I'm a woman -- a Baby Boomer -- a product of the Cold war and the Space Race, a witness to the moon walk and the many social changes of the 1960's and 70's. I was born to parents who lived the Great Depression, themselves raised by parents who were immigrants. Three of my grandparents landed at Ellis Island near the turn of the last century. As a story collector, I'm sad to say I don't have many stories about these three people. The ones I do have are precious to me. Here's one of my favorites: My Sicilian grandfather left Sicily to come to this land of opportunity and ended up working the coalmines of Kentucky and Indiana. It makes me wonder what the heck he left that this transition would be a better life. He was just 19 when he courted my barefoot-poor 13-year-old grandmother with a chicken, a bunch of celery, and a box of chocolates. They were married a year later.
That grandmother had roots deep in Colonial America. Long before the founding fathers ever set quill to parchment, her forebears tapped the wilderness to survive. That side of the family, my mother's side, arrived in the 1680's and generations later crossed the Cumberland Gap. I have a story about that. A great aunt, so many times removed, who, in the 1780's at age seven, was stolen away during the Indian raids near the Gap. After seven years of captivity, she recognized the red iron-rich waters of Tennessee's Clinch River, escaped the Shawnee, and followed the river home.
Media bandies about the word patriot so much these days, we've forgotten the meaning. Worse, the standard definition of a patriot has been corrupted in media so now it means the opposite of what it once did. As far as patriotism goes, my mother's kin served in, and some died in, every early war in this nation's history. In 1778, my 6x great grandfather supplied George Rogers Clark's expedition inland and helped to take the Illinois country away from the British. Many of my long ago relations were militiamen in the War for Independence. They named their sons after the great men of the age such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washingon, and Thomas Jefferson. Not because the names had a nice ring when you said them, but because they knew and respected the men who bore those names.
Another great grandfather fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Later, brother literally fought brother on both sides of the Civil War at Gettysburg. My family was even in the Oklahoma Land Rush (think of the movie Far and Away). One great uncle rode with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. Another great uncle died in the Philippines during the Bataan Death March in WWII. Some went on to lose everything in the Dust Bowl. The family name nothing more than a ghost town...a placeholder on a map. Some of my relatives were injured in the mines. Some went to the California gold rush. My great grandmother succumbed to the influenza outbreak of 1918. That same year in the trench warfare of WWI, her son lost his life in Flanders Field.
When taken as a whole, the genealogy on that side of the family is almost unbelievable to read. And I write fiction! If anything happened anywhere in this country, chances are that side of the family was involved somehow. And generally not involved in a small way.
I never knew my grandfathers, but I knew my grandmothers. My Polish grandmother, my father's mother, scrubbed Pullman cars and taught herself English by reading her children's school books. Widowed twice, once to violence and once to tragic circumstance, she single-handedly raised six children to adulthood. Kindness and goodness personified my grandmother. Here's a story about her: She knew a young man in Poland, a "spoiled boy" she didn't like. Wouldn't you know, she made her way to Chicago and he was there? One Sunday at mass, to her surprise, the priest read the banns saying they were engaged. He had told the priest their engagement was a done deal. I asked her why she would marry such a man. A woman of her time, she explained she had no choice. New to this country, she was afraid her new community would think her a "bad woman". Once it was said in church, it was set in stone.
My other grandmother was a chronologer of sorts. Everything she kept had a note of history attached to it. She was also a consummate letter writer. If there was a wrong occurring in her small portion of the world, you could bet the local politicians would hear of it. During WWII both women were forced to carry Hostile Alien I.D. cards simply because they had married their husbands. (Lithuania was under German control and Sicily was run by a fascist.) I find this Hostile Alien thing preposterous. One grandmother was divorced and the other a 2x widow whose own sons were US soldiers at the time.
These two women didn't lead remarkable lives but they were strong, resilient, and intelligent. They came from a world that didn't allow women to vote or own property. They came from a time without birth control when you could tell how many children a woman bore by how many teeth had fallen from her mouth; the calcium drained from her bones by broods of 18 children. In their time they had no say regarding their lives. In their time her husband could beat her or rape her and be within his rights. When they were able to vote, they took it very seriously.
I mention all of this because my male relatives didn't manage to fight the wilderness, fight for freedom, fight to make their way to a new country and a better life, or fight for peace, by themselves. The women in my family were there beside them.
It's important to remember that sometimes things are worth fighting for and the hard won ground, once lost to complacency, is pretty darn hard to regain. It's hard to believe the issues my grandmothers dealt with 100 years ago have not been put to rest once and for all by 2014. Our wages are still lower, and the right to have control over the direction we wish for our lives is getting narrower..and narrower. The news this past week is sad. Decisions made by the highest powers of the land adversely effect American women. When the last several years are taken as a whole, this disregard and disrespect of women appears to be a rising trend. We need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to lose when our hard won ground cost so much to begin with. When will enough be enough?
I'll leave you with an important task for this 4th of July. While you gather with family and friends, make sure the young girls in your lives know the ground they stand upon was won, not given. Let them know they should never ever take equality for granted. It's a cause worth fighting for. One that must be tended like the precious flame it is.
Rose is multi-published award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and discovering interesting things to weave into stories. She lives with her family and small menagerie amid oak groves and prairie in the rolling glacial hills of the upper Midwest.
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