Annie to Aureila, 1906-2010
Aurelia Josephine was born June 11, 2010. My mother Kelly braided my hair and rubbed my back while I labored. I don’t remember talking during those days. We didn’t need to. I feel the fortune and the heartache of my life and the mothers before me in my daughter. She is my breaking and my mending. It is my greatest task to walk ahead of her and move any obstacles I can from her way to let her push further forward. It is the American dream in my blood.
When my great-grandmother Isabella Lawson Morris arrived in America from Perthshire, she was seven months old and likely in her mother Annie’s arms. It was March 25, 1906 and little Isabella Lawson held that name that was also her grandmother’s, who was named for her legendary grandmother, born also in Scotland in 1786. This is a family with deep roots and respect.
As the story has been told to me, Annie and her husband were half courageous, half reckless, and wholly selfish as far as their neighbors were concerned, to be leaving their families for the feral world. Along with their five-year-old David and toddler Jennie, they packed everything they could fit of their lives into a trunk and left forever. It was dangerous and impassioned, but those children would know a fresh independence and it was Annie’s ambition to show them all the possibilities America promised. Perthshire was green and the only home they’d known, but it was a dark dead end for her young, hungry heart. She clutched her fat, rosy peach of a baby and with her small family, settled into Kansas with the grit that comes after childbirth for all things precarious.
American mothers are mostly the same in this way. It’s a tenet of our revolutionary spirit in this still relatively new country. We are determined to improve the lives of our children, after we survive whatever we survived on the backs of the women who prevailed before us. It’s not purely an economic ambition. We struggle to deliver dreams to our children from wherever we arrived.
My great-great-grandmother Annie never expected the decades ahead to be filled with war, poverty, and some of our nation’s most excruciating years. She and her growing family remained in Kansas and making it sunrise to sunset daily, they endured. Isabella left home when she was 22 years old after falling in love with a man from Nebraska nearly twice her age with blonde hair and grey eyes. Albin Olson wasn’t deterred by the age difference as his parents had married in Sweden when his mother was 14 and his father 24. And so, Isabella and Albin made the most of a rough mid-west life. Annie encouraged Isabella to go, relieved that she was taken care of and happy, no less.
Albin had served in the “War to End All Wars” and our part in it turned this promised land into a bloody letdown. There were over 41 million casualties during World War I and it’s difficult to imagine underestimating the impact that had on the young troops who survived and returned to a changed world. He found hope in this green girl, so full of anticipation. She buoyed his heart and they quieted each other’s fears. Their first son was born in Nebraska on their rented farm at the start of the Great Depression.
Belle, as Isabella was now called, had another son before they headed west to escape the Dust Bowl that swept the Southern Plains in the 1930’s. Wendell, Idaho was a chocolate box comparatively and there they had their third son and a girl named Clarissie. Belle wasn’t sure how to spell her new babe’s name, but it didn’t matter, as they all called her Claire. After living away from family and her old friends and being surrounded with her sturdy boys and husband, Belle finally had a little girl of her own.
Having a child reproduces childhood for parents in many ways. It’s a dreamlike step back through that innocent time in our own lives and it makes it all the more difficult to be removed from our own mothers, no matter how old and independent we grow. As much as her boys were out farming with their father, Belle had time to hold Claire. I’m sure she cried. She missed her optimistic mother, with her oatmeal porridge for thousands of meals and stories of the fortune to come. She dreamt of Scotland and the land she never knew. She wondered if she had made the right choices. Albin’s health began to fail and she desperately cared for him in their little town of less than 1,500 people. Albin died in 1950 and Belle’s buoyed world folded. The three boys were grown enough to work and mostly care of themselves, but Claire was only 11 and alone with her mother and the grief that filled every breath between them.
Belle felt frantic and confused. It’s a hallmark of grief when one loses her other. She couldn’t manage simple tasks and in episodes of hopelessness, it really was her grit that kept her going, though it looked meager.
It was meager. Claire cared for her and looked up to her brothers for guidance. Belle went to Idaho Falls for shock therapy and no one quite knew what to do to help after that. Belle lost a great part of her heart when Albin died and a great part of her mind shortly after.
My grandmother Claire mourned her dead father, who was old enough to be her grandfather, and her missing-while-present mother. She retold herself the handed down stories of strength, the Depression, the Great War, and Scotland and tried very hard to just be a happy girl.
Claire had hair the color of apricot jam, a wide, white smile, and a 19-inch waist. She was raw and yet, too aged for her adolescence. She met her brother’s friend David and with his attention, she began to understand just how her mother could have loved her father that much. Sunlight came back to Idaho. Just after she turned 16, she got pregnant and was practically in rapture for all the promise that lay in the new, changed world. David married her and she stayed near her mother in Idaho, intermittently caring for her while caring for her husband and having six children before she was 24, two of whom died two days after their births.
Claire is the only heroine in this story who did not leave. Was it determination or fear? David left her and depending on who you talk to, Claire either managed to hold the ground beneath her or barely made ends meet as she disappeared into her own collapse. That’s the thing about promising dreams for other people … we only build up after we’ve broken down and as much as we try to learn from the mistakes made before us, we either repeat them or have entirely different lessons to learn.
Like Claire’s three older brothers who could care for themselves when Albin died, leaving her to absorb harsh life lessons too young, so was Claire’s daughter, my mother Kelly, made to grow up abruptly when her father left and three older siblings coped in the next stage of their lives. Kelly married a different David for probably many of the same reasons Claire married the other, but this time, Kelly left Idaho with David and David did not leave. They made their own new world, entirely unlike what they came from, for better and worse. It’s where I arrived.
It’s such a terrible thing to miss your mother. There are certainly all sorts of mothers, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t want one. Claire married a rancher from California with Portuguese parents. He adored her and much of the second half of her life was spent in comfort and connected to her children. She turned the tide, in her own small way, and crossed an ocean of disappointment. It is possible to leave what needs left or to call something home and return to it. Kelly and her little family went back to Idaho, to her tougher mother and her forgiven father.
I was there with my mother when my Grandma Claire died. I was 17 and the night was filled with soft light and silence. I slept on my Grandpa Mal’s couch and my mom counted Claire’s breaths for hours. It’s a good thing to love your life so much that you don’t want to die and it’s a good thing to want to hold on to someone so tightly because of the big hole their absence will leave. But in the end, no matter who our ancestors are, no matter who we love and lose, we are alone. The sooner we can find ourselves separated from the obstacles of our families, the sooner we can start the work of mastering our own.
This began to happen for me when I was eight years old, standing in my bedroom in a cotton floral nightgown with buttons up to the neck and slightly puffed sleeves. I was watching out the window in our West Seattle home, looking at the cherry tree beside the garage, waiting for my mother to return. This moment is frozen in memory as yesterday, traumatic as it was, because my mother was never gone. I remember no other time until then when she wasn’t there. Now I know she had vowed above all to be present for me because she had been alone so much, so young.
A coolness came over me and I calmed down. I gazed down at my hands, which have always been deeply lined and old looking. I had a gripping moment of awe wondering if I was real and sensing that everything I knew until then was through a lens. I was not my mother and I would be ok no matter where she was. It was a release, a relief. I could see myself outside of myself, outside of all the blood I’d come from and love everyone. Maybe it was that night or maybe it was later, but I grew up with sense that much of the hard work had been done before me and I could push our family tree forward in my own way. It’s still a daily task to be myself. I live for the moments that grip me and I pray to both push forward and let go, with my daughter, with my mother, with my life.