My great-grandmother had seventeen children. Not seven, not teen. Seventeen. She was changing dirty diapers for over two decades. This was in the late nineteenth century, so we’re not talking grabbing some Huggies from the nearest Target. These were cloth diapers that had to be hand-washed and dried and pinned to squalling, squirming babies. Once some of the younger children were older they could of course help with this constant barrage of fecal laundry, but in the beginning it was just her.
The first time she would have had to change a diaper would be at the inconceivable age of fourteen. Well, I suppose it is conceivable, since she was married at either the age of twelve or thirteen–my father never can seem to remember exactly how old she was when her brother gave her away. To help repay a debt. Not completely pay for it, mind you. And it was to a man who was over three-times her age and had a reputation as both a horse-thief and a man who chopped off hands. Essentially, what was my great-great-uncle told my soon-to-be great-grandfather that he didn’t have all the money that he owed. Was there anything of his that would pay this man–we’ll call him Horse Thief–back? Horse Thief, a man well into his forties at this point, said that he thought the other man’s younger sister (remember, twelve or thirteen) was something to look at and he’d be mighty obliged if he could have her. While I hope that it caused my great-great-uncle some trepidation to part with his sister, it doesn’t change the fact that he essentially sold her.
As much as I’d like to conjure up a romantic image of a cowboy stealing horses from the rich and giving them to the poor–yes, a cowboy Robin Hood–and a man who would only cut off the hands of those who besmirched his own sister’s honor (that one’s true, according to my father), the chances are that he was probably smelly, unshaved and lacking the basic concept that a woman is not a man’s property. I don’t exactly feel bad for my great-grandmother–it’s a little too late for that. I do feel…upset on her behalf. I honestly cannot imagine what it would feel like to be passed from your brother to your new husband, a man she likely had little contact with before, and made pregnant while barely a teenager. I can pretend that I would be frightened and not know what to do and would think of running away, but I don’t know. Maybe she was expecting it–you can’t grow up with a brother who’d give you away without knowing that he had it in him. Maybe she didn’t think there was anything else for her. Maybe she thought it was an adventure. One thing I do know is that she was strong. You can’t not be strong when you’re living in a time when it was still relatively common for women to die in childbirth and survive birthing seventeen children. You can’t not be strong when you love each and every one of them boundlessly. You can’t not be strong when several of them perish before you–one in infancy, some in accidents, others in war. You can’t not be strong and do what she did.
While I can rest easy in knowing that my father, a descendant of both the coward and the horse thief, would never give me away to help repay a debt, I suppose that’s largely due to the time we live in. And that he has no sons, only daughters. Being surrounded by women has given him a smarter outlook on life.