Six Generations of Resilient Women

My great-great grandmother Anna Maria & 4 of 5 daughters

Who were these stern faced women dressed in black? Did they find joy in marriage or in staying single? Were they worried at night about their children and the crops? Did they write letters to family left behind when they immigrated to America?

It’s comforting to know the names of six generations in my female lineage and have photos of five generations. I wish I knew more details about their lives.

Elaine Margaret (that’s me!), b. 1945; daughter of Iva May, b. 1915; daughter of Margaret Hannah, b. 1894; daughter of Doris Henriette, b. 1871; daughter of Anna Maria, b. 1839 in Denmark and immigrated in 1881; daughter of Margaretha Elizabeth, b. 1810.

Hans Ingwersen & his daughters

I inherited an undated group portrait of my great-great grandmother and her daughters including Doris Henriette, my great grandmother, all with white lace collars, tight thin lips, and rigid faces needed for 19th century photographs. The oldest daughter Mary isn’t in this photo. Was she married by then?

In another photo, their father Hans Ingwersen sits upright and stiff in his black vested suit decorated with a white collar and gold watch chain. He’s surrounded by five daughters, including my great grandmother Doris and the oldest sister Mary.

Anna Maria and Hans emigrated from Denmark in 1881 after Prussians invaded their area of Schleswig-Holstein, now the northern tip of Germany, and drafted young men. Both Hans and his brother immigrated instead of fighting for the Kaiser. Were Anna Maria’s feelings considered or did only men decide?

Grandma Margaret on the left, 1902

They settled in Ohio where my great-great grandfather and his brother bought farmland. They prospered because of rich deep topsoil, hard work, and thrifty habits, but faced prejudice as German-speaking “krauts.” Austere tee-totaling Lutherans, I imagine them when I see Mennonites in my area now.

My middle name Margaret goes back to Margaretha Elizabeth in Denmark, but there’s no photo of her and the record stops there. A sketchy history was written by my Grandma Margaret on the back of old photos, but she didn’t tell stories and I was too young to ask questions. The women grew gardens, made cheese, and baked dark brown bread and cherry and peach pie. They raised rabbits and chickens and butchered them for Sunday dinner. As girls, they learned to sew the clothing by hand and do needle work. On Sunday, they traveled by horse and buggy to meet with other Lutherans for church and a communal meal.

Grandma Margaret with her daughters, my mom on the left

These women gave birth to many children, some who lived and some who died. They nursed and grieved, pumped water from the well, and scrubbed the laundry including diapers on washboards. Even children helped plant and weed, can the harvest, and drag potatoes and parsnips into the root cellar. They cared for the sick and elderly who died at home. I know from my grandma that they loved each other and stuck together.

My mom with me, ~1947

Like them, I gave birth and nursed my babies, tended the sick and dying, grew vegetables and flowers, carried firewood, and stayed strong despite loss. Grandma loved Bleeding Hearts and my great-grandma loved them, too, so I grow a tough perennial Bleeding Heart near my front door to honor the legacy of resilience left by these women. Since I have two sons and no daughters, the lineage ends with me.

***

How far back can you name your female lineage? There are often men’s names, but not women’s. I also learned from the heart-breaking history of friends how knowledge of their lineage ended abruptly for Jewish friends in the European horrors of World War II. For other articles about family, see My Grandma’s Juicy Secret which is also about my matriarchal lineage. I wrote about my paternal grandmother in Safe in the Great Mother’s Bed.

20 Comments
  1. Fascinating! How wonderful it is Elaine that you can trace your family heritage all the way back to Denmark and how fortunate it is that you have these precious photos. And what stunning photos they are too! Six generations of spirited women, birthing, tending and nursing, and living like yourself, a simple, natural life. I love Grandma’s juicy secret and the passion that lay hidden beneath those petticoats. Hmm, passion that you’ve no doubt inherited too, alongside those wild edges of sorrow, yet instead of having to hide passion away you chose to explore it, and continue to in many original ways. And on that creative note, as we approach the last days of November I hope your Monarch writings are going well.

    Although I cannot name any of my female relatives beyond my mother and grandmother, I do know through one of those ancestry dna kits that my mother’s family arrived here on these UK shores via Egyptian sea pirates which is where, according to my results, my Motherline takes me back to thousands of years ago. Although how my mother’s family ended up in Russia I have no idea but it kind of makes sense to me as she was certainly attracted to “pirate” men in particular, marrying Bluebeard himself. Now there’s a poem waiting in the wings! And paradoxically, here I am living beside the sea these past forty years, keeping the horizon in my sight daily. Certainly makes me think! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Isn’t it amazing to have all these images? I didn’t know about them until my mother died (2007) and I was given a box of her “stuff.” Since Vic was dying then, I didn’t look into the photos for a few years. I wish I’d known and could have asked more questions, but my grandma was dead and my mother had Alzheimers. So much history was lost. It amazes me they didn’t tell me more stories. My grandmother’s diary which I also inherited didn’t have details, but I could see she was still visiting her cousins and sisters and brother after her marriage. I’m told many young women became pregnant before marriage in my grandmother’s day, but they quietly married and, in Grandma’s case, told the family record said they were married a year earlier. I was thrilled to discover her secret. My grandparents were obviously affectionate with each other even when he was in his 80s.

      My Monarch writings are slow. I need to restructure and haven’t found the thread or even had the quiet time to search for it. A simpler chronology is needed about my life with them and I can do it since I lived it. My photos are a journal. It has to come without the push and drive of my mother and austere (at least in appearance) Danish women. It needs to come from love of the land and the butterflies who lived here before me. It needs to come from my grandmother’s love of the flower “Bleeding Heart.”

      Egyptian sea pirates! How exotic is that and yet unsurprising. Many years ago I loved the film “Latcho Drom” about the gypsy migration of people, music, and dance from India through Egypt to Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain. It’s music and dance with few or no words. I wonder if your mother was in that lineage or a similar migration. I hear you when you call your biological father Bluebeard and, yes, there’s a poem in those words. I’m thinking, too, about how deeply rooted I’ve become in this land. After immigrating from Denmark where they must have been near the sea, my maternal line ended up in Ohio in the land of deep fertile soil. I doubt the women had much to say about where they landed, but they carried their seeds, planted their gardens, and tended the children. They all took pride in gardens and orchards and flowers. Sending inspiration to you and hoping it will also come to me on Psyche’s wings, Elaine

      • Discovering one’s heritage is fun isn’t it! My mother’s family (according to ancestry dna) originated from what is known as “The Sea Peoples”. I have no way of proving it but feel sure that my ancestors stayed in Greece at some point, which may go some way in explaining my love of Greek mythology!

        It’s interesting that the heart is known as a flowering bridge between life and death. I don’t know why but when a friend died many years ago I knew I needed a bleeding heart plant. It survived only one year but how well it served in that first year of sorrow. I wonder if your ancestors knew of this too.

        I’m reading and not writing at the moment myself and will pick up my pen only when I feel called to do so. I’ve written all year and need a writing break till the winter solstice. I’ll probably pick up my pen then, hopefully ready to write this “Sophia” book of mine, but first listen, Psyche is calling!

        • I was surprised, Deborah. My mother knew things she didn’t share when she was alive, so I discovered them in boxes sent to me by her 2nd husband’s daughter. I haven’t done any research myself–and didn’t have a DNA test done on Disco. She is the mutt she is. I know my paternal grandfather was Welsh, my paternal grandmother was Dutch, and both maternal grandparents were Danish (in an area now Germany). My Bleeding Heart has survived for at least 20 years and maybe more. I guess I needed a writing break, too, since I’m taking one. I have a big job ahead reorganizing what I’ve already written. I need to simplify and move chronologically because it’s too complicated now. I’ll get there (or I won’t). I’m glad you hear Psyche calling, too. I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate the myth into what I’m writing so it’s a natural smooth fit. Somehow the chaotic jumble has a way of falling into place. I’m not able to push it now.

  2. I feel somewhat in awe Elaine of your beautifully written post – for your lovely style of writing, so that it feels like a story, and that it evokes in me 1) that if it is possible to trace the lineage, this is a gift from the gods. To be able to wonder about them, from whom you come …2) and to wonder how much or how little of them all remains in your bones in some way …

    I know only my immediate ancestors. I may look further at some stage. I know little about great grand parents. My mother’s mother came from Edinburgh, brought to South Africa by my maternal grandfather who met and married her when he was studying medicine at Edinburgh, he a South African. Granny Flo (‘Kerr’ her maiden name), ‘settled’ in South Africa and travelled many times back to Scotland, taking her children with her. I am sure this is where my mother inherited her peripatetic tendencies, passed on somewhat to me. Maybe there is value in being ‘restless’ …

    My father’s mother was a Norwegian – dark and brooding is how I remember her, and more than a little spiteful. The Norwegian temperament is one that has its dark and brooding side, melancholic too. Though also a sturdiness, a hardiness ..I know that my paternal grandmother was widowed – my father’s father being killed in WW1 – in spite of this, her 4 children including my father (fatherless at the age of 4), were all well educated and excelled at all they pursued. There was that in my father. But the melancholia is a part of me, asa is the dark and brooding at times. It is always interesting to me to wonder what characteristics I may have inherited from my stock of Scots and Norwegian ..

    How perfectly lovely to continue to grow Bleeding Hearts in honour of your maternal heritage.

    Happy Thanksgiving Elaine! Thank you for this lovely post.

    • Thank you, Susan. I didn’t do a thing. My maternal history was handed to me over a decade ago in a box of my mother’s things and she must have received them from my grandmother because much of the writing on the back of the photos is in my grandmother’s hand. Vic and I traveled together often, but even when he was well, I was more inclined to stay home when he traveled to give talks or attend conferences. It’s fortunate for me that I always liked being home alone near friends and community. I’m forever grateful for three trips to India and a few long trips to Italy and other parts of Europe, trips to Mexico and Canada and more. Vic and I planned to spend time in Spain after his retirement–but he died before he retired so that didn’t happen.

      It must have been quite a journey to travel from Scotland to South Africa “many times” with children. I can tell you love travel, too. I most resemble my Dutch paternal grandmother in temperament and in looks. I spent the most time with her as a child and loved her intense emotionality, love of music and rich food my mother never cooked. I also loved her garden and chickens and her big hugs. The Danish/German side was more reserved. The Bleeding Heart continues to thrive and grow without much help. It’s in a small flower garden right off my front porch and it’s been reliable and sturdy for a long time. I appreciate its resilience. May the whole Earth feel joy and abundance and gratitude. I imagine you have a comparable holiday to Thanksgiving in South Africa, but I have no idea what it is. May there be peace and the end of the covid nightmare.

  3. Your many photos and accompanying stories suggest that you probably don’t need to go to Ancestry.com to learn your heritage. What precious artifacts! Like you, my forebears fascinate me, and I’ve written several blog posts about the topic, including this one: https://marianbeaman.com/2018/12/19/matryoshka-dolls-your-great-grandmother/

    Elaine, your Dutch/Danish/German heritage has given you all the tools you have needed to live a fruitful life and be resilient during challenging times. I’m glad that you comment on your family history from time to time here. Documenting it keeps it alive for future generations–and cultural historians.

    My Grandmother L. always grew Bleeding Hearts close to the porch and next to a faucet. I don’t think they would thrive in my state, too hot and humid.

    Blessings to you and your family during this season! 😀

    • Marian, I remember your blog posts about family and they’re an inspiration–including the more recent of how you and your sisters handled the old family home. It’s cold here today with a fierce wind, so I feel the need for that resilience–and extra layers of warm clothing because Disco needs her afternoon walk. Willow could skip it, but she’ll choose to stay with the pack. Curious gardener that I am, I searched and found that Bleeding Heart does well in FL and likes humidity. I wonder if it would bloom all winter where you are.

      I had a nurturing Thanksgiving with two dear friends I don’t see as often as I used to. They spent the night here, so we enjoyed breakfast together, too. One son stayed in North Carolina for a feast with friends and the other traveled to CA. I’m happy to stay at home and Disco loved having friends here even if they aren’t dogs. With love and gratitude to you for our long friendship. Stay well and enjoy FL sun.

  4. Wow, wow, and more Wow! That is amazing how you have such memories even illustrated. You say with the birth of your sons, the female story in your family will end? Don’t you have siblings who may have daughters? Anyway, it looks that your bloodline is a strong and proud one. And more interesting, they come from Denmark.
    Unfortunately, I can’t tell much about mine, only that my father had not such a big clan as my mother. My grandparents and great grandparents from the mother side had married many times and had many children, who somehow a few remained unknown to us. I also have lost the few pictures during our escape from Iran which we had got from our Mum. I only know that Al and I have a lot of cousins from different bloodlines.
    Thank you, dear Elaine, Wholeheartedly for this fascinating story.

    • Hi Aladin. My one brother who died a few years ago had a daughter, and I stay in touch with her. She won’t have children. I can’t imagine having to flee and leave so much behind. Photos are cherished, but you lost your country and cultural and family connections. I’ve had such a sheltered life compared to you. I don’t know much about these maternal ancestors, but just knowing their names and where they lived makes me feel grounded. Blessings to your family, especially the grandchildren who must bring joy.

  5. An amazing article Elaine, how wonderful it must feel to be able to follow the female lineage in your family back 6 generations and such strong resilient women too.

    I am fascinated by family heritage myself, however, sadly have very little information on my maternal side. My father’s lineage has been traced back 6 generations to the 1780’s and I feel sure that the women in his line were strong…my Great Great Great Grandmother was Rose Anderson Greenway who acted as leader of the women taken prisoner by Nana Sahib at Cawnpore. She stood up to Nana Sahib and carried messages between the rebel army and the British forces, sadly she was among those eventually killed and thrown down a well at the Cawnpore massacre. Luckily many of the children including my ancestors had been sent back to England for school and so the family line continued.

    I hope one day to do much more in depth research and to put all of my findings into a book for all of my family members…just one more project to add to the list of many!

    • Thank you, Lin. I don’t know much about these family women, but just knowing their names made me feel more grounded in my own life. And a little more stoic in dealing with the coming winter as I imagine what they lived through. It’s thrilling to have a few photos and a little history which I didn’t know until after my mother died in 2007. I don’t feel a need to dig around for more information but would rather spend limited time studying Monarchs and mythology.

      I just looked up the Cawnpore Massacre. It’s horrifying how much suffering is caused by our attempts to invade each other’s land. It ends in so much tragedy. India and British people suffered for power and conquest. Of course, my country to built on power and conquest and horrible misfortune for indigenous people and African slaves. When will we ever learn? I like your project, partly because there is such a rich (and tragic) history that needs to be remembered. I knew nothing about it. I’m glad you got to the forest and took photos. It’s windy and wild with light snow here, but I’ll soon be on my way to the forest with the dogs. I’m fortifying myself with a cup of hot green tea. With love and gratitude.

      • It is interesting how just knowing a little of our ancestry can create bonds that help us relate to past family members and how that relating gives strength and understanding in our own lives. Like you, I only learned of my father’s family history after his death, when a distant relative got in touch and sent me the research they had done on his side of the family. I do wish I had known before he passed – there are so many questions I have for him. I am very much a visual person, consequently pictures in an old family album have taken on new meaning and are the motivation for my project.

        We currently are in the midst of Storm Arwen and the leaves that were left are being ripped from the trees as Arwen blows away the last throes of Autumn, so our forest walk was well timed in the calm before the storm. Hoping the wildness has calmed for your dog walks today and sending warm wishes.

        • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lin. I wish I’d asked more questions or my grandparents had told more stories. My paternal grandmother shared stories and I feel closer to her because of it. I have photos of her, too, but not of her mother or aunts. I know she didn’t have sisters and her one brother died.

          I hope the storm wasn’t too destructive. The leaves often come off the trees here in one windy weather front. There’s light snow staying on the ground here, so there was a quick change from autumn to winter. I’m glad you had your forest walk. Here, after the long Thanksgiving weekend, most of the hunters will disappear from the National Forest uphill from my house and I’ll be able to walk with my dogs off leash. They’re not used to being leashed and I have to pay attention to them every moment instead of watching birds and ferns. Which reminds me, I need to go to your Facebook page to check for photos I haven’t seen. My wood stove warms the house tonight and, if I could, I’d share the warmth with you.

  6. I enjoyed your history. Didn’t realize you had a regulars blog. This is the first time I noticed it on Facebook. If it doesn’t appear regularly, it should. I post mine on the newsfeed.

    • Hi Caroline, Thanks for your kind words. I’ve had a regular blog since 2012. All the posts are still at my website under various categories and organized by date, but I also share them freely on Facebook newsfeed, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They go out to subscribers first. (There’s a subscribe option on my website on the right of each blog post and the home page.) On Facebook, I share each post at least three times, spread out over a week–on my author page where it’s always the pinned post, but also on my personal page. Other than subscribers, I have the most readers at Facebook, but I find it’s easy to miss shares because there are so many and we can’t spend our whole day scrolling through the news feed. Thanks for noticing this post and letting me know you found it. I look forward to visiting your website. Best to you.

  7. I loved this post and these reflections that follow, Elaine. You have inspired me to do a similar one. My husband Stuart is working on a genealogy booklet for our grandchildren, and my new book called The Mindful Grandparent has chapters that feature the ancestors I have known. It grounds us to know where we came from and who our people are. I discovered by writing my childhood memoir Blush that I was the oldest daughter after two generations of only daughters. That concentrated the matrilineal energy in my life, and I am grateful for the love passed down to me.

    • It’s wonderful to include the importance of family history in your new book, Shirley. Your history will help others realize the importance of saving their own history. I don’t have grandchildren, so I save my history in my stories. My paternal grandmother shared stories from her dramatic girlhood, but my maternal grandmother did not. On the other hand, my maternal grandmother saved the photos in a box and they were handed down to me when my mother died, many years after my grandmother died. I didn’t know about the photos until they were mailed to me in a box of my mother’s things discovered after her death. I’m glad you had that strong sense of feminine strength in your family. Thanks so much for taking time to read and comment.

  8. What beautiful family photos!

    I have a ton of information about my mom’s side of the family. I don’t have as much information on dad’s side, but we do have some nice photos of them, too. 🙂

    • I’m glad you have tons of information on your mom’s side since I believe the matriarchal lineage is the most important. Our culture often doesn’t agree, but the Iroquois Nations (I live on what was once their land) was matriarchal. The photos bring up a lot for me and I hope they do for you, too. Family strengths, weaknesses, and secrets. Wishing you a warm cup of tea and a great book.

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