My mother-in-law passed away the year before my son was born.
Even though neither of my kids ever met their Grandma Louise, she’s part of their lives. We talk about her a lot. We have photos of her around the house and tell stories about her. About her adventurous spirit. Her quirky personality. Her love of travel, exploration, and people. We talk about what traits they share with her.
I grew up surrounded by most of my extended family, which seems rare now in our mobile world. I think a lot about how to connect my kids to their grandparents and relatives who live in other states, but also how to connect them to stories about family and ancestors they’ll never know.
One of the most prominent family narratives I grew up hearing was the story of my great-grandma, Gyda. As the story goes, her mom had saved up money to send one of her six kids to America to live the American dream. And she chose Gyda. So at the tender age of 17, Gyda left her small fishing town in Norway and made the long ocean voyage on her own to build a new life in America. She worked various jobs, taking care of people’s homes and children, and eventually made her way up to Alaska where she was a cook in a mining camp. She went on to marry, have four girls (one died in the flu epidemic of 1918), lose her husband to cancer when he was only in his 40s, and then remarry. All the while, Gyda supported her family through working and taking in boarders (she even helped fund a son-in-law’s medical school tuition). She lived until the ripe age of 94.
I have childhood memories of her as a tough old woman with a Norwegian accent who played the harmonica and was hard of hearing. I know some of the colorful anecdotes and stories about her, but I was always captivated by her life story. Until quite recently, this narrative of her life was about determination, sacrifice and fierce love for kids and family. I even wrote a college paper exploring it. But now I see another message that wasn’t apparent to me before. I see that in telling this tale about her life, Gyda was the hero(ine) of her own story. She both suffered hardships and was blessed by good fortune, but throughout, she was the hero.
I want my kids to know their family and to feel connected to their family and ancestors through these stories. And most important, I want them to see that they are the heroes of their own story.