“How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.”~Alice Walker
A lineage of women.
I once participated in a dance workshop for women only. It was a beautiful experience. I normally dance each week with both women and men in the 5Rhythms. At this one workshop for women only, we were asked at the beginning of the weekend to introduce ourselves as the daughter of the mother that gave us life, and as the granddaughter of the mother that gave our mother life. We were also asked to introduce ourselves in relation to who we’d given life to.
daughter of Joan,
granddaughter of Pauline,
great-granddaughter of Clarissa,
mother of Jacqueline and Jennifer,
grandmother of Lucas, Aveline, Jamison, and Dante.
A Lineage of Women
This experience of introducing ourselves by way of our mother and her mother was incredibly female affirming. I sat and soaked the names in, along with the feelings that arose in each woman as she spoke the names of her matriline (a mother line – one’s purely female ancestry). While seemingly simple, something profound was honored, and awakened, as we acknowledged the line of women we came from, and the line of children we had borne.
A lineage of women:
daughter of Joan,
daughter of Pauline,
daughter of Clarissa,
daughter of Charlotte…
Recently, I traveled to the Chicago area with my two sisters for a family wedding. We decided to make a pilgrimage to our great-grandmother’s house in Park Ridge, a small town just near the airport.
With some help from my mother’s cousin, my sisters and I found the family home on South Crescent. This was the house my great-grandmother and great-grandfather had built in 1908. My grandmother grew up in this house. My grandmother was married to my grandfather in this house. My mother was born in this house. My mother’s cousins were born in this house, too.
Before my mother’s death two years ago, she spoke often of her childhood in Park Ridge. She spoke often of her grandmother with fondness, and with a bit of awe. It was a curious feeling to enter the house. It had recently been sold to new owners who were remodeling it before their third child came into the world. This was in June, the baby was due in July, so I imagine she has arrived by now. The owner was there and graciously gave us a tour of the entire place, basement to attic. As I walked through the rooms, it was as if I had been transported back eighty to one hundred years. So much had happened there in the lives of my matriline.
Strong Women, Strong Lineage
“…to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.”
My great-grandmother was a healer, a well-known Christian Science healer in that area. She was strong, vibrant, independent. She had to be. Her husband contracted TB and became very ill. She had to put him in a sanitorium, where eventually he died. She had to take care of her family, an extended family that included her siblings.
My grandmother and mother were also strong women. They had to be. They found their strength deep inside, brought it out into their actions when it became necessary to do so, for the sake of their children, and the sake of their family. This strength is in all women. Strength and wisdom.
Wisdom in the Matriline
I feel there is wisdom in the matriline. I learned something about myself that day. I soaked up wisdom… a knowing of myself in a different way, a different light. While I had heard much about these women from my mother, and knew my grandmother fairly well, when I walked through the rooms of this house and felt into all that had happened there, I knew myself in a new way.
It’s been a few weeks since I returned from this trip, and all the while this wisdom has been working on me, and through me.
I now more clearly see these women, not just as my ancestors, but as people who lived lives that were sometimes good, many times hard and painful, but always indescribably beautiful. I feel the lineage of women within me. I can now see the room where my mother was born, the rooms my grandmother played in, the rooms my great-grandmother grieved, celebrated and grew old in.
What a gift it is to feel this lineage within me. In some way, yet unknown, I will pass the knowing and wisdom down to my daughters. I can feel it. It is already happening in ways unseen.
As I write this, I become keenly aware that this wisdom had always been here. Perhaps, it’s just been activated by visiting Nanny Ruh’s house. We all have access to women’s wisdom.
The wisdom of women isn’t clearly articulated, laid out analytically, in a straightforward manner. Rather, it circles, curves and winds its way around. It appears in the moment, if we’re paying attention. It shows up in symbols and in unexpected connections. Like the moon as it shines on water at night, womens’ wisdom illuminates that which is unseen.
I have come to see we can open to this wisdom of our matriline, whether we can go back to a physical place or not…the wisdom is here if we drop deep into our bodies and open to the moonlight.
In ways unseen
Jen Louden writes: “…every writer has to learn to live â€“ and even thriveâ€“ in the gap. Creating actually happens in the gap.”
We enter into unknown territory as we write something new. This is where creation happens. In the unknown. Something completely unexpected, and absolutely delightful, appeared in the gap today as I wrote this post. I didn’t know where the writing would take me. I had considered writing about this pilgrimage since I returned home to Berkeley, but as I mentioned, I could feel the wisdom working on me, so I waited.
As I sat down to write, the painting above (and below) popped into my head. It’s a painting I have hanging in my bedroom, of the moon shining on the water. It’s really lovely…this picture of it here doesn’t do it justice.
I found this painting in my mother’s house after she died. She had collected many things throughout her years, things that were passed down through the family, as well as things she picked up in her travels to the second-hand stores and flea markets. As we went through her collection of paintings, we kept the ones that were obviously family heirlooms. We gave most of the others to the Goodwill. This one painting, of the moon on the water, I grabbed as an afterthought. I had so many of mom’s things already, but as I turned away from the items we were leaving, something told me to turn back and take this one home. I liked it enough, but I kept it because it called to me. I hung it in my bedroom, because it called to me.
I took the painting off the wall to get a snapshot of it as I wrote today’s post. The first one didn’t turn out, so I began to clean any dust off of it to try to capture a better one. As I did, I noticed the initials in the bottom corner:
My great-grandmother’s name was Clarissa Ruh, but we had always called her Nanny Ruh, which is what my mother called her. I just recently remembered her first name on our trip back to the wedding in June. Nanny Ruh was a painter. We have a few of her paintings spread throughout the family, but none of them have her signature. My great-cousin, Nanny’s other granddaughter, told me when we were with her at this family wedding that Nanny didn’t sign her pictures because she didn’t want to seem presumptuous – she simply wanted to paint. I don’t really know the whole story, but none of the paintings we have have her signature on them…except this one.
Just now, in writing this post, I discovered that this painting was also done by Nanny Ruh. I could hardly believe my eyes. Something unknown and unseen found its way into the light of the moon. This is an unimaginable gift. I don’t believe my mother knew that Nanny Ruh painted this picture, because she told us many times to take great care of the paintings she knew were painted by Nanny. This painting was stuck in a place with so many things that were simply flea market finds. Somehow, I came to know something that had been lost back in the matriline. Now, my daughters have another gift from their matriline, one among many.
I’d love for you to share your mothers’ names with us, to introduce yourself by way of your mother, and your mother’s mother, by leaving a comment below. I think there is something powerful in speaking these names into the world.
What of your matriline?
What do you know?
What has yet to be discovered?
What wisdom is there, perhaps in the unseen, waiting for you to ask into it, to know yourself as your mothers’ names?