by Julia Sneden
“Soon I will be an old, white-haired lady, into whose lap some one places a baby, saying ‘Smile, Grandma!’ — I, who myself so recently was photographed on my grandmother’s lap.” — Liv Ullmann
I love this quote. It speaks with simple eloquence of the connectedness of family experience down the generations, and of the speed with which those generations pass.
I don’t have a photo of myself on my grandmother’s lap, but I remember that lap well. I could feel the bones of her corset and the softness of her bosom under her smooth, cotton housedress. I leaned against her as her gentle hand straightened my always-tangled hair.
I do have a picture of myself as a brand new grandmother with an infant in my lap. It was taken when my granddaughter was about one month old. Even at that early age, she bore a strong resemblance to my husband’s mother, Jean Mackey Sneden, something I’d not even considered in my imaginings during the months before her birth.
The women of my maternal line, that is my great grandmother, grandmother, mother and I, bear a strong likeness, at least in the eyes. I never realized this until someone took a picture of me holding my first born. I was wearing a hospital gown, mask and cap. In that garb, with only my eyes showing, the likeness to my mother and grandmother was truly startling. The rest of our features were disparate, and I’d have sworn we looked nothing alike, but those eyes verified our genetic connection.
Somehow, when my son and daughter-in-law gave birth to that little girl, I assumed that she’d look either like her mother’s family or like me, never giving a thought to my mother-in-law. But there she was: the baby was a Mackey from the word go.
Jean didn’t live to see her great granddaughter, which is a pity because I think she’d have recognized a kindred spirit. It doesn’t do, however, to carry the fun of physical likenesses too far. Children need to be assured that they are their own persons, no matter how much they look like someone from the past. It’s entirely possible that personality types are inherited as easily as the shape and color of eyes, but unlike the physical traits, personality is surely influenced by the nurturing dynamics of each immediate family. It seems to me that those dynamics create what we call character.
I may look like my grandmother Kelsey, but I didn’t have seven brothers and sisters as she did, or a clergyman father, or the experience of being reared in the harsh winters and hot summers of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Nor did I have parents who stayed married until death did them part.
All those differences have played on my personality and formed my character, which is not much like my grandmother’s. I often wish it were more so, because I admired her, and loved her dearly.
Nonetheless, I feel deep connectedness to the women in my family. I have access to them through the little stories told me by my grandmother and great aunt, both of whom lived with us. They had boxes of carefully saved letters, along with handwritten recipe books from their own grandmothers that were full of directions like: “Take butter the size of an egg ....” In my grandmother’s trunk were packages containing scraps of fabric labeled with descriptions like: “A bit of Father’s dressing gown, which he always called his redingote” and “A piece of the baby dress worn by all the Burleson children.”
My mother’s grandmother on her father’s side, Lucretia Bacon Kelsey, was something of a mystery, because she died when my grandfather was only six. A couple of years ago, however, we discovered a cache of letters written by her to her family “back East” in the 1850’s. She and her young family had moved to Wisconsin, which was then considered frontier territory. Those letters aren’t great literature, but they speak of universal things like homesickness and struggle and a mother’s concerns for sick children. But what really brought her alive for me was her description of the first day of her long journey West: “Otto (the baby) cried the whole way, and nothing would console him.” Oh, do I remember trips like that, with a squalling infant in the back seat!
And back even farther than Lucretia, I have another great grandmother’s reminiscences of her grandmother who taught her many little ditties, including:
There’s too much of worriting goes to a bonnet
And too much of ironing goes to a shirt.
There’s nothing that’s worth all the work you put on it.
There’s naught that remains except trouble and dirt.”
Or this version of the perennial toe-counting rhyme:
This little pig went to market, with a basket over his arm.
He ate green peas and skim-milk cheese* and fresh eggs from the farm.
And this little pig stayed at home, and a tidy little pig was he:
He swept up the room with a birch twig broom, and laid up the fire for tea.
And this little pig had a piece of bread and butter, and he ate it all alone
And made up a face, that greedy scapegrace, at this poor little pig who had none.
And this little pig cried “S’wee, s’wee, s’wee” **
For his tail was out of curl, and he needed a bed for his sleepy head
Like this little nodding girl. (Or, for a boy): ...For he didn’t have a toy
And he needed a bed for his sleepy head
Like this little nodding boy.
I can verify a few belongings and stories from the women in my family at least as far back as 1774. But when I scrub a sticky spot off the kitchen floor, or look into the eyes of the newest family baby, or cook up a pot of homemade soup, I feel kinship to much earlier women.
The generations aren’t really so very far apart, when you think about it. Timeless things tie us together. A woman tending the fire on the floor of a cave might be terrified by some of our modern conveniences like automobiles or airplanes or televisions, but she probably knew every bit as much as we do about the desperate feeling of trying to pacify a cranky baby, or the need to stir a pot to keep the stew from burning and sticking. It’s likely that she rejoiced in her grown children’s achievements, and wept for the fecklessness of adolescents, and worried over her daughter’s pregnancy. And, like us, she struggled for grace as she grew older and turned over the reins to the next generation of women. No doubt she sat with her grandchild in her lap, and even though there was no camera to record the moment, the miracle of that baby stayed in her heart until the day she died.
* I believe “skim-milk cheese” to be cream cheese. In olden days, women set out pans of whole milk until the cream rose, and then skimmed the cream off the top.
**This may be a version of “Soooo-ie,” the traditional cry of farmers calling pigs to dinner. It comes from the Latin word for pig.
Julia Sneden is a writer, friend, teacher, wife, mother, Grandmother, care-giver and Senior Women Web's Resident Observer. She lives in North Carolina and can be reached by email.