Thursday, December 24, 2009

The (Family) Tree of Knowledge

When I was a few months into my pregnancy and feeling alone, I came across this quote by Harriet Lerner:

“We are never the first in our family to wrestle with a problem, although it may feel that way…. Learning how other family members have handled their problems similar to our own down through the generations, is one of the most effective routes to lowering reactivity and heightening self-clarity."

I thought, “Yeah right? Who does this happen to? No one else in my family has been abandoned three months into a planned pregnancy.” I kept reading.
“If we do not know about our own family history, we are more likely to repeat past patterns or mindlessly rebel against them, without much clarity about who we really are, how we are similar to and different from other family members, and how we might best proceed in our own life.”

Since I was already passionate about genealogy and family history, I decided to test out this idea and have a look at my family tree to see if there were any single mothers that I had overlooked, and what, if anything, I could learn from them. To my great surprise, there were more than a few, and the details of their stories left me dumbfounded. For the purpose of brevity, I will share only two here.

The first was Ellen (my great-grandmother). She lived for a time in the Mormon Mexican colonies (that’s why I feel Mexican inside). She had four daughters with her husband, but after the fourth, he accused her of cheating on him. He said that Violet was not his child. With this announcement, he left her and moved back to the United States.

Life in Mexico at this time (early 1900’s) was tense. Pancho Villa, the revolutionary general in Chihuahua was suspicious of the white Mormon settlers. According to the colony’s history, he threatened to kill the white people if they did not leave. So Ellen and her four daughters, and the rest of their colony, fled Mexico with a few days’ notice--on foot. Ellen returned to the United States to her parent’s home in Cedar City, Utah, and lived with her family. She worked hard to support four children. Sometime later, she met her childhood sweetheart, married him, and had four sons—one of which is my grandfather.

If pioneer stories bore you, this next story is much different. It is from my father’s side. My father was adopted by his step-father (I guess that means my grandmother was a single mom for a while, too), and I had been trying to track his real father’s line for some time. A few years before, I had already discovered the big surprise—I am (blonde little me) of slave ancestry (that’s why I have always felt black inside). But I will save that story for another time and cut to the single mother: Maria Johns, my third-great-grandmother.

I found her in an 1860 census in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. She was listed as a single, black woman living with her young daughter, who was listed as Mulatto. Her occupation was “washer woman” and she was listed as owning property.

If your hair isn’t already blown back, I’ll give you a few more details. Maria was born in Virginia, so she was almost certainly born into slavery. Her child was mulatto, and she was never married, so I can only speculate about what master impregnated her and whether or not she was willing. How she escaped or earned her freedom is also speculation. What I do know is that 1860 was pre-emancipation proclamation, and it was rare even for white women to own property in 1860.

What this tells me about Maria Johns, is that she was awesome.

I found a few clues and rumors that Marie was a Quaker, which I believe, because the Quakers were in large number in that part of Pennsylvania, and were also the only group that would be accepting enough to embrace a black woman into their community and let her own property.

After learning these stories about my ancestors, I felt much less alone. I felt connected to these powerful women and inspired by them. I looked to what both of them (and others I found) did in their time of trial and saw that those who turned to their family and their faith were the most successful. I knew I would be wise to do the same.

By meditating on these and other strong women in my life stream, I felt them draw nearer to me. They would help me and lift me up. When my daughter was born, I felt them all surrounding me—my mother, my grandmother, Ellen, Maria and many more I didn’t even know, but who knew me and knew my daughter.

This was just the beginning of my journey with my ancestors. Since then, with each major struggle in my life, I consult my family history to see what I can learn. The results continue to amaze and humble me.


  1. I love this story. Merry Christmas, amiga!

  2. Found your blog through Busca at Birth Faith. What beautiful stories about your ancestry and how you found strength in them. I believe we live in with a great "cloud of witnesses" around us - often unseen. But they are there to remind us we CAN make it through. Thanks for the wonderful post. :)



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