The shoulders I stand on

My dad always liked to say that he believes in “generational curses.” When he said it, he was usually referring to divorce. My mom’s parents got divorced soon after my parents were married, and Dad liked to hold that up as an example of a “spirit of divorce” in my mom’s lineage.

It was a threat. A reminder that any thought Mom had of leaving him was because of this “curse” or “spirit” over her family. It wasn’t because of the horrible way he treated her.

But when I look at my mother’s family history, what I see is a lineage of women who were beaten down but kept on surviving. Women who were abused, abandoned, and widowed, and did whatever they could to provide for their children and themselves

My grandma was hit by her father, an amateur boxer. After one incident, she was so dazed that she almost got hit by a train on her walk to school. She only told my mom the story once, and her voice still shook all those years later.

Grandma’s mother moved to the city after eighth grade to work as a maid because her family couldn’t afford to feed her anymore. Somehow, she still managed to graduate high school—one of the first in her family to do so. She went on to become the first female barber in Minnesota.

The barbershop my great grandfather owned is still there, looking much the same as it did then. I stumbled across it by chance a few weeks ago.

My great-great-grandmother’s back was a mess of scars. After her parents died, her grandparents took her and her siblings in, and they beat her whenever any of the children misbehaved.

Another great-great-grandmother did laundry to support her family because her husband refused to work. He took them to California, and then, one day when she was out, packed up all their belongings and the children and went back to Minnesota. She was stranded without enough money to follow them.

Bohemian Flats along the Mississippi river in Minneapolis, Minnesota
source: peoplesriverhistory.us/project/history/

My grandpa’s mother grew up on a houseboat on the Mississippi. They were the lowest of the low-class—even lower than the people living along on the bank. She was the last of thirteen children, two of whom drowned in the river.

The girls ate mush, while their brothers had eggs for breakfast, because the boys had to work all day doing whatever they could to support the family. Her twice-widowed mother scrubbed floors to provide for her children.

source: peoplesriverhistory.us/project/history/

It makes sense then, that when my great-grandmother got married, she told her soon-to-be-husband that her widowed mother was coming with her. That was the deal. He agreed, and he honored that promise. For the rest of her life, my great-great-grandmother had enough to eat and her own room in their house.

If my great-grandmother hadn’t married a good man who worked his way up from errand boy to vice president of a bank. If my other great-grandmother hadn’t sacrificed so much to help her daughter be the first generation to go to college. If another hadn’t sailed from Germany by herself at sixteen. If another hadn’t married the farm hand out of necessity after her husband was dragged to death by their horses. If they hadn’t scrubbed floors, hauled laundry, gone without food, worked as a maid, not given up on their education, and fought to survive horrendous abuse…

If going back and back to stories and women I’ve never even heard of… I wouldn’t exist.

Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt

More than that, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. I wouldn’t be able to sit here writing this in my little townhouse in a safe part of town. I wouldn’t know what it is to have enough food to eat, to not worry about my child’s basic needs.

I wouldn’t have a mother who, in the spirit of the women of her lineage, fought to survive through horrible abuse, fought for a better life for her children. And somehow didn’t lose the core of her being in the process.

So, Dad, if I could tell you one thing now, I would say you were right, but you were wrong. When I look at Mom’s family, I do see a “generational curse” of sorts, but it is one of abusive men, neglect, and poverty. All the trauma that has been passed down from mothers to daughters and sons. The things that were so painful they were seldom spoken aloud.

The only “spirit” I see is one of endurance and survival, of mothers fighting to leave a better inheritance for their children.

source: Novelicious on Twitter

I stand on the shoulders of the women who came before me. And it makes me think of what I will pass to my child, to his children, and to theirs.

One day, no one will remember me, but the steps I take will lead to theirs. I want those steps to go past survival and into healing. I want to fight for a different kind of life, one that is not defined by the abuse of the past.

It ends here.

It begins here.