Written March 8, 2020.
On International Women’s Day we celebrate women who inspire us, who accomplish great things. Women we look up to. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I am going to recognize the women who shaped me, for better or worse. I always qualify with those words, because so little was better; much was worse. But they are my kin. My lineage. I don’t know my paternal side and I know little even of the men on my maternal side. [Note: This has changed since I wrote this, and in 2021 I found my biological father and kin.] What I do know is that I come from an accidental matrilineage, and a complicated one at that.
In Rebecca Solnit’s writing about her own complicated mother, she says, “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.” I often think of that line when I think of my mother, her mother, and hers before that. I’ve long disconnected Solnit’s words from the rest of her text so I can’t tell you what she meant by them. I can only tell you what they mean to me. They mean that she (and all of the mothers in our line before her) gave me life, which is everything, and then she (they) gave nothing more. Or perhaps, put another way, had little more to give.
But that’s not entirely true. When I look back on our relationship, I think in her own twisted up way, my mother tried to give me a way to survive. Her method was deeply flawed, a kind of “toughening up” that is lead by self-hatred, violence, and abuse. It was the only way she knew. Had she loved me, she would have first known how to love. Had she loved me, I would have been “too soft” for the bruising to come. I would have been battered by the brutality of life. So she bruised me up herself before sending me out into the world, the result being that the very first and most profound thing I had to survive was her.
My maternal grandmother and I, sometime in the 1970s.
The women in my maternal ancestral line are survivors. They’ve survived things I can’t begin to tell, and much more still that I may never know. And that may seem like nothing on a day that is meant to celebrate achievement, but in a world where there is so much to survive — that we weren’t meant to survive* — making it through is an achievement worth acknowledgment.
I know this because I carry their survival and the things they lived through inside me. In my viscera. In my nervous system. In my blood. I try to put words and images to what is often only known in the felt sense, because voice and expression in whatever forms it takes, when it comes from the body, the heart, the deep tissue, can be not just a way of surviving, but a way through to something they couldn’t quite reach, maybe didn’t even know was possible: thriving.
* The line, “we were never meant to survive” comes from a poem called, A Litany for Survival by Audre Lorde.