Over the past year or so I have been reciting my mother line, seven generations back, as a mantra of gratitude that helps me sleep at night. Sometimes I also name my sixteen great-great-grandparents, though I often fall asleep before finishing.
I have gained courage from the strength of their lives, but I never wondered what my eight great-great grandmothers would think of me. My life feels so different from theirs. Perhaps I feared they would judge me and my life.
This weekend, while re-reading Woman and Nature, I followed the narrator through a Passage to the Room of Dressing:
Where the women are not close. Where the women keep themselves at a distance. . . . where the women tell each other that they are happy. . . . The room where the daughter denies she is anything like her mother. (156)
And on to the Room of Undressing:
Where the women stare into each other’s eyes. Where the daughter feels the life of the mother. Where our words are undressed. And we touch. This room of our touching where the mother teaches her daughter to face her secret feelings. (157)
As I entered into this Passage, my great-great grandmothers began to speak within me.
Anna Maria Hemmerlein, born in 1821 in Stettfeld, Bavaria, out of wedlock, died in 1907, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, mother of two sons, tailoress:
I was born without a father because the Church and State forbade poor men to marry. The law was directed against the men, but it was the women who suffered. My mother and I carried the stigma of illegitimacy, not my father.
When I found a man who loved me, the Church and State would not allow us to marry because he was a poor farmer. When the revolution came to Bavaria in 1848, we believed that a new Constitution would allow us to marry. When this did not happen, we left for America.
I loved my husband Thomas. He was a good hard-working man. Conrad was born a little over year after we arrived. We were poor, but we were happy. Conrad died before his tenth birthday. My heart was broken. Thomas never recovered from the loss of our dear boy. When George was born, I was forty-two. It seemed like a miracle. Thomas refused to rejoice. “God will take him,” he said. Thomas did not know that God would take him first, while George was still a babe in my arms.
Luckily for us, I had already begun to work from home as a tailoress. I managed to raise George on my own, teaching him my trade. When George married, I supported myself. God took George when he was only thirty-two, leaving his poor wife with five little children. The baby Irving John, your grandfather, became my favorite. I taught him to tailor. I lived to be a very old lady. I never asked for anything from anyone. I am so proud that you are naming the strength of women who love, care, and persevere without the support of men. I am proud that my blood runs in the veins of a feminist. That is a word I never heard, but I agree with it! Down to my bones.
Catherina Lattauer, born 1822 in Ober-Floerscheim in the Rhine River valley, died in 1869 in Cherry Ridge, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, farmer’s wife, mother of nine children:
My father died when I was a little girl. I was raised by my mother and my sister. The Protestant children went to school in Ober-Floerscheim, and I learned to read. After my brother left for America I followed him to New York City. What a place. I didn’t know what to make of it. I met my husband Heinrich there. Our first two children were born in the big city.
What a relief when we were able to move to Cherry Ridge and start the farm. Thank goodness my sister and my mother came with us. I had missed them so. It was hard work, and I had seven more children. I guess my body was worn out with the last one. I was only forty-six when I died. I never heard anything about women’s rights, but I always hated it when men acted like they knew everything. My mother was the best person I ever met. Heinrich could not hold a candle to her. I rejoice that you are speaking for women.
Elizabeth Reilly birth, Ireland, death, Ireland or England, wife of a landlord, mother of at least six children:
I came from a wealthy family. You may think I was lucky. I was not. My father arranged my marriage to a wealthy man, but he was not a good man. He drank and he gambled and sometimes he beat us all. I had five daughters and a son.
Lord Kelly committed suicide and left us penniless shortly after our last daughter was born.
We went to live with my oldest daughter, who had married well, as they say. Her husband was not as bad as my husband, but there was no love lost between them. I could say nothing when he belittled her or complained that he was forced to look after us. My children scattered to the four winds. You say you stand up for women? Where were you when we needed you? For us there was no help.
Annie Corliss, born Ireland c. 1840, died Lower East Side, New York, 1885, sailor’s wife, mother of nine:
I was a little girl when the potato crop failed. We went to England hoping for a better life and my father died there. My mother and I and my two little brothers boarded the ship from America. My brothers and many others died on the ship. My mother followed them. An Irish family took me in.
I met my husband James when I went to the docks to watch the ships arrive. He was little more than a boy himself when he promised to look after me. He came and went on the ships. I had nine children. When the last one, little Agnes, died, I was so sad. I saw the first two, Isabella and James, married, and then my heart gave out. I’m not sure how old I was, but I couldn’t have been much more than forty-five.
My life was not easy, but I loved James and the children. I never questioned my life, it seemed beautiful to me. But now that you mention it, I always knew I was stronger than James. I was the one who raised the children.
I never learned to read. I didn’t even know how to spell my name. My great-great-granddaughter writes books. Who would have thought someone like you could come from someone like me? Blessed Mother and All the Angels! I am proud.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Lasithi, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.