Meditation: The Strength of Ordinary Women

(Digital Image. Photograph Privately Held By Cynthia Shenette. Text Copyright (c) 2010 Cynthia Shenette) 

I can't count any female innovators among my ancestors. I don't have any female doctors, lawyers, pilots, suffragettes, inventors, abolitionists, or famous sports figures in my family. There are no female famous firsts. With the exception of a royal connection several generations back, most of the women in my family were wives and mothers, peasants, immigrants, and well, ordinary. They were women typical of their time, kind of like me. 

I am constantly impressed with these "ordinary" women, the decisions they made, and the lives they led, given their sometimes limited circumstances. I am lucky to live today and not in the past. My female ancestors, struggled against illness and death, war, political strife, poor nutrition, and economic difficulties, often with little or no education. They persevered. Their hard work, persistence, good health, and in some cases good luck, paved the way for me to have a better life.

How is my life better than the lives of my ancestors? I have access to education, good health care, and better food. I have the ability to vote. I have the freedom to marry the man of my choice, not someone chosen for me or forced upon me by circumstances beyond my control. I have the opportunity to work in a professional career and the ability to achieve financial independence, if I want to. I have modern conveniences. I live without fear, political oppression, and war in my homeland. Many of my female ancestors did not.

Take for instance my great-grandmother Ewa (Kowalewska) Bulak. In 1897 Ewa boarded a ship in Bremen and traveled to meet her husband Antoni in America. She arrived at Ellis Island with her two daughters in hand and five dollars in her pocket. Up until that time Ewa had probably never ventured outside of her small village in Lomza province. How difficult was life in the old country that immigrating to the U.S. was the best option for the family? What kind of courage did it take for Ewa to travel beyond her village, across the Atlantic, and leave everything and everyone, including her mother, behind? I'm thankful that Ewa brought my grandmother to America. While life in the U.S wasn't always easy, the family left in Poland didn't fare nearly as well given the political situation with Russia, two major wars, and a constant struggle against poverty. Ewa set her fears aside and made the decision to follow her husband to America to embark on a new life, hopefully a better life, for her and her children.

Throughout history mothers have sacrificed for their children. My grandfather, Adolf Szerejko, came to this county in 1913 from Warsaw, Poland. He was 18 years old. According to the family story, he sat down at breakfast one morning and his mother, Jozefa, and their father told him that they had made arrangements for Adolf and his older brother Aleksander to escape from what was then Russian Poland and to travel to the United States. The brothers left Warsaw that night, jumped the border, and made their way to Holland where they caught a ship to America. If they didn't leave when they did Adolf and Aleksander would have been conscripted into the Russian army just in time to fight in the First World War and possibly the Russian Revolution. When the Russians took their older brother, Wincenty, he disappeared into Russia and the family never saw him again. Jozefa probably knew that she would never see Adolf and Aleksander again, but it was more important to protect them than to keep them with her in Poland. What a difficult decision that must have been.

For hundreds of years mothers sacrificed their lives just giving birth. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century America maternal mortality was still high, despite better nutrition and living conditions. Around 1900 out of every 1,000 live births, 200 children died before the age of five. 

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon the burial record for two ancestors I had never heard of--sisters Alena and Sophia Bulak--my grandmother's first cousins. Alena died on September 4, 1908. She was five months and three days old. Her death record states that she died of meningitis. What probably started out as strep infection or virus developed into meningitis or some kind of swelling of the brain. Today, that illness would probably be treatable. Alena's sister, Sophia, died on July 4, 1909, less than a year after Alena. Sophia was one month, 17 days old. The primary cause of death listed on the death certificate was bronchitis, with a contributing cause as cholera infantum. How sad, two babies born to the same mother dying less than a year of one another, and both dying of illnesses that could probably be prevented today. Where did their mother Maryanna find the strength to handle the loss of two infants in less than one years time? Despite her losses, Maryanna put aside her grief went on to have more children and live to the ripe old age of 94. Even though she had other children, I'm sure that she never forgot those two little girls whose lives ended before they had a chance to really begin.

For my grandmother's family and my grandfather's family back in Poland, life was difficult. Two world wars and the stress of the Soviet occupation took their toll. Even though we live in a time of political unrest, thankfully, war has not been fought on American soil since the 1865. Much of my grandparents' family lived in Poland during World War II. Some of the family survived the war. Some didn't. I have a photo of my grandfather's cousin, Celina Gzell, taken in Warsaw in 1943. I've often looked at the photo and wondered what her life was like. What was she thinking about at that moment in time when the photo was taken? I see Celina standing on a Warsaw street holding her three-year-old son's hand. In the background there is a man who appears to be a German soldier in uniform. What was her life like during the war? What were her fears, for herself and for her son? Celina and her son survived the war, but her parents did not. I am grateful that I live where and when I do.

I admire all the women, all the mothers and grandmothers in my family. They were women who made tough decisions and lived their lives to the best of their ability despite trying times and circumstances. I admire their courage and ability to persevere and to be the best mothers they could be for their children. Women like Ewa, Jozefa, Maryanna, and Celina were by most standards, "ordinary" women. They weren't doctors, lawyers, or suffragettes. Their names won't be found in a list of who's who. When I get aggravated because I'm stuck in traffic or because I have to stand in a long line at the pharmacy, I try to put things in perspective. My life is easy compared to theirs. When I think about their lives, I like to think I too would have the grace, dignity, and courage to do what they did. I don't know if I would, but I'd like to think so. By remembering our "ordinary" women we honor them. It's our way of saying thank you. 

Thanks ladies.

Named Persons: 

Alena Bulak (1 Apr 1908-4 Sep 1908)
Antoni Bulak (1868-19 Feb 1940)
Ewa (Kowalewska) Bulak (1873-20 Mar 1924)
Maryanna (Bialobrzywska) Bulak (1867-26 Dec 1961)
Sophia Bulak (20 May 1909-4 Jul 1909)
Celina (Szerejko) Gzell (Abt. 1911-Aft. 1978)
Adolf S. Szerejko (11 Apr 1895-19 Dec 1959)
Aleksander D. Szerejko (11 Nov 1892-21 Jul 1962)
Jozefa (Bielska) Szerejko (1867-1920)
Wincenty Szerejko (Abt. 1890-Aft. 1931)


Celina (Szerejko) Gzell and son. Warsaw, 1943. Author's private collection. 


Maine, Deborah, and Katrina Stamas. "Maternal Mortality." Encyclopedia of Population. Ed. Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. 628-631. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 May 2010.

Pebley, Anne R. "Infant and Child Mortality." Encyclopedia of Population. Ed. Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll. Vol 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. 533-536. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 May 2010.

Submitted for the 94th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.


Jasia said...

Terrific article Cynthia!

Congratulations on being selected as the Featured Author of the Carnival of Genealogy!

Joan said...

Cynthia, I really enjoyed your article. I like the way you wove and contrasted your life with those of "those not-so-ordinary women" of your family. Excellent.

Nancy said...

This is a great article, Cynthia. Congratulations on being selected as the featured author for the COG. Good job!

Jo said...

Cynthia, your selection as Featured Author is well deserved. I really enjoyed reading about your "ordinary" women. I think most of us have "ordinary" women who in retrospect seem "extraordinary". I felt a connection with your research into these women, my mother-in-law's family history echoes these women actually coming from generally the same area, Polish Russia. Very interesting article.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi Ladies,

Thank you all so much for your kind words and for reading my article. I must say, being selected as the featured author for this month's COG is truly an honor.

Our families are full of "ordinary women" who were called upon to do extraordinary things during difficult times. After all, that's why we are all here (and writing). We are helping to keep the memory alive.

Thanks again!


Bill West said...

Wonderful article, Cynthia. I often
have much the same thoughts about my own ancestors and the hard times they lived through. Congratulations
on being the featured blogger in this edition of the Cog!

Ravenswick said...

Congrats on being Featured Author, well deserved! I love how you honored the "ordinary woman". Most of the females in my family were "ordinary" too. But when you look at their lives and the choices they had to make you are so right--they were amazing and brave.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you for your comments. I do think we can all relate to the ordinary women in our lives whether they are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or friends. It's easy to empathize with them and ask ourselves what we would do in their situations. Thank you again for reading!

TK said...

What a beautiful and thought-provoking piece, Cynthia. I admire this kind of writing so much, and I find it so hard to do myself.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi T.K. Thanks for your kind comment. I've done a lot of business writing--reports, minutes, and the like--but my blog is really my first experience with "creative" writing. In general, I have found that the more I write the easier it gets. Keep at it!

Brett Payne said...

What an interesting photograph, Cynthia, which I think was indeed most likely taken by a street photographer. I have no knowledge of Warsaw, but it strikes me that the church in the background of your photograph is a pretty substantial one. Although it may well have been destroyed by bombing later in the war, I wonder if it would be possible for someone familiar with Warsaw to identify where it was taken?

Regards, Brett

Cynthia Shenette said...

Brett, thanks again for your comment! I will indeed follow up on trying to identify and locate the church in the background. What a good idea. I have a cousin who was originally from Warsaw and is also interested in genealogy. If he can't identify it perhaps his dad who still lives in Warsaw can. I'll let you know what I discover!