“Make in your mouths the words that were our names.”
Archibald MacLeish, Epistle to Be Left in the Earth
The words we are called by in life are scratched in dust, delible as our bones. Write them in ink, in stone, in blood. In time, time fades them all.
Women’s names fade fastest, pencilled in so lightly at birth, expected to trade that word for another. Who gives this woman her name? Her father, his father, his father before him. Loaned, not given. Not hers to keep.
I wanted them back. Their names. As many as I could recover, linking daughter to mother, beginning with my mom. I always knew her mother and she always knew her mother’s mother. But my great-grandmother Ruby was orphaned, and that was as far as I ever hoped to get, until I read her mother’s name on a baptism certificate, and saw it spelled out again in the helix runes of my DNA. Then months later, another name. Followed by another and another. Like secret notes written to me in lemon juice, turning visible in the incandescence of my longing to know.
I stopped at fourteen, on the other side of an ocean. Fourteen generations of women, mother to daughter; sixteen when you count my sister and her daughter, my namesake.
They’re only names and dates. Beyond my great-grandmother, I don’t know anything about the kind of women they were. What kind of mothers they were. What they hoped for, where they were wounded, what they achieved–save for one thing: they each brought a daughter into the world. And for that, I owe them everything.
Now I can thank them by name.
Born 1588 in Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died 18 Jan 1663 in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts
Born 2 Sep 1625 in Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died 15 Dec 1705 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Born 10 Feb 1644 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Died 19 Jun 1672 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Born 05 Jul 1670 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Died 12 Aug 1757 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Born 6 Aug 1699 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Died 12 Jan 1741 in Newbury, Massachusetts
Born 6 Nov 1722 in Newburyport, Massachusetts
Died 1780 in Newburyport, Massachusetts
Sarah (Sally) Noyes
Born 31 Oct 1760 in Haverhill, Massachusetts
Died 9 Nov 1822 in Haverhill, Massachusetts
Born 13 Sep 1779 in Bridgewater, Massachusetts
Died after 1850 in Penobscot, Maine
Susannah (Susan) Lyons
Born 17 Mar 1810 in Readfield, Maine
Died 21 Feb 1844 in Cooper, Maine
Born Mar 1841 in Cooper, Maine
Died 21 Apr 1905 in Mattawamkeag, Maine
Born 1859 in Woodville, Penobscot, Maine
Died before 1893 in Mattawamkeag, Maine
Ruby Nancy Coombs Boynton
Born 29 June 1887 in Maine
Died 1954 in Milltown, New Brunswick
Ferne Alberta Neilson
Born 1 Jan 1909 in East Millinocket, Maine
Died 4 Nov 2001 in St. Andrews, New Brunswick