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Mother Tree: in honor of the Matri-line

family tree of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters

"I am Leigh, daughter of Carol…"

These are the first words of a litany that honors my motherline, of both my ancestors and my descendants. Exploring the branches of my mother tree, I journeyed into the presence of each womon, experiencing the tender feeling of my foremothers gently passing me from hand to hand as they held onto one another across time.

"…Carol, daughter of Mina"

My own mother is a child of the baby boom, who traded her bra for halter tops in the 60's and went to consciousness raising groups in the 70's. My first journey took me to the room of a teenage girl, furious and crushed that her parents were sending her brother to college … but not her. "He was a boy, and needed to support himself." It took her sixteen years to get a Master's degree and she did it alone. From Mom, we learned…. "Be able to support yourself." Her mother was…

"…Mina, daughter of Besse"

At 16 she cut her long curls, slicked them back in Marcel waves, then cut off her skirts and Charleston'd her way through the 20's. At age 86 and watching a steamy love scene on TV, she turned to me and laughed, "Inside I still feel like I'm sixteen!" Across a life of ups and downs, she always managed to stay up and that is her lesson to her daughters. Her mother was…

"…Besse, daughter of Mary Frances"

We disagree on lots of things, from politics to piercings, but one thing we do agree on: we are strong wimmyn. Besse's home was a sod house dug from the side of an Oklahoma hill. In 1916 she left an unhappy marriage, taking her three daughters with her, for a job as a railroad stationmaster. Home was in a caboose. She learned to drive a car and eventually owned her own hotel. Her gifts are courage and uppity-womon success. Her mother was…

"…Mary Frances, daughter of Betsy"

Sometimes what we learn is how we don't want to be. My grandma's memories of her grandmother weren't fond ones. To her, "Grandmother was a severe, frowning old woman whose front parlor had a candy jar that children were not allowed to touch."

Meeting her with a womon's eyes instead of a child's, I saw a quiet middle child in a family of twelve. Sometimes life was difficult but even when life was good, she worried that hard times would come again. She reminds me that life is full of endless choices and the power to choose is ours. As she sends me on back to her own mother, her voice calls, "Be generous and choose happiness!"

"…Betsy, daughter of Fannie"

Traveling in my foremothers' footsteps, I saw that though the surname changed every generation, the first names of beloved wimmin were passed on. As the children fan out like leaves from a twig, certain names light up in each successive generation. In this generation, it's my sister's turn to have the name Elisabeth, like so many of her foremothers on both sides of the family.

In honoring my motherline, I include my sister and aunt and remember the wimmyn of my Dad's family and their mother trees whose branches intertwined with our own.

"…Fannie, daughter of Frances"

Fannie was born during the American Revolution. A young pioneer wife in 1795, she went West on the Ohio and Miami rivers, always living at the edge of unknown territory. She had six children, all of whom survived their childhoods, and she herself lived to the venerable age of eighty-three.

She lived at the cusp of a new era. Born a British subject, she died an American citizen. Her trip through life took her from a small East Coast town to the edge of the Great Prairie. She saw the invention of steam locomotives and the sewing machine. She could have had her Daguerrotype photograph taken.

Fannie reminds me that every generation lives at the cusp of a new time. What's important is how we live the transition, what we create and build. The bridge we build to cross an era is but the starting place for our children.

"…Frances, daughter of …"

… In Pennsylvania, in 1744, the roots of my mother tree burrow deep underground, continuing but hardly recorded. Frances came from a family of weavers or farmers and she would been the second or third generation in the New World. Her grandmothers were perhaps known only as "girl" in the birth register or "wife" in the ship's log. It doesn't matter; I can feel their presence with me as we hold hands across time, from mother to daughter. They have given me the priceless gift of a moment in time seen through their eyes.

"…Constance, daughter of Leigh"

I gave my daughter my "maiden name" as a rebellious act. Eventually I realized that my "rebellion" against patriarchal ways was nothing less than "collaboration." I had passed on a patronym. This is why it is so important that we hold onto our motherline!

The weaving that binds us to our mothers is a thread so fine as to be invisible, yet so strong as to be unbreakable once we rediscover it. The act of passing on my birth name, once so meaningful, lost all sense when I realized that as wimmyn, whether we keep our names or not, it is still the patriarchy who names us, and our legal identities change with every generation. Our motherlines are erased and the branches broken.

Reciting the names of the wimmyn in our motherline is an act of power. We remember them, and they live through us. In my daughter, I see their intelligence and courage. My sister has their determination. Traits skip a generation or two, then reappear. We take on the qualities we esteem, and learn from the qualities that we dislike.

All wimmyn are part of the Tree of Life, we all have roots. I know wimmyn who have been adopted and thus have never known their birth mothers. Their roots have simply hidden deeper underground. I would ask these wimmyn, "Who are the wimmyn you have admired in your life?" Our families (adoptive or biological), teachers, neighbors, friends, wimmyn from herstory — all are part of the great mother tree.

Sing their names. Reflect on how you have carried on their wisdom and beauty. Remember them.

Our Motherline

Constance, daughter of Leigh
Leigh, daughter of Carol
Carol, daughter of Mina
Mina, daughter of Besse
Besse, daughter of Mary Frances
Mary Frances, daughter of Betsy (Elisabeth)
Betsy (Elisabeth), daughter of Fannie
Fannie, daughter of Frances
Frances, daughter of…?

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