This is my inheritance.
Many years ago, I undertook some research on my family history. As I gathered stories of fortune and poverty, successes and failures, personal determination and resignation, love and loss across 4 generations, I was looking at the ties that bind and the destruction of connection and belonging.
I saw a family predominantly of adventurous strivers, determined to make a better life for themselves. It wasn’t until recently that I also notice there were many single women in my family. Single as a result of being widowed, of being abandoned or unmarried. Of course they were not known as “single” then but labelled widow, mother, spinster… covered under the cloak of victimhood.
And this was only when I stopped observing these women in relation to their husbands or families or communities – that was after all the generational and ethnic cultures of the time. A woman wasn’t single but widowed because her husband died. She still “belonged” (proprietary word intended) to the family into which she married, and as a mother, there was no need of any narrative of her as an individual, least of all an independent woman. There would be no story of her aloneness, her fear, her disenfranchisement from the role she was born to take on, wife. There would be no story of her courage in facing the negative narrative of a widow – victim, forever bound to honor the memory of her husband and to carry out her duty as mother.
I realise the women on my family tree stood alone amidst criticism, isolation, and ostracized for their non-conformity. I see single women who through little fault of their own, more than survived in a patriarchy not just for themselves but also for their children. I see women who rose every day to provide, to fight for, to nurture as best they could.
There is she who left her home land with her children, travelled for thousands of miles in search of her husband; and arrived in a foreign land which held no trace of him. It was said that he had died. What was a woman with 3 children to do? The next chapter of her life I discovered was her living with a man who provided for her and her family. There was much shame in this, although it is believed that he was a good man for taking her in and a kind man. I do not know if she did this for love or protection or kindness, but I do know they were together in a harmonious relationship till their death despite her being shunned for living out of wedlock.
There is she who after the death of her husband brought her 4 daughters up on her own, choosing not to remarry out of respect for her husband, and to preserve her freedom and so she could protect her daughters. She worked hard in a plantation during the day, and she played hard too. A woman, I am guessing, assuaging her loneliness with a group of women friends, playing mah-jong into the night, drinking and smoking. Yet from I was told she was there for her daughters when they needed her and provided financially for them into adulthood. Good woman? Bad woman? Does it matter? I am in awe of the tenacity.
And these are only two of many.
These women were far from perfect, far from meeting the societal standards of what a “good woman” ought to be. They were “good enough” women and they were formidable.
These are my ancestors, my people, women who led their lives with quiet dignity, courage and love, imbibed with self-preservation, the sense of duty and responsibility. Women who took what life gave them and made the best of it. Women who had fun in their own ways, and I hope they did not feel compelled to apologize for it.
Their blood runs in my veins. There is memory deep within me, rising.
Yes, I am strengthened. I am comforted. I am inspired. Because they were before me.
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