And now, Genea, I wish to introduce you to the Motherline you would have inherited:
I am Barbara, daughter of Dorothy Carol, granddaughter of Dorothy Evelyn (Dolly), great-granddaughter of Emma Christina Wilhelmina, great-great-granddaughter of Gertrude.
My Mother’s mother, my Grandmother, Dorothy Evelyn (née Hesford) Dresser, was born in 1912, the seventh of eight children. Dolly, as she was affectionately called her whole life, was born of a Swedish immigrant, Emma Christina Wilhelmina Ahlgren, who came to the United States as a teenager, knowing only her sister who had immigrated a few years earlier. Before Emma married, historical records show that she lived with her sister, Mary, who was married to Edwin Porter.
My Mama now owns the property that was passed down through Ed “Unc” Porter, whom I remember as a child. At this lakeside cottage, where my Grandmother and her siblings’ families – the extended Hesford clan – gathered, we would come together to eat, tell stories, swim, play bocce ball, go fishing, and enjoy each other’s company. As a child, I could feel the warmth and humor among the women, my Great Aunts. My Mother confirms my sense: there was no rancor, no competitiveness or jealousy between them. When I saw my ancestor’s census form online, I finally understood, in a concrete way, the distant relationship between me and this ancestor who had built this place of gathering for our family. In 1902, Emma married John W. Hesford, who had been a boarder in Unc’s home, and bore them eight children: William, Gertrude, Mary, Alice, Frank, Walter, Dorothy (Dolly), and Arthur, all of whom survived infancy. Papa, my Grandmother’s father, died when she was just a pre-teen, so her Mother, Emma, worked outside the home in a variety of jobs to support her eight children.
My Grandmother, Dolly, married Richard (Dick) Warren Dresser in Massachusetts, and as the Great Depression began to level off, but still a few years before the US entered World War II, they had two children: Natalie Elaine, and my mother, Dorothy Carol (always called Carol); and then fourteen years later, a third: Richard (Rick) Warren, Jr. Three children were not many, at least not for a woman of her time. But my Gramma’s hands were full: my aunt Natalie has developmental disabilities (undiagnosed, but she likely has Williams Syndrome), which meant she did not continue past third grade in school, and so my grandparents cared for her in their home. When my Gramma was 36, after many years of no additional children (and I’m assuming no pregnancies), she bore my uncle, Rick, who was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when he was a toddler. He never walked: he went from being in a baby carriage to using a wheelchair. In some ways, Rick was like an older brother who lived with a different mother; he was only nine years older than me.
My Mama’s childhood was significantly impacted by having a special-needs sister. In the school setting, I don’t know what it was like for her to have an older sister, who was very social, but developmentally-delayed. But what happened on the home front had a lasting negative impact: my Mama felt like she was expected to be perfect, and my Aunt got by with just being “pretty” (which she was, in fact). When Natalie was unable (or as my Mama perceives it, unwilling) to complete a chore or task, Carol was expected to pick up the slack and complete the task, correctly. Over 80 years later, my Mama resents my Aunt for her lack of capability. (However, because she was a teenager when her brother was born, that impact was less.)
Even if my grandparents hadn’t labeled Natalie, the “pretty one” and Carol, the “smart one,” the distinction between them would not have gone unnoticed. Perhaps in their efforts to ensure my Aunt had a role and sense of accomplishment, my Mama was judged too harshly. No wonder my Mama’s self-esteem as a young woman was so impaired.
When my Mama married my Father in 1955, she was a young adult, embarking on her own life. They met on a blind date. My Mama had been set up with another sailor on the same ship, and when he couldn’t make the date, my Dad offered to take his place. He had enlisted in the Navy as soon as he graduated from high school, and was stationed in Charlestown, Massachusetts, at the time they met.
While reading The Motherline, I experienced a range of thoughts and emotions. I was heartened when I begin the chapter on grandmothers.[i] But as I think about it further, I realize, I too was impacted by my Aunt Natalie and Uncle Rick’s needs, in a way I hadn’t considered before now. My Gramma, with whom I had a special relationship, could not be available to me or my siblings in the ways most grandmothers can … she was still busy parenting. So how must it have been for my own Mother, to have her sister’s needs constantly in the forefront, the focus of the attention, in her childhood home?
The dysfunction wrought by circumstance and choice are mitigated by the generational distance, but are perhaps less explicable now, so out of context. Each of my parents’ families dealt with challenging circumstances and made choices that caused pain to them. How do those choices, and my parents’ responses, affect me now? How can I minimize the impact from times in which I never lived?
I call my Mother to chat about the online research I’ve been doing as a bridge to this Motherline conversation. She and my Father are driving from Massachusetts to Florida, visiting friends and family along the way, for the wedding of their grandson in a few weeks. As we talk, she anxiously tells me she’s on her cell phone and doesn’t have “free minutes” during the day. We chat a bit more, and then she hurries me off the phone with the suggestion that we talk on Saturday, not an ideal time for me. I don’t bother to ask when, and hang up quickly, as I hear her ask, “Ok? Okay?” It’s not okay, but she doesn’t have time for me to tell her that.
As a young child, I remember my Mother telling me that I was her favorite, and not to tell my sister. I don’t remember her mentioning my twin brother. I’ve only rarely felt intuitive, but at that moment, I believed her, and not in the sense that she was telling my siblings the same thing. Since she grew up in a family where her sister was favored, at least from her perspective, as an adult, I think to myself, “Why didn’t she try extra-hard to NOT favor any of her children?” By the time I was a young adult and even still, I see the double-edged sword of her favoritism which, is now bestowed upon my younger sister. When I lived at home (pre-college years), I was her confidante: I heard about my Father’s shortcomings, taught her how to wear eyeshadow, and critiqued her clothes.
I could sense that she saw herself in me; saw what she hoped she would have become, and hadn’t yet, in my potential, in my about-to-awaken-into-adulthood-ness. When did that change, when did I become the one no-longer-favored? As a college student, a thousand miles from home, and the daily-ness of connection and communication, the natural individuation of daughter from mother devolved into a lack of understanding and compassion. From my perspective, each of us was responsible for this. Ironically, now when I’m trying to connect with her via the phone, it’s also an instrument of distance, rather than connection (much as it was in the 1970s when long-distance phone calls were very expensive). “The miles don’t shrink by telephone,”[ii] says a song lyric that’s been echoing in my head the past few weeks.
Investing time but not money, I tried to find more information online about my Grandmother’s grandmother (or great-great grandmother) Gertrude’s ancestry but came to a dead-end. I know she lived in Sweden, on the island of Gotland, in the town of Visby. Later I had the chance to visit this “holy place” (Visby was so named prior to its Christianization) and experience the Medieval walled town, beginning to grasp a flavor of her people and hinterlands.
While there I marveled at the När Smiss stone, also known as the Snake-Witch stone, an iconic small dolmen nearly three feet tall, carved circa 600-700 AD. The depiction of a woman in a birthing position holding two snakes in outstretched arms reminded me both of the Minoan Snake Goddess of Crete and Sheela-na-gigs found throughout northern Europe, but especially noted in Ireland. Of all the picture stones now on display at the Gotland Museum, it is the only one featuring a woman, and the only one which has been “restored” with color believed to have been originally present. Here in my ancestral Motherline’s homeland was a powerful, yet enigmatic representation of women’s unique power.
Gertrude allegedly died in a kitchen fire, but I found no record of her life or death, except her name was referenced on her daughter’s marriage certificate. How did Gertrude feel about her daughters leaving their homeland? What did she know of their new lives on the other side of the world? Did she wish she could have joined them? How did her experience of being separated from her descendants, especially her daughters, inform the rest of her life?
Did Gertrude know about the Snake-Witch stone, which was uncovered in the 1600s? If she knew of it, did she feel empowered by it? Or was it merely a pagan representation from an unconnected past? While my imagination stretches across the miles and centuries to fill in the gaps, I know I carry some of my great-great grandmother’s DNA in me: as a child, my mother often called me Svensk flicka, Swedish girl, because of my blonde hair and round face which are typical of the Swedish phenotype.
What I also found interesting is that some of their last names were listed as [father’s first name]dotter, similar to the Icelandic tradition which continues today (in Sweden, e.g., “Olofsdotter”, or sometimes abbreviated “Olofsdr”). I was aware of the Icelandic naming practice but did not realize this was once done in Sweden as well.
Before my Mother married, her initials were DCD, and then became DCB. My birth initials were BCB, and as a child I wished to have BCD (as a reverse of my Mother’s). Years later, I considered taking her maiden name as my own, but decided against it because it was merely her father's name, instead of being my Father's. When I saw Sigrid Undset’s book, Kristin Lavransdatter, I saw the possibility for me to have a name that was incontrovertibly a woman's: “Daughter.” How perfect then that I already had my mother's name as my middle name. I began to use it for a few years, then legally changed my name to Barbara Carol Daughter in 1986. Until I was doing research for this paper, I was unaware I had an antecedent from my own ancestry for choosing “Daughter” as my last name!
Check back next week for more ...