Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Celebrating Ancestors

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand
you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.
All of them are alive in this moment.
Each is present in your body.
You are the continuation of each of these people."
Thich Nhat Hanh

One day when I don't have anything else to do but sit around and eat bon bons, I would like to work on my genealogy. I dug out a folder yesterday that contains a lot of stories, pictures and a few versions of my mother's family tree. It's not quite as messed up as the cookbook I poured over looking for one recipe that I KNEW was there, but close. What would my life be like if I ever got it organized?

In honor of IWD I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the women who have come before me. Their DNA might be watered down by several generations but I'd like to think their good qualities still runs through my veins.

First there was the woman, Experience Bozarth, from the North Carolina colony, who was married to John Reynolds, a grandfather several times removed. Experience Bozarth. Don't you love that name?

Experience's fame as someone not to mess with has trickled down through centuries of family lore. As the story goes, "during an attack on the Block house and Indian pried up the door and was climbing in. Experience seized the broad ax and struck him such a terrific blow that she severed his head completely from his body."

Let me say here that I believe the Native Americans got a bum deal. I hate to think that some of my ancestors were messing up the natives' homeland. But ME feeling bad about it isn't going to change anything. Mostly I think any woman who has the presence of mind to pick up an ax then throw it hard enough to whack off someone's head has to have been both brave and strong.

My dad's mother, Berlie, married one of the descendants of John and Experience. Grandmother, as I affectionately called her even if it does sound a little stuffy, was a school teacher. She was widowed in 1928 after 17 years of marriage. At a time when it wasn't customary for a woman to be on her own, she opted to devote her life to her two sons and teaching. What I remember most about this gentle lady was her joy. Maybe that wasn't always true, but what did I know? I was just a kid. When I think of Grandmother I think of her smiling.

My mother's side of the family settled in New England after sailing across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. My sister has a tea set that supposedly also made that sea voyage. Oh, if those china cups could talk!

The Aldrich clan was severe, tight-lipped, with Puritan work ethics. Maybe you get that way from living through harsh winters. Most of the Aldrich women I knew - my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mom - were what I would call stoic, the strong silent type. They took what life handed them and made the best out of it with few complaints. Yet each of these ladies had an independent streak a mile wide that took them on a few adventures before settling down into the mundane tasks of making a home for their family.

Against all good advice Mercedes Combs followed her Sweetie to Nebraska so he could try his hand at being a cowboy. Gertrude Aldrich followed her Naval officer husband to Koblenz, Germany in the 1920's where my mom was born in an Army field hospital. And then there Patricia, my mom. Before she met and married my dad, she defied her father (no easy task) and accepted the marriage proposal of a man many years older than she - not to mention the fact that he was stationed in Europe and to get there she was going to have to sail, by herself, across the ocean. She was only a teenager still she made this monumental decision and trip. Talk about gutsy.

Here's the kicker. On that trip across the Atlantic she had time on her hands. She thought long and hard about marrying a guy she barely knew. I can picture her on the sun deck, with a book laid on her chest, one of those plaid blankets across her legs to keep off the chill, her mind jumping from the romantic fairy tale to the reality of getting herself into something way beyond her imagination. Somewhere between New York and Rotterdam she changed her mind.

Here's what the man had to say about it in a book he wrote, in 1991.
"Soon the bulk of the passengers had come ashore but there was no sign of Patricia. Something must have delayed Patty and I wanted to go aboard and find out what it could be.
Finally Patty appeared walking, all by herself, slowly down the long bridge from ship to shore. She wasn't looking for anybody, just kept looking down toward her feet. As she stepped onto the solid pavement I saw she was crying. I knew instinctively what the situation was. My pipe dream of marrying Patty was up in smoke. There would be no wedding."*

It's hard for me to think about my mom who deferred all decision making to my father striking out on her own. My mom spent a week in Germany waiting for the next ship to sail. Hitler was in power. Because she had a German passport and mom was almost not allowed out of the country. Yikes! I get a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. But she got on that ship, sailed back to America, and re-joined her family in Hawaii where her father was stationed. If walking down that gangplank in Rotterdam was hard, I can't imagine what it must have been like facing my grandfather again.

My mom lived the 1950's life-style portrayed in books and movies. She drank martinis and danced to big band tunes. She never left the house without a hat and gloves. She wore a ruffled apron and high heels when she cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and before my dad came home from work she made sure her hair was neatly combed and her lips neatly painted red. She didn't rock any boats. She followed where my dad led. But somewhere deep inside there was a spark of courage and independence that I hope still burns in me.

There was one more lady whose story I love to hear. It has probably been embellished way past any recognition of truth. Still I find it fascinating. My great Aunt Letty (or maybe it's Lizzy) had a passel of kids - I don't know how many. It was enough, however, for this woman to finally say she'd had enough. As if to make her point, she went to bed and never got up again. To my knowledge, the only picture we have of her is as an old lady, lying under a flowered spread propped up by several pillows. I'm not sure how she got away with this but I think you might be able to tell where my stubborn streak comes from!

Courage. Strength. Independence. Joy. Adventure. Romance. Traits I've come by honestly and hope I've passed on to the generations that follow. I'm reminded of the day my daughter was getting married under rather difficult circumstances with a very small window of availability. Her dad called from Texas to chat and she said, "Dad, I've got to go, I'm getting married." That was the first he'd heard about it. Yup! The women in my family have guts!

Smiling at the memories,
Merry ME

*No Excuses Allowed, by Art Wilson, Dead Reckoning Press, Cambria, CA. pg. 242.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This entry was fascinating to me -- I did not know many of these stories!