March 08, 2022

Article at

Generations of grandmothers

Jeff Gaye

I’ve always been a bit curious about my ancestors, but I was always too lazy to do the work of genealogy.

Before the internet, the serious sleuthing involved in tracing census data, birth, marriage, and death records, military histories and so on was incredibly time-consuming. The internet has made it much easier, but even online records can generate false leads and send you down the wrong path.

Luckily for me, I have cousins who have diligently pursued my mother’s and father’s family trees respectively, and my curiosity is largely satisfied.

There is a big gap, though. In our patrilinear society, where families take on the surname of the father, the women appear more or less as twigs on the branches of a family tree. Each one joins the trunk of the narrative from somewhere else. Her background is harder to trace.

I often think about my grandmothers, and I wonder about their own mothers and grandmothers. It’s all the more interesting to me because I don’t have aristocrats in my line—I am descended from humble working folk for as far back as anyone can tell.

The story of my male lineage is fairly repetitive, going back several generations. The family was rooted in one place, most of the men worked in brickmaking. But where did their wives come from? And where did the wives’ mothers and grandmothers come from?  

One of my family members had a DNA analysis done, showing more places of origin than we knew about from the old-style genealogy. Many, even most, of these places would surely be from the women’s backgrounds.

What communities did they live among? How did they live? What kind of work did their families do—were they farm workers, tradespeople, labourers?

The history of our civilization is told as much by the work of mothers and daughters as by the occupations of fathers and sons. And the distinct personality of every descendant was formed at home, influenced by mothers, fathers, and siblings.

Tracing a family name is an enlightening look at where we came from, but it’s easy to settle for half of the story. Less than half, actually, because every male ancestor had a spouse from another family, with another complete history. They have all contributed equally to the genetics and the temperaments that brought today’s generations to be.

Today is International Women’s Day. I will spend some time reflecting on generations of grandmothers, and I will try to learn at least a little bit about who they are and where they came from.

Who knows, it may inspire me to overcome my laziness and take on a very worthwhile project.