Oh, Dear Heart…
This is Emma, my maternal great-grandmother. When she was feeling her best, she was sassy and free spirited. My grandmother, Mabel, described her mother as being, “sly like a fox,” as she often pretended not to know the rules and attempted to manipulate her daughter to get her own way. This mainly referenced when Emma lived in a nursing home and my grandmother spent much of her free time volunteering and taking care of her mother until she died at ninety-one. For many reasons, when gazing upon the images from my father’s slides, this one tugged at my soul.
My mother’s family lived in Pennsylvania. I spent summers with my grandparents and my cousins on my mother’s side. I went to local farmer’s markets, swam in my aunt’s pool, climbed trees and watched in wonder as the women in my family created large meals in tight, hot kitchens either at my grandmother’s or Emma’s house. Many of them lived in close proximity, making it easy to weave in and out of each other’s lives. Although it cultivated a sense of connection, it also created problems. Boundary lines became blurred, and where one person ended and another began, wasn’t always easy to define.
Emma had six children in nine years. She lost Allen as a toddler and much later, Jack as an adult. She raised her family during the depression. Feeding a big family at any time is challenging, but during those years it was nearly impossible. My great-grandfather stood in line to get oranges to bring home as a treat for his kids. My grandmother recalled rolling the fruit on the floor to make it soft and easy to peel. She described the sweet, juiciness of the orange as delightful—a joyful celebration. What I take for granted, having fresh fruit year-round, my grandmother held sacred. Even when the economy improved, my mother remembered as a young girl, her grandfather, shooting rabbits and squirrels to make pot-pie, a Pennsylvania-Dutch dish made from giant egg noodles, broth and potatoes.
For decades, Emma suffered from depression. She received shock therapy and from what I was told, took “nervous pills.” She was the first in my family, to have been diagnosed with a mental disability. If Emma was diagnosed today, it would have been different. During her diagnosis, the medical professionals tried to understand and find effective treatments for her depression, but these were the early years of mental health. The treatment was reactive and focused on her outward manifestation of symptoms. There were times when her children needed to take care of each other and at her lowest point, they needed to take care of her.
As I time travel and view it from a different perspective, I pull on the threads. I see the way she had been broken. Living during a time when fears ran rampant. During WW1 and the depression, she was raising a family. Social and economic stability wasn’t sustainable. When she was depressed daily living was an upward battle—emotionally, physically and mentally. The threats of not having enough, the fear of not being able to meet the basic needs for her and her children, became part of her foundation of her future stories. These threads of scarcity were woven through her life, deeply affecting her and all the generations that followed.
This image of Emma, with her face filled with joy and contentment made my heart sigh. A moment of peace snapped by my father. Summers in Pennsylvania are very hot, and Emma, who never dared to dream to have access to a pool to swim in at her leisure, was enjoying the coolness of water. Emma found a steadiness and even happiness later in life. She felt loved and knew she was supported. Even at her lowest, in those slim, dark years, people stepped in to lift her. Over and over love showed up and she got better. Maybe it was because her situation improved, or the treatments took hold, or it was time passing. But maybe, her heart began to trust in something she couldn’t see, only feel.
As I take Emma with me, I pull the thread of scarcity free. I don’t need to weave her past into my present reality. I understand that I don’t need to be hungry to feel absence. I am aware and continue to embody the lessons of having enough, doing enough and being enough. This is how I continue to heal the past, the residue of trauma from my ancestors and hold space for Emma. I choose to see how love can transcend through time and space. How an old photograph can elicit emotions and bring forth connection and clarity into my present life. And what has become clear to me as I voyage back and forth, is that we are a part of a continuum. A beautiful web of stories, experiences and histories.
As I carry the torch, I illuminate the past by bringing compassionate healing to my ancestral lines. I create my future stories, by what I choose to hold on to and what I choose to let go of. Today and all days, may my path be clear and my heart open, as I step out into the wilderness of divine trust, knowing I am held in grace by many hands.