The Women Who Came Before Us

In the year 2000, I began a project titled “Common Women in an Uncommon Century,” which documented personal stories of American women whose lives spanned the 20th Century.

These were the stories of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, neighbors, and friends. The women who were part of our daily lives or women we visited occasionally while growing up. Women whose faces were lined with deep wrinkles, who seemed to forget things, and who often walked slowly in stooped and fragile bodies. These women we only knew as old.

But they were not always old. They were children once, teenage girls, sisters, girlfriends, new mothers and wives. They felt the same things we feel and experienced the same desires and challenges that we face today.

What is different is the time in which they lived. A century unlike any other. If you’re at all like me (and likely of middle-age), technology advances in the 21st Century can seem overwhelming and a bit like the science fiction we read as a kid. But almost all technological innovations and scientific advances ever made up to the year 2000, were made in the last century. Automobiles, electricity, airplanes, washing machines, telephones, frozen foods, antibiotics, color photos, talking movies, computers, and more – so many of the things we take for granted and can’t imagine living without – came into existence during the 20th Century.

Along with these technological and scientific advances came immense social changes. White women won the right to vote and the freedom of financial independence. They cut their hair and shortened their skirts. In the 1970’s they were finally able to apply for credit cards under their own names. They bought property, became employed outside of the home, owned businesses, and discovered new ways in which they could create their own destiny – no longer restricted by the mores and customs of the past.

Of course this wasn’t true for all women. Social injustices and Jim Crow laws kept women of color from experiencing many of these things. Yet the changes they experienced were significant as well. Their determination, their sacrifices as women and mothers, and their refusal to accept the status quo has brought us to where we are today.

Our lives are the product of the women who came before us. The women who men tried to cut from the history books and who tried to claim their achievements as their own. The women who held together families during the Great Depression and too many wars. The so-called “common” women who were, just by virtue of living, quite extraordinary.

My godmother was one of these women. Bertha Schwant Baird – whom everyone called Grama – was 66 years old when I was born. By then her face was an amazing web of wrinkles, earned equally from laughter as it was from working the farm under the beating sun. She was a little person, standing no more than 4 feet 10 inches and when she laughed, her whole body would jiggle in laughter with her.

She found reasons to laugh even in hardship. Her Christian faith was the rock of her existence. She had 8 children while living on a farm and the youngest was only ten years old when her husband died unexpectedly. Somehow, she carried on and she became a matriarch not only to her own family but to the entire town as well. Even into her 80’s, she continued to babysit children.

The following is a story Grama Baird told me many times when I was young. It was an experience that shaped her entire life. Here it is:

Whaaat a friend we have in Jeesus.

The voices appeared suddenly in the stillness of the night. But they were so sweet and so gentle that Bertha was not startled, only curiously surprised. She was standing in the living room, cradling the baby in her arms. It was her sister’s child, only a few months old, and racked with fever. Betha knew something was terribly wrong. The child was not well. Still, she had sent her sister off to sleep and vowed to watch closely over the little one.

All our sins and griefs to bear!

The voices were just outside the house now. She could hear them on the porch. Where did they come from this late at night? And who were they, she wondered.

Whaat a privilege to caarry, Eev’ything to God in prayer!

Bertha rocked the baby close to her breast and looked down on its tender young face. The baby was not breathing.

Ooh, what peace we often forfeit, Ooh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not caarry, Eev’ything to God in prayer!

She heard the chorus begin to fade and footsteps walk away from the porch and evaporate into the silence of the early morning. The child was dead. And at that very moment, holding the small still child in her arms, she knew the voices she heard had been those of angels.

Grama would always remember the time the angels visited her and carried away her sweet young niece. Her face would become very somber and her voice serious as she recounted the memory in years to come. And the feeling of peace that had filled her then would sweep over her again, reminding her that God was near.

Bertha was only 19 years old when her sister’s child died in her arms. She still had another year of horse and buggy rides to Saturday night dances ahead of her. Another year before she would marry Harrison Baird after he returned from war. She would eventually have eight children of her own, all of whom lived long and healthy lives.

I wonder, what are the stories of your mothers and grandmothers? The stories you know and the stories you haven’t been told?

Today is a good day to ask. Reach out and call the women who have been present in your life, the ones who mean so much to you. You might be surprised by what you learn.

We spend our lives knowing them as mothers and grandmothers, as aunts, great aunts, and caregivers. But they are so much more than that. They, too, were once young. And they have stories to tell.

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