I spent hours yesterday researching my family history, specifically the women who came before me on my mother's side. I am fascinated by them, imagining the lives they must have led. After dinner I had to go back in and find just one more with the goal of not going to sleep until I unearthed my 12th Great Grandmother because I was so close to finding that one; the one that climbed aboard a ship in England to make the harrowing journey to Massachusetts. I found her and her name was Edith Tanner. What courage and bravery she must have had. Why did she do it? I am guessing it was for freedom, for hope, for her kin, for a better life.
Last night as I was going to sleep I could not help but wonder what these women would think of my life as I ensured the heat in the house was set to a proper sleeping temperature, turned on the pad that cools my mattress, washed my face with warm running water and nourished it with a balm that smells like a spring meadow on a bluff above the sea. Next to my bed I keep two glasses of filtered water because I wake thirsty at night probably because I use sauna and exercise most days. Then I thought for a moment over the three books I am currently reading, faced with the difficult decision of which to read before sleep. Once all of that was done, I set my air filter to night mode so that the blue light will not wake me, turned off my lights, and wrapped up in my soft down comforter.
I wondered where they found comfort. Perhaps in the eyes of their children, the nature around them that I am sure they were more connected to than I am, the sound of a river nearby. Perhaps in God, the arms of their husbands, the fire at the hearth of the home they just finished building, or a witty conversation in town with friends.
Because of these women, my life is about choice – Paleo, Keto, vegetarian? Intermittent fasting? Weight training or HITT? Meditation or a walk? Fiction or non-fiction? How many clients to schedule each day? Buddhist, Presbyterian, not applicable? Jeans or sweats? iPhone or Android? This man or that one as my mate? Spotify or Apple Music? Belize or Italy? Trump or Biden, time with family or writing, restaurant or dinner at home, and all of the other options, the deep ones that set the courses of our lives.
So what do I owe them, those who came before me? What is my responsibility to them? Is it to spend my life righting the injustices they endured over the eons? Is it to feel guilty for my comforts compared to the lives they endured? I don’t think so.
I imagine these 14 women standing behind me and when I do, I see them looking forward beyond me, pointing that way. “Go there. Don’t look back here.” But I will look back now and then. To understand, to be reminded of their courage and bravery, the courage and bravery that was required to bring me here. I will look back when life throws me challenges, for their support and strength, their desire for me to do what they could not.
I was sappy this morning, full of a sort of emotional reckoning that seeped into my bones overnight as I slept – a settling of the many thoughts that passed through my brain yesterday as I searched into my history, into their lives. The gratitude is too much to contain and I do not seem to have the vocabulary to properly express it. There is a debt I owe, best paid back by living as well as I can, keeping in mind the privilege bestowed upon me mostly by chance. The privilege of being able to turn over the stones, look beneath and bring to light what I learn there.
The sacrifices were made for me. For you. In this moment how we choose to use this freedom is up to us. When you don’t know what to do, look behind you for just a moment to be reminded. Don’t spend too much time there but check in every now and then with those who came before. Be reminded of your privilege to choose what you will do with your life; what you will do with this day. It is a gift so deep, generous, and loving that it is the greatest honor to be able to live it.
I bet those 14 women who came before me on my mother’s side, all the way back to Edith Tanner who died in 1676 in Massachusetts and beyond, would heartily agree with Mary Oliver when she wrote the immensely meaningful and oft-cited words, “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Look behind you. They are asking this question of you.
Barbara. Lois. Effie. Nancy. Sarah. Rachel. Mehitable. Susannah. Letitia. Eleanor. Sarah. Susannah. Susannah. Edith.
*Song to accompany the feeling: River by Patty Griffin