My great grandmother was a midwife. And a rather prominent one in her part of the world, as I’ve learned.
She worked around the clock, sometimes taking my grandfather — her oldest son — along for support. Throughout her years of service, she delivered hundreds of babies in the southern coastal region of Norway. In fact, I serendipitously got to meet one of those babies some 50+ years later when visiting my great grandparents’ graves in the Vanse Kirke (church) cemetery. That meeting still gives me the chills. You can read about it here.
During that same summer homeland tour, I finally got to see the cherished heirloom I had heard so much about from our Norwegian relatives: Great Grandma Jennia’s midwife bag and all its beautiful, historic contents. And I got to hear more about this hard-working matriarch of our family from my mother’s oldest cousin — also a nurse (there are many more of them across the age spectrum of our extended family, both in Norway and the United States).
The caregiving roots in my family run deep.
I touched instruments that she once touched, held them carefully in my hands. I saw my reflection in the stainless steel hypodermic needles, heard them clink in their metal tins. I felt the worn but still slightly starchy nightgown she carried in her bag for overnight visits. I read the documents with her name on it, the official forms she gave to families to record births. I smelled the old pages of the manual she studied, the letters that were sent to her while she was traveling. I listened as her oldest grandchild told us in Norwegian and bits of English the stories of her long nights on the job.
I pictured her using these items. I thought of how many hours she’d been away from her own family while caring for a laboring mom and newborn. I felt grateful for her devotion to a difficult vocation, and a strong sense of family pride knowing that my great grandmother had brought babies into the world, was part of the miracle of life in such an intimate, intense way.
But I had another striking revelation that day.
I realized there’s been this undercurrent of service, this common thread of working as a way of caring for others — and not just to make a living — running through our family’s fabric.
From a young age I have always loved to work — and to work hard. My grandfather, traditional as he was in many ways, constantly encouraged me in my career pursuits. Especially my writing. I have never felt that, as a woman, I shouldn’t work.
And that magical afternoon when we had our own private museum-without-walls experience poring over Great Grandma’s midwife bag, I suddenly understood why.
Your turn: Do you know what kind of work your ancestors did? What are the threads running through your family’s fabric, and how are you continuing them — or starting new patterns?
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