My dad did not talk about his mother, but my mother spoke often of hers, and always as if Inez Chesson Snell had been an angel. She could sing beautifully, play the piano by ear, make a dress without a pattern. Quick to laugh, resourceful, a woman of faith, humor and resilience. My mother would sometimes examine my hands and declare them a genetic copy of Inez's hands.
The underlying message was that this lovely good woman who I never had the chance to know did not deserve the hard life she led with her alcoholic, irresponsible husband. She did not deserve to die at 50 of stomach cancer, wasted and skeletal thin.
My mother often seemed stuck in loss. I would give anything in this world to have a mother, she would say, especially when she was making the point that I did not seem to appreciate her. And although I don't think she ever told me that her mother would have adored me, I liked to think that would have been the case.
Fact is, I didn't have the opportunity to know any of my four grandparents, not the women who died before I was born, not the men who showed no interest in me.
And so I am drawn to this lovely, imagined, magical woman, who was a hauntingly beautiful child, as if she were the ancestor who could serve as the link to all family stories.
Without a male relative to genotype, mitochondrial DNA is all I have to tell our story. And so it becomes women’s stories. Me; my mother; Inez; her mother, Sarah Parisher Chesson; her mother, Mary Ann Armstrong Parisher; her mother, Mariah Armstrong.
Mary Ann Armstrong is the last for whom I have a picture.
Mariah Armstrong is the last woman in my maternal line for whom I have a name.
My mother is the last for whom I have a story, and even that is incomplete. I don’t really know about her life Down Home, before she settled down, became a mother and a Northern housewife.
I often imagine that it was wild, and full of secrets. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was.