My family history is populated by plenty of strong-willed women, but my grandmothers really stand out in this notable array of pioneers, artisans and survivors.
My maternal grandmother was a Midwestern Methodist born on a Missouri farm. Like most women of her day, she birthed her children at home, buried an infant and was lucky to survive her childbearing years. My paternal grandmother grew up in Spanish Harlem; spoke fluent Yiddish, Italian and Sicilian dialect; lost two children in a fire and another to rheumatic fever, and survived a very young widowhood and dire poverty.
But it is the stories of the marriages of these two very different women that I find especially interesting. How stark were their choices a century ago compared to those faced by most American women today! Modern marriage advice that focuses on romance and compatibility pales against the tough and clear-eyed decisions my grandmothers either made on their own, or had forced upon them by circumstances or custom while they were both still teenagers.
Of the two, I know far less about my paternal grandmother’s marriage—only that she may have been as young as 15, and that her match to my grandfather was almost certainly arranged. My maternal grandmother’s marriage, however, is the family story I tell most often, and it is her heavy, plain gold wedding ring that I have worn for 20 years. It is her story that makes me wonder, why don’t we collect family histories of marriages in the same way that we collect the oral histories of soldiers, immigrants and survivors of historical events such as the Great Depression or the 9/11 attacks?
Marriage stories are also tales of strength, endurance and courage, but they are always relegated to brief accounts in bridal magazines that focus more on what the bride wore than why she got married. The closest example that comes to mind, and one of the few that exists as a modern archive of marriage stories, is The New York Times’ long-running Vows column that highlights how a couple met and courted.
But I have never heard of a public historian or oral history project issuing a call for marriage stories. Letters from soldiers, eyewitness accounts of hurricanes, floods, fires and the Great Migration north by African-Americans are preserved in books and archives. But marriage stories are folded into our cultural history as a byproduct, but they never get the credit they deserve.
Collecting such stories “makes perfect sense, and especially now, with the rise of digital history, there are so many crowd-sourced stories people are putting together,” says John Dichtl, executive director of the National Council on Public History in Indianapolis, who cites the popular “StoryCorps” as one example of “crowd-sourced” history. A private, nonprofit national oral history project, StoryCorps allows people to record family stories as audio, which is then stored in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Ivan Steen, a University at Albany historian who runs the university’s graduate Public History Program, agrees, describing weddings as “an important part of family history, extremely important for families to preserve.”
Here’s one idea: Invite people you love and admire to write their own family marriage stories in 150 to 300 words. Compile them into a booklet and give it out at your own wedding. People will be sure to talk about these stories, and you might just start a tradition.
I didn’t do this at our wedding, but if I had, I would have told the story of my maternal grandmother, Nellie May Majet Gates. So here it is—my favorite marriage story, other than my own.
My grandmother was born in 1881 on a farm outside of St. Joseph, Mo. Her mother died at age 34—we think during a pregnancy—when my grandmother was 14. That ended my grandmother’s childhood and schooling; overnight, she became surrogate mother to her youngest brother and the full-time farm manager and domestic worker for her domineering father and older brothers. It was a hellish life of indentured servitude that would have broken many strong men.
One month after her 19th birthday, my grandmother eloped with her best friend’s brother, a sweet and gentle man she had known all her life. We do not know how they actually pulled off the elopement, as my great-grandfather would never have allowed my grandmother to leave. It was 1900 in rural Missouri, so we suspect that she literally climbed out of her bedroom window and they fled on horseback.
But their marriage lasted nearly 40 years, until my grandfather’s death, and what started as a desperate escape evolved into a real love story. And storybook endings aren’t just for the bridal magazines, after all.