A few months back I read American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus. In the book, the author goes on a quest to “find” her great-great grandmother Julia who supposedly haunts an historic hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the great-grandmother’s former home). The topic seemed intriguing despite my skepticism. We, as Americans, have a very strange relationship with the concepts of heritage, homelands, ancestry, etc. Why do we feel the need to connect with ancestors from 150 years ago? Why are we fascinated with the wronged Victorian woman returned to haunt the living? Do we actually care about the ancestors themselves or do we simply crave an endorsement of our own world views?
Unfortunately, the author does little to explore these questions. The book offered some very interesting history regarding frontier New Mexico and the experience of German Jews making a life in the territories, but it also included a lot of pointless activity including at least six trips to various psychics/spiritualists, a predictably disappointing packaged ghost tour, and an unfortunate experience with a marijuana cookie. All in all, I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Despite the mediocre review, the book stuck with me. Given the decades separating us from Julia’s life, the author has an understandably difficult time penetrating the mysteries surrounding her deceased ancestor. While her great-great grandfather’s activities turn up regularly in the city newspapers, almost no primary documents say anything about her great-great grandmother. The closest document the author could find was a teenage travel diary by Julia’s daughter that sheds little light on the lady in question. Without primary documents or satisfying answers from the spirits, the author concludes her book saying basically, “I know Julia is with me and that she supports me.” This was unsatisfying at best. I came to hear about great-great Julia and after 300 pages learned only the Born, Married, Immigrated, Had Kids, Got Sick, and Died narrative. What about her thoughts, dreams, aspirations, regrets?!
Almost immediately, I thought of my own recently deceased grandmother. My grandma wasn’t the type to smother you with kisses, bake you fresh cookies, or have a girls night with her granddaughters at the movies. She’d borne and raised 10 kids on a meager budget, cared for my great-grandfather after he had a stroke, and spent many years caring for my patriarchal grandfather as his health slowly declined. She wasn’t a distant woman, but with 30-50 people at every family gathering I don’t recall many personal moments. As I grew up, she was mostly Mrs. P., Mother of 10 as my grandfather and all the relatives sucked up all the attention. Shortly after my grandfather died however, I was sitting with her around the kitchen table with L and TwoEsforMee talking about this and that, and began to see my grandmother as a whole person. She wasn’t just Grandma. We were seeing a wickedly funny little woman who’d seen a lot of life and had survived to tell the tale. We had a lovely time and I felt a bit sheepish for not recognizing all this sooner.
Then she was diagnosed with late stage cancer and was dead a few months later.
While my grandmother isn’t haunting anyone, I realized she faces the same fate as Nordhaus’ great-great grandmother Julia. I’d seen that glimpse of her, but she was rapidly receding behind the Mrs. P., Mother of 10 narrative. If I barely “knew” her, how would her great-great grandchildren know her?
Luckily L was ahead of me on this one, having collected letters, poems, and artworks created by my grandmother into one place. Unlike Ms. Nordhaus’ experience, this collection preserves my grandmother’s voice. We know that her heritage, her family, and her faith were important to her because she said so. They’re her words, her brush-strokes, not just our assumptions or interpretations. The more I think about it, the more I realize that L’s work to preserve my grandmother’s voice is an important feminist act. Thanks to L, my grandmother’s creations will faithfully represent her for future generations.
A year ago, I didn’t know that until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, financial institutions could deny women credit unless they had their husbands’ permission. As I wrote at the time in disbelief: “Our grandmothers were denied credit cards and loans unless our grandfathers gave them permission slips.”
How much do we know about our grandmothers’ lives?
How much do we know about our mothers’ experiences?
Will our grandchildren know about our feminism?
Perhaps our greatest acts as feminists will be to engage with and preserve our grandmothers’, our mothers’, and even our own narratives. If your relatives are still living, include them in this radical feminist project. Gather documents! Collect recollections and opinions while you can! Don’t let the patriarchy tell our stories. Your feminist decedents will thank you.