandolfsdatter, daughter of Gandolf Alfgeirsson. (Yes, I’m aware that Tolkien spelled it differently. Cut me some slack, willya? I’m having fun.)
What struck me hardest on this journey were the blank spaces where names disappeared into obscurity. Who were they, these women who tended hearth and home, birthed children and often buried them, or died giving them life? How many of them kept things running at home while their husbands and sons and fathers went off to this or that war? How many–like my Grandmother Geneva–raised their family alone after their husband died or abandoned them? How many bore the children of marauders and rapists? Why are they not recorded or remembered? Is it because they were considered unimportant, mere property like a dog or horse or sofa?
They’re important to me. Those women had faces, and spirits. They laughed and cried, swore and fought, loved and lost. Some did whatever it took to survive. Others surrendered and died where they stood. Some were obedient to the dictates of their age. Others were a constant trial to their families and likely suffered for it. We don’t know, but we should.
Remember your grandmothers. You are here because of them. Celebrate that they were here. Lift a glass to your Genevas and Virginias, your Minnies and Lucretias. Honor especially those who will remain nameless for all time. Don’t let them disappear entirely. Salute the vanished, for they are us.