I cradle a container of urine between my thighs. I am twenty-four, a senior in college, and I have been accepted to graduate school with a generous financial aid package. I am on the pill, but my period is late; it is 1977, and home pregnancy tests are not yet readily available. My husband, a Cleveland Pubic School teacher who might get laid off at the end of the school year, pulls into the parking lot of the Free Clinic. Inside, I hand over the sample, muttering something close to a prayer.
When we learn the test is negative, we walk from our basement apartment to the nearby Tick-Tock Tavern for a rare dinner out.
My first foray into family history came at the request of my great-uncle.
He handed me a box of family pictures. We sorted through them, and I labeled the ones he recognized. We talked about the little he knew about his family, and I took notes.
“I want to know more about my grandmother,” he said.
“Is she in any of these photos?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know what she looked like.”
I must have looked surprised, because he explained.
“Both of my grandparents died before I was born. My grandfather, Joseph, fought in the Civil War. I don’t know anything about my grandmother. I think she died young, and Joseph remarried. I’d like to know her first name.”
In the quiet shadows of the second-floor gallery at the Allen Art Museum I study a collection of old photographs, Hidden Mother. Rows of images of children in which the photographers attempted to obliterate the mother. She is present to keep her child calm and still during the exposure time needed to produce a negative, but not meant to be seen.
In one, the mother stands behind the child’s chair, dressed in black, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat trimmed in flowers, like a wall hanging. In another, she sits on the chair, crouched behind the child seated on her lap. She is covered head to toe with a bulky, dark blanket; the ghost of a mother. In a third, the photographer has apparently spilt a plume of black ink on the print, creating a headless mother.
What is hidden is obvious.
We own our first home; we have a dog; my husband now teaches in Cleveland Heights, where lay-offs and strikes are not a yearly event; and I have finished graduate school and gotten a full-time job. We are ready to start a family.
I start labor at 4:30 a.m. on my due date. The weeks after that are a blur. I try to recover from a C-section while breastfeeding an infant who has all the symptoms of cholic, even though our male pediatrician says, gently, there is no such thing. Our daughter loses weight, more than expected for a newborn, and we finally make the decision to try soy formula.
We all start to get some sleep, which helps when her thyroid test comes back alarmingly low. I smash thyroid pills and mix them into her formula until the retest comes back normal.
A month later, a cyst is removed from our daughter’s knee. We cannot feed her after 8 p.m. on the night before the operation, and I am awake most of the night wondering what I’ll do to comfort her if she wakes up. She sleeps through.
I’m a mess. I don’t know how to do any of this, nor am I good at it. The decision not to go back to work is easy. I chair the Communication Disorders department at a pediatric rehabilitation hospital. The work is draining and, in many ways, too similar to what I’m doing at home. I look for part-time work when/if my daughter naps. We are luckier than most but the choices are still not good. We need money for a second car and child care. I can find nothing that pays enough to make up the difference.
I continue to read, often when I should be sleeping. A good friend who does not have children stops recommending books to me. When I mention this he says, “Oh, I just thought you stopped reading when you had the baby.”
Once, I talk to an older colleague, someone for whom I have immense respect, and she tells me about her husband getting a job in Mexico when their two children were small.
“As I washed diapers by hand in a tiny sink,” she says, “I cried and repeated to myself, ‘I have a Ph. D, I have a Ph. D.” I find this story strangely comforting.
Gradually, things get better. When our daughter is 18 months old, we manage to sell our house for double the price we paid for it, and move to a quieter neighborhood with more families. I have a room of my own, with an outside entrance and, when my daughter is two, I start a private practice in our home.
From the family photographs my great-uncle gave me, I sort through a stack of fourteen. They were taken c. 1880-1910, and are glued to thick, postcard-sized cardboard. Most bear only the imprint of the photography studio; some have no words at all. No one bothered to write names or dates on their backs. No one in my family knows who these people were. Most are printed in reddish-brown tones. The vintage sepia smooths out the lye soap soreness of the women’s hands, the mud on the hems of the long skirts, the odor of horse manure on shoes. Auburn hair blends into brown. Eye color is indeterminate. Invariably, the women sit or stand as still as any bowl of fruit or bouquet of flowers.
Behind unreadable expressions, entire lives. I mourn these women, and their forgotten stories.
There is also a tiny oval pin my great-uncle found when he went through a box of his father’s belongings. It contains a picture of a young woman, a girl really, who looks both terrified and determined. Her hair, parted in the middle and pulled back, reminds me of Civil War-era photos I’ve seen, but we do not know who she is.
On my morning walk, I choose the paths through the cemetery. I run my hands over the women’s names, their birth and death dates, etched in weathered stone. Mostly they are preceded by “wife of” or “mother of.” Unmarried women are “daughter of.” These graves are decades old, some more than a century. Things have changed so much, and yet they haven’t.
Before he dies, I am able to tell my great-uncle the name of his grandmother, it is “Elisabeth.” She immigrated from Germany with her parents and brother when she was six years old and by 1860 they were settled in Canal Dover, Ohio, three doors down from my great-great grandfather’s family. The spelling of her name had changed to “Elizabeth.” My great-great grandfather, Joseph, was discharged from the 16th Ohio Voluntary Infantry on October 1, 1864 and they were married in November of the following year. Elizabeth had just turned nineteen.
My cousin and I are now researching together. We find records of seven births; triplets died in infancy and another child, who died at twelve, had kidney disease. Elizabeth died at 31, of “liver and throat disease,” “at the residence of her husband.” I remember my cousin telling me, many years ago, that when she queried the church about the location of Elizabeth’s grave, she was told the cemetery flooded during the early 1900s and her grave, or at least the marker, probably washed away. This, too, has been lost.
I send a photo of the tiny pin to a costume historian. She dates it from the Civil War, something a soldier would have worn on his uniform lapel or pinned inside his sewing kit. Since my cousin and I can find no other women of that age in this branch of our family, we conclude this might be a photograph of our great-great grandmother, Elizabeth.
I am retired. I am a grandma. At the moment, I have few fixed obligations. Most days, time feels spacious and there is no need to rush. But I am mindful of the women whose stories need to be told. Their lives should not be erased. This is my work now.
I study the family photographs again. I examine details: a skirt awkwardly hemmed by hand with large stitches, shoes scuffed and worn. Was the stomach held in by the corset soft from too many pregnancies? Was the heart under the lacy bodice shredded after a litany of losses: miscarriage, infant death, fatal flu? I peer at studio backdrops, hoping for symbolism in cardboard columns, painted trees, and drapery.
I find none.
Most of these women will remain a mystery. Those who knew them are gone. My family, for the most part, did not write things down; they left no letters or diaries, at least not that we have found. They did not talk much about things either, so only fragments of oral history have been passed down, leaving mostly questions.
Late at night, I touch my index finger to the sepia hand of an unknown woman. I imagine her lifting her long skirt, stepping carefully across time.
I offer her a seat.
“What is your name?” I ask. “Tell me your story.”
Author’s note: Portions of the information about my great-great grandmother appeared in a different form in “Finding Elisabeth,” Notable Women Ancestors, Vol. 1, No. 4.
Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. She has written essays for Brevity, Compose Journal, Under the Sun and other publications.