The Post Star - The secret lives of moms: New York state women tell the hidden stories of their foremothers

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Our mothers. Our grandmothers. Our great-grandmothers.

These are the women in our lives who made sure we had both our mittens on a bitter cold day; who wiped away our tears when we skinned our knee, or someone broke our heart; who got dinner on the table or hand-washed our favorite sweater; who seemed to be there, in the background, at our most important life events.

But how often have they shared with us details of their life before they were our mothers or grandmothers?

And few of us asked.

For many daughters and sons, discovering the personal truths about the women we love comes only after they have already passed on.

It was at the funeral for Patricia Nugent’s mother that a door into her mother’s past opened.

“A man showed up at my mother’s funeral with mementos of their time together in high school. I didn’t know she’d been the star of her high school play or that she’d had a German shepherd as a child,” said Nugent, of Hadley. “Or, as I would later discover after finding her diary, that this man had broken her heart when he took up with, and married, her then-best friend. My mother had never mentioned Eugene to me.”

Additionally, after publishing a book about losing a parent as an adult, Nugent heard from distant relatives who shared family photographs. Among them was a picture of her grandparents’ 1907 wedding which Nugent was delighted to see.

“But when I turned it over, a penciled scrawl read, ‘She doesn’t love him — was engaged to someone else,’ ” said Nugent, adding that the relatives couldn’t identify who wrote it. “It was a real shock. It was unbelievable to me to see that and to try and find the back story.”

Nugent said that after sharing these two stories with friends, they too talked about what they had learned about their mothers after they had died.

“As a youth, I’d been too consumed with my own drama to care about my foremothers’ journeys. And in retrospect, I found that women of the time were very prideful and private,” Nugent said. “They were reticent to share negative things and afraid to show vulnerability because their lives were so hard.”

“Why were we surprised that our mothers had lives before we came along?” Nugent asked.

The question germinated for a time.

“I wanted to encourage intergenerational conversations,” said Nugent. “To say, ‘This is not just the woman who takes you to school.’ ”

And that’s when she decided to gather stories about women, mothers and grandmothers, from daughters who may or may not know their foremothers' personal history.

“Perhaps out of regret, perhaps to make sure others don’t make the same mistake of not asking or not listening, I conceived of an anthology that would encourage daughters and granddaughters to learn more about the women who’d carried them,” Nugent said.

With the help of a Saratoga Arts Council Community Arts Grant and stories from authors from around the state, “Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting" was born and will have its official launch on Saturday at Saratoga Arts Center.

“My ongoing vision is that this book will be a catalyst for storytelling and truth-telling within families,” wrote Nugent in the book’s forward. “In particular, women’s stories, which are too-often silenced or drowned out. Ask now, before it’s too late. You won’t be able to Google the story of grandma’s first heartbreak.”

Finding the storytellers

Awarded the grant in February 2017, the book had to be completed by December 2017, according to the grant guidelines, Nugent said.

After putting out a call for submissions through several outlets — the League of Women’s Voters, Soroptimists and arts organizations — the stories started arriving.

“We got twice as many as we were able to put in the book,” she said.

The criteria for the tales: It had to be written by a female living in New York state, although her mother or grandmother could have lived anywhere; must be from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s; and the story had to be told in the first person as seen through the eyes of the woman who lived it in less than 3,000 words.

“I thought, Mom fits all the criteria,” said Sue Van Hook of Cambridge, one of the chapter authors. “I put together a map of her first two decades. I had already done a lot on Ancestry … I also had three letters my grandmother had sent my mother.”

Van Hook continued.

“I wrote it from Mom’s voice based on a true story and that meant meditating and asking Mom’s voice to come through as I wrote it,” she said.

According to Nugent, she had an editorial review board that helped select the stories for the book from the submissions.

“They were presented with the strongest stories and from there they gave recommendations,” Nugent said.

Because it is a community arts grants (meant to be completed with an interactive process), Nugent’s goal was to take this community of women writers and have them help each other tell their stories.

“Everyone who submitted got feedback,” she said, adding that they all checked historical references to verify accuracy. “I can still read some of these and cry.”

The stories

The stories are a bit like a history lesson, coming from around the world: Canada, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine and, in the United States, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and the Deep South.

“Today I finished reading all 15 stories from the anthology. I savored each one as I became acquainted with amazing women and their early lives. What caught me by surprise are the tidbits of historical culture,” said Van Hook on the book’s Facebook page. “Two of the stories include the first antibiotic wonder drug, Penicillin. As a mycologist, I have a personal affinity with the fungus Penicillium from which the antibiotic is derived.”

She continued.

“In one story, a young violinist is fortuitously sent with her mother to Portugal to be treated and survive. In a second story, a father, treated for pleurisy, succumbs quickly from an allergic reaction to the new drug.”

As a surprise to Nugent, despite the cultural, religious and geographic disparities among the women the stories are about, universal chords link them together.

These are the stories of ordinary lives contending with war, racism, sexism, classism, disease, poverty and degradation, much like women today, she said.

“Ordinary lives infused with determination and defiance, resilience and resistance … make us realize women have been contending with, and transcending, cultural, social and political failings for a very long time,” she said. “The timing of this book couldn’t be better. In many ways, it is a tribute to the women who transcended such issues and continue to do so.”

Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli is a features writer at The Post-Star. She can be reached at kphalen-tomaselli@poststar.com for comments or story ideas.