This is going to be one of those posts that’s about a photo, but doesn’t have a photo in it. The photo in question is one of my three favorites of my ancestors, and I’ll talk about the ancestors in my other favorite photos for different prompts. But it feels appropriate to start with this one. For one thing, this ancestor is the one who seems to communicate with me the most (especially out of my biological ancestors, but also just in general), and she is also currently the biological ancestor who I knew the longest in life before she died. She strongly watches over her living family, and it feels right to honor her first. For another thing, this picture shows three generations of one family, and was taken by the fourth generation — and generations is a lot of what genealogy and ancestor work is about. My other favorite photos of my ancestors show only one or two generations.
I’m not posting the photo itself for a few reasons. First, I’m not sure this ancestor wants her picture on the internet. Second, there is a strong family resemblance among all the people in the photo. Third, three of the four people in the picture are still alive. And last, my only copy of the picture is a picture that was taken of it while in its frame, so it would be hard to see, and it’s also a digital copy that would take me a long time track down.
So I’ll just describe the picture generally, and use that as a jumping off point to talk about my one ancestor.
The photo is of four women standing in a row in front of a railing in twilight. They’re smiling to varying degrees and wearing pretty heavy coats. It’s taken from an angle that is looking up at them. The photo itself is physically very dark because it was taken with a disposable camera in the evening by a child too young to always understand when using the flash was necessary, and too young to reliably remember to use it even when they did understand. The picture was taken on the west coast of the United States, I believe near the ocean.
The relative in the photo who is now my ancestor is my maternal great-grandmother. I was very fortunate to know her long enough to be able to remember her fairly well. She lived a pretty long life and died when I was 19. I am so blessed, honored, and grateful that I got to know her, and that she loves me. As a child, I got to see her regularly, even though we lived across the country from each other. I feel very guilty that I didn’t talk with her more towards the end of her life. Part of it was that I had more problems than you could shake a stick at as a teenager, and I was in and out of hospitals, among other things, but I still feel guilty about it. And I feel even guiltier because that wasn’t all of it — even though I knew her, loved her and respected her, I didn’t feel I knew her that well. So I felt awkward talking to her and once I was in my teens I never knew what to say to her. I really, deeply regret that and wish I could do it over. But what with all the problems I had when I was a teenager, I don’t know that it would have worked even if I had tried harder — but I still should have tried, anyway.
She was intelligent, strong-willed, strong in general, had a good sense of humor, and was very wise and very devout. I also think she was very brave and very beautiful.
She and my great-grandfather married when they were sixteen years old. However, my great-grandfather wanted her to feel safe, protected, and taken care of, so he lied to her and everyone else about his age. He told her he was two years older than she was. She only found out the truth after he died and she saw his birth certificate. They had three children together. All three were daughters, and my grandmother is the eldest. There was a long stretch between her having each of her children. My grandmother was thirteen years old when her oldest younger sister was born, and nineteen when her youngest sister was born. My great-grandmothers’ youngest daughter was only four years older than my Mom, who is my grandmothers’ eldest child. My grandmother’s younger sister was born with a disability that had physical and intellectual elements. My great-grandfather died of brain cancer when he was 52. That meant that my great-grandmother had to figure out how to raise a 17 year old and an 11 year old alone, the latter of whom had a severe disability.
As an aside, I think the year he died was probably a particularly hard one in my family, especially for my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my great-aunts. The year that my great-grandfather died was also the same year that his mother died, and it was also the year that my grandmother gave birth to her youngest child. My great-grandmother was also very intuitive, which seems to run in our family. At one point that year, my great-grandfather had been planning on visiting his mother on a particular day. He changed his mind. My grandmother isn’t sure why, but thinks it might have been because he didn’t feel well — because at that point he had undiagnosed brain cancer.But my great-grandmother told him, “No, you have to go.” He did and he was incredibly grateful that he did because right after that his mother died.
It’s always interesting to me how patterns repeat through generations. My great-grandfather was Catholic and my great-grandmother was Protestant. My great-grandfather left the church to be with her. So my grandmother was raised Protestant. She married my grandfather, who was Catholic. My grandfather left the church to be with her, though in that case, it was his own mother who had him excommunicated. My grandfather did have his funeral performed by a Catholic priest, though, albeit in a funeral home and not at a church.
My great-grandmother was very devout. I believe her family were Presbyterian. However, her maternal grandmother was raised by Mennonites, and it seems there is a long and broad history of Mennonite members of that part of our family in a particular portion of Pennsylvania. However either her grandmother or great-grandmother was adopted. I believe it was her grandmother, but my mind is blanking, so until I can sort it, I’m erring on the side of caution. I don’t know if the person she was born to was Mennonite. I seem to recall either hearing or feeling that she was not, but that wouldn’t make much sense because the person who adopted her child was her best friend — and I think also possibly her relative.
But back from digressing. My great-grandmother was very Christian, but she wasn’t at all judgmental about religion that I’m aware of. A lot of people talk about a personal relationship with the Christian God, but she actually had one. No matter how financially poor she was, no matter how difficult life got, she always, always made sure to tithe at least ten percent of her income to the church. Even when she had no money to spare. She would tell my Mom that if she did that, it would always work out. And it always did. Whenever people were scared, sick, or worried, she would tell them, “Just pray”. A few members of my family have told me several times that she said that. I’ve found it to be very good advice. She wanted to be the person to give me my first Bible, so she bought a children’s Bible for me and gave it to my mother before I was born. At some points, I was worried I disappointed her by being Pagan. I still worry about it sometimes, but one time I thought I heard/felt her say, “I just want you to believe in something,” accompanied by feelings of love, well-being, acceptance, kindness, and peace. Also, while she guides and watches out for us, and while she wants to be remembered, spoken to, and listened to, I think she’s fairly uncomfortable with the concept of veneration in the worshipful sense — probably because of her strong Christian beliefs.
She did eventually remarry my step-great-grandfather. While I knew from a very young age that he was her second husband, he’s the person I thought of as my great-grandfather until I was older, because my biological great-grandfather died long before I was born. Now that I’m older, I think of them both as my great-grandfathers. Unfortunately, I don’t know when my great-grandmother and step-great-grandfather married (edited to add — my mother thinks it was in the late sixties). Almost all of the information I have on him comes from my great-aunt, who lived near them. I do remember him, though. I was nine years old when he died. He was tall, kind, told jokes and appreciated humor. Along with my great-grandmother, he loved me very much. And they loved each other very much. He had two children from a previous marriage. I’m pretty sure he was widowed, but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember for sure. He had two children of his own from his previous marriage. One was a daughter, who it seems was much beloved, and who died of cancer — I believe fairly young. The other was a son who, to the best of my knowledge is still alive. He has problems, and has been in and out of jail. I’ve never met either of his two children, and his daughter died before I was born. He and my great-grandmother didn’t have any kids together.
My great-grandmother had a close friend who lived near her. A while after my step-great-grandfather died, her friend asked her to marry him. She declined, though he asked a few times, I believe. I believe she cared for him and could have loved him, if she didn’t already. But her main reason for declining was that she (understandably) didn’t want to be widowed a third time. As it turns out, she wouldn’t have been because she died before he did, but she obviously had no way of knowing that at the time.
At one point, my great-grandmother flew out to the west coast from the east coast. It was supposed to be for a vacation (possibly even her honeymoon with my step-great-grandfather, but I unfortunately forget). My step-great-grandfather was supposed to join her a little later. However, she had never flown before and had an absolutely appalling and painful time on the airplane with her ear popping and turbulence. I also think she liked the west coast. So when she got there, she told my step-great-grandfather that she was never coming back home. So instead of it being a vacation and him joining her there shortly, he stayed on the east coast to settle their affairs, sell their house, and arrange to to move their things. When he was done, he joined her out west and they moved there. To the best of my knowledge, she never flew again. We saw her often when I was a child and my grandmother saw her often when I was a teen and a young adult, but it was always us flying out to see her, she never came back to east coast. Did I mention the strong-willed part? And she was obviously also very determined.
My great-grandmother loved roses, birds, butterflies, and cranberry glass. She appreciated beauty and was easily delighted by small things. Her favorite color was pink, and judging by her decor, I’d say she liked red and white, too. She grew roses and also fruit trees on her property. She had feeders out for the birds. She was creative and had a particular talent for sewing. The disability that her one daughter had gave her and unusual body shape, an unusual gait, and more weight than was common on people at that time. My great-grandmother designed and made clothes that disguised her daughter’s disability, made her seem slimmer and more symmetrical, and masked her gait somewhat. While I object to the concept that disabilities should need to be hidden, I strongly respect and appreciate the reasons why my great-grandmother did that, and I’m deeply impressed that she was able to pull it off. It is difficult and sometimes dangerous to move through the world as a disabled person, and often is nice or safer to be able to blend in. That was probably even more true back then than it is now. I think it’s incredible what my great-grandmother managed to do.
She had a great laugh and a beautiful smile — and she laughed and smiled frequently. She was short, slender, and had blue eyes. She was a redhead and when she got older, instead of turning gray or pure white, her hair turned a peach color.
Towards the end of her life, my great-grandmother lost a lot of her hearing. But she didn’t like to wear her hearing aid and the noise of the feedback bothered her. We tend to have sensitive hearing in my family, and some of us can faintly hear the radio through the bed springs sometimes at night. My great-grandmother was one of them. So even though she couldn’t hear well, all the ambient noise from the hearing aid bothered her. She would refuse to put it in. When her kids or grandkids would try to make sure she had it in, she would often turn it off and pretend it was on. She took regular walks in her neighborhood and a local mall right up until shortly before she died to keep her body active, and she likewise did crosswords until near the end to keep her mind sharp. She had her car until she died, though her license was no longer valid. Her daughter who lived near her didn’t want her to drive anymore, and right at the very final stretch she didn’t, but almost up until the end she still drove sometimes to the mall, the pharmacy, and the grocery store.
She had a weird thing with her physiology that I share, though it isn’t as extreme with me. She couldn’t wear watches on her wrists. Analog watches would stop working or run either too fast or too slow. Digital watches would either die or flash either random numbers or all zeroes. My grandmother finally resolved the issue by buying her a watch that was in a pendant shaped like a ball on a necklace. That worked, for some reason. I can wear analog watches with no problems, but not digital ones. She used to take her necklaces and put them up over her nose as a kind of fiddly habit. I picked it up somewhere along the line and did that as a child and a teen. At first, it was just to be like her, but then it became a genuine fiddly habit for me over the years, too. Somewhere in young adulthood I drifted away from doing it, but it’s a habit that still crops up occasionally when I’m really nervous or distressed.
She described things that most people would say were cool, neat, or nifty, depending on generation as tricky — particularly if it was something clever or unexpected. I still smile when I hear people say, “That’s tricky,” even if the context is completely different from how she used to mean it.
She loved her family very much, including my biological great-grandfather and my grandmother. But she had a temper. And I strongly believe she had a particular mental illness, which I’ll get into in another post. Those things, and probably other elements, meant that she often had a very fraught relationship with my grandmother. However, my great-grandmother and my mother had a very close relationship with each other.
E.R.S.C.I., thank you for being my ancestor and for being in my life. I’m sorry I did not honor you well enough while you were alive, and I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you as often as I should have. Thank you so much for all you have done for our family and for me. Thank you so much for communicating with me, guiding me, and protecting and watching out for me. I’m thoroughly impressed by you and so very, very grateful that you are in my life and that I got to know you while you were alive. I love you. I respect you. Your family loves you and respects you. We speak your name.