What does it mean to have centuries of history coursing through your veins? What traits do we maintain from our ancestors, from the family that came before us? Do we retain anything at all?
If we do, the women in my family line are certainly ones whose potency I would want to harness. When my grandfather and I were having our usual “latest people of history that I’ve discovered we’re related to” conversation that I look forward to having every time I go home to visit, I asked him to tell me about the women in our family. He responded, sheepishly, “Do you want to hear about the good ones or the bad ones?” I knew I was in for a treat…
Foremothers. It seems like such an obvious term, and yet I’ve never used it. I hear of our forefathers, spoken of fondly, or reverently, or at least with some amount of respect and formality. In fact, the term Forefather’s seems to be in itself imbued with the sentiment of respect, though I do visualize a bunch of white-haired stuffy men in crisp shirts. For something that has such an obvious female counterpart, it never struck me until just now that this is not a term we really use in our language.
I want to pay respect to my Foremothers, and also find sparks of inspiration, and no doubt scandal, through both those within my family and those of my global family. My Grandpa has been kind enough to sit with me and share with me the knowledge he has acquired with hundreds if not thousands of hours of research. Thanks to my grandfather, I have a very comprehensive list of women that I am related to, and the knowledge of this bloodline holds a special place in my heart.
The foremothers of my family span centuries and are filled with stories and intrigue, Saints and good deeds, and questionable ones at best. One thing is for certain though, they made waves and challenged the socially acceptable and the idea of a woman’s role should be. Here is a starting list and links to further reading:
Saint Itta (592 – 652)
Marozia and her mother Theodora held a great influence over the religious affairs and the selection of Popes in Rome through conspiracies, affairs, and marriages during a less than spotless phase in Medieval Rome. Marozia had a son with Pope Sergius III. She was given the unprecedented title of Senatrix (female senator). In a rare geneaological twist she continued the lineage of Popes for generations to come; her son, grandson, great grandson and two great great grandsons all became pope. That’s 5 popes. Whoa.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)
“Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful and fascinating personalities of feudal Europe. At age 15 she married Louis VII, King of France, bringing into the union her vast possessions from the River Loire to the Pyrenees. Only a few years later, at age 19, she knelt in the cathedral of Vézelay before the celebrated Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux offering him thousands of her vassals for the Second Crusade. It was said that Queen Eleanor appeared at Vézelay dressed like an Amazon galloping through the crowds on a white horse, urging them to join the crusades.” (Quoted from Women in World History). She was the Queen consort of France for 15 years, and of England for 35. She lived til the ripe old age of 83, which was unheard of during that time.
When I met Stuart*, he was unable to move from the neck down and had weeks, at most, to live.
I entered his home, was introduced by another Hospice volunteer, and had the opportunity to look around. Since he wasn’t able to speak, the most direct way to learn about him was through how he occupied his space. Pictures of his life before Lou Gehrig’s disease consisted mostly of him smiling in the sun. Camping, an outdoor enthusiast who was now confined to an armchair.
The other volunteer handed me a book about bird watching that they had started to read at their last visit, and now that we were introduced, left. I sat, visited, had a conversation for a little while that consisted of me talking and he very alertly moving his eyes. The stage of his body’s deterioration left no room for properly functioning motor skills or communication. I asked him to blink once if he wanted me to read.
I sat, waited, observed, and began to read. What at the outset seemed like a commonplace book on a group of friends touring the country in search of rare birds turned anything but. More of a travel diary of the accounts and all of the humor and human foibles that go along with three people road tripping in close proximity to each other, I noted what was in store for me. Scanning ahead, I saw that the author was about to narrate a heated argument that consisted of multiple instances of the F-Bomb being dropped in close succession. My heart began to pound and my inner critic began to wonder how delicately I would handle the situation. And my inner joker began to laugh at the prospect of where this could go…
I gave him a heads up. That the nice twenty something Hospice volunteer was going to go for it. He blinked, not having any indication of what I was talking about or what was coming on the next page.
“YOU MOTHER ******” … I totally went for it, reading as animatedly as I could manage, my brain splitting in two, and all understanding of the order of things completely dissolving in that moment. The juxtaposition of too many impossibilities were colliding and there was no longer anything for me to control or anything for me to make sense of. In a flash the narrated tirade was over, and I looked at him, sheepishly, to see how he handled it. At first, almost imperceptibly, I saw his chair begin to shake. It took me a moment to put the pieces of my brain back together enough to recognize something happening that was the least likely thing I could have imagined. He began to laugh. Somewhere deep in the muscles that had not yet completely atrophied, his whole body was forming a smile, was laughing at this unlikely circumstance.
This was the first and only visit I was lucky enough to have with Stuart. Within 8 hours, he had left his body. I feel as though I carry a part of him with me, and every time I think of this chance interaction, I always end up laughing and crying at the same time. He was a fellow pioneer, willing in some capacity to share the depth of his humanness with me in this way. The most unlikely of meetings, the most unconventional of circumstances. The day that all of my expectations and boundaries dissolved was one of the most painful and joyful moments of my life. It always serves as a reminder that nothing has to be that I believe it to be, and that even death can bring two people together in the most unlikely of ways.
*Stuart’s real name has been changed
I met Adrienne Stiles 2 1/2 years ago through, Jness – the women’s organization I work for.
She is one of those subtly magnetic women who carries a grounded stillness and a comforting authenticity every where she goes. Her paintings are a perfect metaphor for her spirit. She is dynamic, elegant, and earthy.
Her vision of the world and the precise way she can represent my thoughts in visual form is truly unique. Enjoy the video and check out her work!
Follow her on Twitter at: @womendoingcool
Song by: Sia – “Breathe Me” – Patrick Reza Remix
Video Edited by:
ALLISON MACK © 2013
THE ELOQUENCE AND FORCE with which Ayn Rand’s works are written certainly suggests that she had an understanding of the profound nature of the statement above. What knowledge would you have to have of yourself, particularly as a woman living in the United States in the 40s and 50s, to create such works as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? As a novelist, philosopher, and playwright, Rand tipped the scales in favor of women thinking differently than what was prescribed for them. She did this not only in her works, but also in her exploration and support of Objectivism, and I find this so potent because she started a radical conversation whose time was well overdue.
The encouragement of the individual to recognize and realize their potential, in their own way, and to reap the benefits of this recognition through honest earning, is something that I, as a woman, have struggled to foster in my own life. Rand’s works have inspired me at times when I have begun to lose momentum, when I begin to question if it makes sense to pursue my own growth in this way when I oftentimes feel as though I am swimming up stream. Now in my 30s, I am beginning to claim more potently the “I” in all of my choices and actions. I’m also starting to see that what I had called “love” before pales in comparison to the depth of feeling that I am beginning to feel now that I am risking more. I am more fully embracing both my successes and my failures, loving myself and others more, and seeing how all of these things play an important role in learning and gaining wisdom. To be afraid to act, or to love, for fear of failing misses the mark entirely. Not only is failure is inherent in life, it is, as Rand says, absolutely necessary to more deeply experience the “I” in “I love you”.
The discovery that she was my blood relative changed something in me.
A Queen, reigning over two countries, for a total of 65 years. A force who, at the age of 19, rallied 300 women to join her on the Second Crusade, tending to wounded men. A woman who, despite the adversity and strict roles women were held to pushed boundaries, and fought for her vision. A mother who gave birth to ten children, two of which became Kings in their own right. A protector who, at the age of 80, traveled to retrieve her kidnapped son and bring him back to England. For nearly 800 years, Eleanor of Aquitaine has remained a symbol of strength, of power, of charting new territory that had before her time was unexplored. Despite living in a time that placed tremendous odds against her as a strong, pioneering woman, she pressed on. And with this, she challenged the notion of what it meant to be a woman, and a leader, during 12th Century.
As Winterson speaks to in the quote above, Queen Eleanor found a boat. And she sailed in it. With no sense of if or when the shore would appear, she made the decision to keep charting the waters. I am proud to imagine that some of her qualities may live on in me, and even more so, that it doesn’t take the ancestry to chart new territories. I can look to such a strong woman as an example of what is possible, and while the idea of being able to call her Grandma Eleanor is pretty amazing, to call her a woman of influence is even better.
Eight years ago, on October 3rd, I put in the video tape that you, dad, had made in honor of Anne’s life, her memory. I began to watch and felt so many mixed emotions, anger and loss over someone that had been taken too soon. She was only 36 years old, which, considering I was 16 when she died, felt very adult. Now, at nearly 32, I’m catching up to her. As I watched, I couldn’t hold back my tears, my upset, that someone had been taken from me, a light in the world who maintained her humor even during the discomforts of chemotherapy.
Something changed that day when I watched the video of Anne, opening the door to the newly built house, seeing her waving and smiling. This was a memory, frozen in time, that I could run again and again. This was also the doorway through which I saw her leave.
An entrance or doorway. The place of beginning; the outset. The starting point of an experience, event, or venture. All of these ways of defining a threshold feel appropriate when I think of the impact the threshold of your house had on me. It was a place of beginnings and endings, and this particular threshold gave me the opportunity to have an experience of closure, of things coming full circle. Of peace. I love you dad. I love you Anne.
There were no words in the English language to describe her experience. Who the anthropologist was that came to this conclusion, or which indigenous matriarchy she had observed and come home to write about, were not the things that stuck with me 10 years ago in anthropology class. The fact that a woman, well educated and cultured, realized that her language could not support some of the truest experiences she had, is what sticks with me to this day.
If not within our words, our history books, where have these stories been contained? Where do women store their knowledge, their lineage? Handwritten scraps of paper, recipes, quilts, folklore and family anecdotes; these all speak to the history of women. The lines on our faces, the marks and meanderings of our bodies, contain within it something powerful, beyond liguistic expression.
I was visiting with my Grandfather recently, our family genealogist, and thought he may have some insight into how to begin my search for interesting stories of women and their history. The amount of exploration, research, and heart he has put into tracing our family back has resulted in an amazing body of knowledge. What he shared was more than I would have ever imagined. Much of my family’s lineage contains striking and powerful women. The names and the bloodline are there, and now all I have to do is explore. I feel proud that my Grandpa wants to share his work with me in this way, and I also recognize the gravity of the responsibility to carry this knowledge forward.
I feel like I am at the beginning of a great adventure. One that will not only help me to learn about the history of the women in my family and where I have come from, but will lead me to other women as well. Stories buried, both amazing and mundane, on scraps of paper, in stitches of fabric, in the whispers of song past bedtime.
ANOTHER DAY IS BEGINNING, and I am sitting in a space that is filled with all the tools necessary to uncover the wonder and joys of learning what it means to truly become a woman. A way to be a woman of honor, of gravity. I am utterly speechlessness when I see glimpses of the path that is unfolding before me. I wake up excited to see where these adventures take me and what amazing women I will connect with along the way. The tendrils, the tethers that once felt weak and uncertain are beginning to strengthen. There are others, tethering around me, circling and creating a home. This is what I’ve always wanted, before I even knew what it was I was looking for. This is Jness.
“We went to a house sale one time…so we go up on the second floor and they have a porch, nothing but books. So I went looking through them and thought, ok, spotted one, and it said Saints and Strangers. So I opened it up; it’s about the Mayflower.”
“We came over on the Mayflower Adrienne” Grandma chimes in. “Just how many people can say this? I keep telling Grandpa he should write a book.”
I agree, wholeheartedly.
“So we were talking about Mary, Queen of Scots? Her son became James I of England. We’re all familiar with the King James version of the Bible? That’s where that came from. So, in a place called Scrooby, England, these people originated, and King James at the time, wanted them to go with the church of England and they said no, they wanted their own religious freedom. So they moved to Holland, a place called Leiden, and that’s the book.
So then come to find out, the minister who was head of this group called Separatists, or Puritans, became the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. He started that whole thing. They were probably in Holland for a good 20 years and then he got the idea to get the Mayflower together. He was gonna go with them but he stayed in Holland. And we are directly descended from him. His name was Robinson.”
And so the journey begins…