I am thinking about my maternal great grandmother tonight.
About 100 years ago she left London for a new life. She ventured across the pond with a soon to be professor to the University of New Brunswick and his wife, to be their nanny. She was 15 or 16 years old. I am told two of her first cousins were Lord's in the House of Lords. I really don't know what that means, other than it has to do with English government structure. Her father was a relatively wealthy man who owned a tavern. It is reported that his family was somehow involved in the slave trade between Africa and America.
Grandmother (as my mom refers to her) left of her own volition and refused to return despite her parents attempts. I believe it broke her mother's heart. Grandmother gave very little away about those days. Practically refusing to discuss them.
Not long after arriving in Canada she met my great grandfather. He was years her senior. He took her to live in his log cabin, far in the woods. He was often gone - hunting, fishing, trapping. They had children before he ever married her. She was an intelligent and articulate woman, an accomplished musician who in her youth, had played before the Queen. He was neither well spoken or well read. I'm sure the backwoods of New Brunswick was a far cry from the city streets of London. Being an unwed mother must have come with unbearable shame. Eventually they had 14 children which included two sets of twins. I once asked my mother how the two of them ever got together, I assumed it to be a loveless union. My mother suspected that she was in need of a place to live and he in need of a housekeeper.
When I was in eighth grade, I interviewed Grandmother for a socials project. I was learning about my family tree. I recall the walls in her house were all white and the sun seemed to come in from every direction. The ceilings seemed unnaturally high. She was old to me. My mother asked most of the questions, being much more interested in this particular piece of homework than I. Grandmother played the piano for us and sang. I thought it sounded dreadful but quite remarkable given she was the oldest person I'd ever met. For days afterward my mother recounted childhood memories and the special attention Grandmother had given to her over all the other grandchildren.
It would be so interesting to me to have this opportunity now. I would want my mom to be there and would plan it for days. I would ask her about having all those babies. How did it feel to be 30ish for her? Was there joy or did the days pass too quickly for such excess out of life? Was there any love or only duty? Did she make the right choice or just get so far into the wrong one that...
I have a theory that pain is passed down from one generation to another. That we can carry guilt and shame from a hundred years ago or even more. Chances are we don't recognize it as belonging to our ancestors. We pass it along regardless and throw in a few of our own secret sins just to ensure the gift keeps on giving. I see evidence of this in my own family. Thankfully, every once in a while, a generation refuses to indulge the sins of our fathers and our mothers and their fathers and their mothers. I'm certain that Grandmother's seeking out of a new life broke a cycle - but also created new grief to be passed on to her children and their children.
I honor her. I am told she was a brave and courageous woman. I'm sure she must have been.