I was sitting at home recently, working on my computer, when I heard a thud in the other room. I went to investigate and saw a framed photo of my maternal grandmother had fallen off the wall. As I leaned over to pick it up, I had no idea my reach of a few feet would actually extend back through centuries in time.
I stared at the photo of my grandma in her brown, sack-like wedding dress, with the same weak smile I saw in every image of her, including the real-life ones I witnessed. Whether her daughter became a hospital exec or her grandson broke state football records, our snobby cat had more cheerful expressions than she did.
But when I turned my attention to her life story, I realized how little I knew the woman we buried at age 93, though I knew her for half my life.
So, I thought there was no time like the present to attempt a “genealogy vacation,” which you may think is an activity reserved for “eccentric” types. (Don’t worry – no offense taken.)
I knew where my grandmother was born (a small Missouri town) and where she and my mom both grew up (a small Nebraska town), but I had never traveled there – and neither of them are alive to take me there now. Luckily, I have a husband who’s a good sport, plus I have numerous documents, from marriage licenses to deeds, so I could scope out houses, farms and Main Streets where these women, and my ancestors before them, lived.
Before the trip, I contacted genealogy groups and historical societies in those counties. I’ve found that heritage hobbyists (or whatever you call the subculture) tend to go overboard to help you. We went to a Missouri woman’s house and she pulled record books off her shelves while we talked about her kids and grandkids – who happen to live in Santa Clarita! One man opened up an old schoolhouse that wasn’t exactly in my family’s township, but we surprisingly found a high school football photo of my grandfather from 1915.
We looked at plat records (maps showing ownership of property) and I was delighted to see not only the names of my great-grandfathers and their fathers, but the names of my female ancestors owning big pieces of Kansas farmland. Of course, they obtained the land from the men when they were widowed, but I was still proud to see it.
We sought out the family farm, and the house, built in 1907, is still sheltering a family a century later. When I stood on the windy plains I thought a lot about the female experience – before indoor plumbing … washers and dryers … and Midol. Most of the women outlived their husbands and turned to each other for support. I saw the house where my great-grandmother, who became blind, lived with her sister, who took care of family members rather than married.
I took note of the limited options women had. Those who didn’t marry and raise a dozen kids had greater professional opportunities. Cultural limits of the past, including taking the husband’s surname, can create a challenge for genealogists.
“Women can be harder to find because of the name change,” said Christie Johnson, a professional speaker and a certified organizer with expertise in photos and home movies. “It’s easy to follow a male line, but female lines are just as important, if not more important, at times.”
For instance, Christie also just returned from Nebraska, where she has property from her Danish grandparents. She discovered that the land actually passed from her great-grandparents down through her grandmother, not her grandfather as she thought.
“So that piece of farmland goes further back in our family than just my grandfather, thanks to the female side,” she said.
Female genealogy is also of great importance when Christie helps research families with adoptions in their history.
“The women of their time may have been forced to give their child away and never speak of it again. Even today this is still happening,” she said. “With genealogy we can bring out these lost stories and hopefully learn from them.”
She’s right – there’s so much to learn from this exercise. One thing I gained from combing through cemeteries is a tenacity I hope to apply to other aspects of my life. I simply never gave up – no matter how cold or rainy it was, nor how sure I was that I’d seen every single headstone. And it paid off every time – with the currency of connection.
The most notable “find” was a search of two counties in Kentucky (guided by the vaguest of records) on the day we were to fly home. We stumbled upon an unnamed cemetery up a hill and in the middle was a marker that read the name of my Revolutionary War ancestor and his wife.
They were my grandmother’s great-great-grandparents, which was interesting. But what’s caused the greatest impact is the insight I gained by walking where they walked and viewing the same landscape.
I realized my grandmother was melancholic because she had an unfair burden of grief, which I learned when I did the math. Her childhood playmate was a beloved brother who met with an early death. By the time she was 30-something she had lost her brother, her father, the love of her life, and gave birth to a stillborn baby boy after two days in labor.
It was only recently that I fully metabolized how much loss my grandmother had experienced. Her life wasn’t picture-perfect.
But the images look different in my head now.
Martha Michael is a Signal staff writer.