Women’s history can seem so impersonal, so not-much-to-do-with-us, right? The histories of our more famous foremothers become easily lost, dusted off and honored briefly each March.
But a decade ago, women’s history took on an intensely personal meaning for me. My mother gave me an incredible gift: her life story (the short version), laboriously written in her crabbed hand on lined notebook paper. She felt, she said, that I ought to know the “real truth” of what happened in her life.
I suspect she also wanted to strengthen our connection. In her mother’s time, most mothers and daughters lived close by, with daily lives intertwined. But like many in my generation, I left home early, moved far away, and didn’t telephone much. In some ways, I never knew my mother. She was a mystery to me, a mystery that her handwritten story has helped to illuminate. And in understanding her mysteries, her story, I am coming closer to understanding my own.
Most mothers and daughters can’t duplicate the proximity-based intimacy of earlier times. But it is vitally important for us to find ways to share our life-stories with our daughters and pass along the legacies of our mothers and their mothers—the stories of the motherline. Doing this, we’ll be giving our daughters a wonderful gift: not just the gift of stories told, but the precious gift of story-telling. “This is how it has been for me and our mothers before me,” we say. “Can you see how our stories have shaped yours?” By telling your own stories, you can help girls appreciate women’s history.
To share your story, you’ll need to write it. That may sound like an ambitious project, but it really isn’t. The folk artist Grandma Moses said, “I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, as I have thought of it.” That’s all it takes—a paragraph today, two paragraphs yesterday, capturing the memories as they come to you.
Simple memories can jog thoughts about the person you were, and the person you’ve become. The birthday cake your mother baked when you were ten. Your first job—what it was, where it was, what you learned, how much you earned. The first date with your daughter’s father, the day you agreed to marry, your wedding day.
A girl may be most interested in what happened when she entered your life. Tell it: the amazement you felt when your daughter was born. Your desperate fear when she got lost at the mall, your swelling pride in her gymnastics performance. The ordinary experiences of a woman’s life, told in ordinary language, creating a history as legitimate as those told in books.
Mothers and daughters can easily write their stories together. My friend Lisa bought a notebook and wrote two pages about her first day of high school: her fears, her shyness, her insecurity. On the facing pages, her daughter Sophy wrote about her own first day. (Guess what: same story.) Lisa pasted in a photo of her and her mother, taken on a camping trip, and wrote about where they went, what they did, how much fun it was to sleep together in a tent. Sophy added a story about how grown-up she felt when she and her mother went to New York for dinner and a Broadway show. Feeling brave, Lisa wrote about her first menstrual period; Sophy followed suit.
“Our notebook is a treasure,” Lisa tells me. “Writing together, sharing stories—we love it.” Sophy’s in college now, and “we’re still doing it!” she boasts, with stories swapped via email.
If you aren’t sure how to begin, check out tips on how to start a journal, write a memoir, and other ways to explore your motherline at www.storycircle.org. The best time to begin is now. Make women’s history now—and share those stories with your daughter.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story (Tarcher, 1996), and three mystery series. She is the founder of The Story Circle Network.
National Women’s History Project, http://www.nwhp.org/