Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger
Lately I have become obsessed with my maternal ancestors. Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood, and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit
It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me. Since there was no birth control and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover, because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common. Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities. All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists. And don’t forget wars. One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824) lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.
Life was tough. But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.
As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days. At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing. Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.
Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service. Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day. But really? Internet? This is a problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.
My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories. I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them. The more I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.
So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.
I hope it’s in the genes.