Saturday, May 10, 2014

Contemplating Mother's Day

Above are pictures of my mother, my two grandmothers, three of my four great-grandmothers (no photo exists of mammammy's mother that I know of), and, the last two, far right, are my great-great grandmothers, Pearson and Saltsman, quite old by the time photography was available to them. I have eight great-great grandmothers in all, of course, as the tree of my life grows wider and wider branching into its own little antiquity. But poverty kept many of those women from ever having a photograph taken of them.

From left: Janie, Jewel, Karen, Lometa, Edna , Lessie, Manda, & Mary

I read Emily Yoffe's piece, My Husband's Other Wife, yesterday.

One  paragraph in particular caught me:

All of us exist because of a series of tragedies and flukes. I'm here because 80 years ago my grandfather's wife, Ruth, died suddenly of the flu, leaving him a young widower with a toddler and an infant. (They say he had to be restrained from jumping into her grave.) Eventually he remarried to my grandmother, and my mother was born. 

Even more startling, we tend not to know a fraction of the tragedies and flukes that brought to us into being. The sliver of history that is passed down is almost too much to bear as it is.

Mary, far right above, was only fifteen years old when she married William and was just twenty-four when news came that, on a routine paving job, he'd been accidentally killed by two other men in a drunken brawl, his throat slashed open. She had three babies at home and no income. I try to imagine this uneducated, widowed young girl (at 24, you are still a young girl, trust me) looking at her babies in that moment, filled with terror at how she would even be able to feed or clothe them.  She agreed to marry her brother-in-law, who'd just lost the love of his life, when she had died in childbirth, leaving him alone with three small children and a newborn. The two of them went on to make ten more babies, one of whom was John Saltsman, my great-grandfather. 


My mom was a surprise. Mammammy didn't think she could get pregnant. My dad was a bit of a surprise, arriving twelve years after his sister. 


I think of Sam's birth and how, even just one generation earlier, we would never have known the difficulties ahead of time, and she would have inevitably died in childbirth, like one of Mary's 13 babies, or like my Aunt Laverne's only child, who lays in the tiny grave near her now. I think of all the diseases 
that took little girls too soon from my tree. Mary's little girls: Mollie, age 5; Valeria, age 4; and Mina, age 2. How do you stand at the graveside three times over tiny coffins and find the will to go on?

I am deeply grateful for the tragedies and flukes that led to my own survival, and that of my children's. 

And, as a mother, I continue to be profoundly amazed at the fortitude of my maternal line who kept on mothering, despite the staggering losses and tragic griefs they bore. Mothering without such grief is hard enough. 

I only hope their strength is passed down in my bloodline as much as our smiles or the shape of our noses. 


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