Finding The Women Before Me by Sydney Salter

A couple of years ago I received a unique book in my box from the Alignist Book Club by a Brazilian author, Maria Jose Silveria. Her Mother's Mother's Mother and Her Daughters traces a family through the maternal line all the way back to the moment of first European contact. It's a fun story to read, but for me it turned into a quest to find the ordinary heroines in my family. 

I signed into my neglected Ancestry account and clicked through my mother to my grandmother, great-grandmother and so on. Fortunately, my family has some dedicated genealogists, so I could do this fairly quickly. 

Everything stopped with a 16 year-old, likely German, girl who died in Pennsylvania in 1745 the same year as her 20-year-old German husband, leaving a two year old daughter. The fragility of womanhood struck me as I traced this two-year-old's life around the East coast via the scant data left behind in various records. The orphaned house servant's survival made me possible.

For the next 200 years, the women in my family each birthed about a dozen children apiece - one had seventeen! I can only imagine a life filled with the drudgery of housework, childrearing, making ends meet. Utter exhaustion. Any hint of creativity or the luxury of quiet thinking time -- things I can't imagine living without -- isn't apparent in any records left behind. 

Willa Cather wrote about women like my great grandmothers, but she never married. Never raised children. Edith Wharton had loads of money, but she never raised children either. 

The prolific childbearing in my family tree comes to a screeching halt with my grandmother and her sister. Each woman had two children. My grandmother ran my grandfather's Real Estate company after honing her office skills during his absence in WWII. Her sister owned local clothing stores. I have so many memories of both women sitting at their desks, making decisions, enjoying equality in their marriages as well as the workplace. Things unusual for their time, really. 

The ability to have small families combined with professional work rippled down to the next generation. My mother and her sister both went to college and graduate school. Watching two generations of independent women allowed me to dream bigger dreams. 

I thank every one of the mother's mother's mothers who made me and my creative life possible today. I wish I could go back in time--scrub some pots, knead the dough, wring out the wash--so that my great-great-grandmother could put her feet up and read a good book. 


  1. This is awesome. I have a few women like this in my family, too. Isn't digging through the family line just addictive?

  2. What a sweet tribute to your mamas! I've been doing genealogy work for my family and enjoying the adventure. We owe it to them to not forget our roots!

  3. I love the gnarly ancestors best! More interesting stories :)


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