“ Here in Kentucky …[the] past has always felt close and I’ve always felt connected to it, sprung from it, like it or not. Down the road from my house is an old family graveyard. One of the graves there is for a woman whose first name was America. Even though I live in the middle of nowhere, sometimes it feels like I live in the center of it all.”
Poet Maurice Manning, Southeast Review, 2008.
When I opened my email account on Mother’s Day morning, I was surprised to find a “holiday greeting” from, of all people, the search engine at Ancestry.com. I’ve pictured him as a C-3PO sort of robot hunkered in a lonely basement alcove of the National Archives who earnestly tries to answer my requests for old census records and land deeds. Previously he had displayed no sense of humor. Now, out of the blue, he wanted to share “fun facts” about the mothers in my family tree.
To be honest, I’d never thought about my maternal ancestors generating any “fun facts.” Mine are a stiff-lipped bunch of old Daguerreotypes. Had he run across their lost dairies in his database? I was intrigued and clicked on the tantalizing link.
For starters, C-3P0 (I like to call him that) told me that over the past two hundred years, three-fourths of the women in my family were twenty-five or older when they first gave birth. This statistic stunned me. It’s not exactly a “fun fact” but it goes against the tide of history when women married early and died young.
Perhaps my maternal ancestors were dowdy, hard-to-marry-off daughters who hung around the paternal hearth until destiny delivered a desperate suitor. But I prefer to think they were choosy women, the kind who delayed marriage until the fullness of womanhood, maybe after teaching school a few years. From what I know of my own mother and her stories of her mother and maternal grandmother, I know I come from a line of self-confident women.
Grandmother, for example, despite the simplicity of her life as an Owen County farmer’s wife, insisted it wouldn’t faze her a bit to have the President of the United States come to dinner. Everyone understood she meant it, too, because she could charm a fencepost if she tried and was a legendary cook, to boot. I’ve tried to picture FDR bumping down the gravel lane to her farmhouse for one of her Sunday soirees featuring free-range fried chicken plucked from her feedlot and her famous fluffy biscuits. I’ve wondered what they might have chatted about. He’d probably complement her “maahvalus” meal and ask for seconds. She would have thanked him for his New Deal. She might also have told him how much she valued education, how she read everything she could put her hands on, and by the way, wouldn’t a public library in every county in America be a good idea? She, herself, had pushed both her daughters off to college in Depression-riddled rural Kentucky.
My maternal Great-Grandmother survives in family lore as the source of any gentility, ambition and intelligence we might have inherited. She was also a sturdy saint who anchored the family in the harsh years of late 19th Century West Virginia. While her underpaid preacher husband sought to save souls, she performed daily miracles in the kitchen. Prayerfully, she fed her family abundantly, graciously, with nothing much.
While the grandmothers admired their husbands in particular, they were skeptical in general of the male gender’s leadership skills. They’d never heard the word feminist, and I have no evidence that they participated in the suffragette movement. Privately, however, they would opine that women were holding the world together. “A woman pays attention to the details, and gets things done,” they’d say, as they wondered out loud how the universe bumbled along with men mostly in charge, talking about the big picture but nonchalant about the mechanics of daily life.
The most startling “fun fact” C-3PO shared about my matriline, however, was that it begins in this country with a woman named America McGinnis. If my family name had been passed down from her, mother to mother, generation after generation, I would have been Georgia McGinnis, not Georgia Green!
Of course, he arbitrarily began with her rather than reaching back to nameless grandmothers across the ocean. But I like the notion of beginning my maternal line with a woman strong enough to get through life named America. Was she America every day or only when she was naughty? I wonder if she were teased in the one-room schoolyard about her unusual name? Or was it as common as Mary in those early, verdant years of the Republic when hope bubbled from the earth like spring water?
No paintings have survived of America McGinnis so I am free to picture her in my own image, a Scotch-Irish girl, pale with reddish, blonde hair. Widowed at age thirty-four and left with a houseful of children to rear, she’d probably laugh at my high-falutin rhetoric if I asked her how she would define her American Dream. But surely she had one – for her family to come here, for her to endure.
Was it achieved when she escaped servitude in another’s kitchen and became matron of her own? Was it about walking on farmland that belonged to her people and not to others? Was it Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness, that phrase that seems to encompass all the other freedoms?
What ambitions did she have for her daughters? A brick house with a Williamsburg garden? Silk dresses and books to read?
And how did my America feel about being unable to vote in her America? Did she chafe at the irony? Did she question the morality of slavery? Did she ever look up and ask “why?” Or was her American Dream about the freedom to dream things that never were and ask, as Robert Kennedy did, “why not?”
C-3PO could not answer my questions. When I pressed him, he gently reminded me that America has many mothers, and as many stories, and that I, Georgia McGinnis, am one of America’s many daughters.
Copyright © May 2016 Georgia Green Stamper