The house that I live in is more than 150 years old; it was built in about 1850 as housing for workers in the textile mill down the street. Everyday, when I put my clothes into bins under the bed because there are no closets or stuff the groceries into the cupboards that were built too small for our 21st century abundance, I am reminded that real women spent their lives within these walls, hauling water up the stairs, lighting woodstoves before the sun came up, sending children off to school or war, perhaps feeling content to have some measure of security and love or maybe crying with frustration at how restricted their lives were. Before the house was built, it may have been an earlier colonist’s farmland and before that may have been a cornfield planted and tended by Algonquin women. It may have even been the site of their homes.
I’ve always been fascinated by learning about the women who lived before in the buildings where I reside. No one lived before my family in the house where I grew up, but when I was in my 20s I moved to an unrenovated tenement building in the East Village of New York City. It had been immigrant housing built around the turn of the century and I was able to find photographs of apartments just like mine from that time. I came to feel a kinship with the women who had lived there and who, like me, had left home to find a new life in a strange place. I believe it helped me feel more at home in NYC than I have ever felt anywhere.
Thinking about how bonded I feel with the women who lived in my present home and that tenement made me wonder about whether we should sometimes think about our kinships and lineage of place as well as of blood. What if we thought of those who lived on the land where we now dwell as our ancestors, too, and all those who share it with us as our family?
If we did, we might feel that we were part of a web of existence that includes not only the people who have lived on the land we share, but also the plants and animals and all other beings. Our sense of connection would go not only back in time and include not only people, but also all those who shared our environment with us.
We might be less inclined to take up centuries-old grudges based on our blood heritage rather than work together to make where we live now a better place to be.
We might feel more responsibility to be a good steward of our spot on Mother Earth if it was how we defined our family and if we felt a familial obligation to those who would come after us.
Perhaps defining ourselves by our bloodline is a concept more in tune with the past, when it was important to know who should have inheritance and property rights and when some people, especially women and children, were more possessions than loved ones. I believe that, in many ways, we are moving to a society where your family is who you love, not who shares your DNA. By including in our family Mother Earth and all those who share the land we dwell on—past, present, and future—we can add another dimension of reverence for She who sustains us now just as surely as our blood families did when we were children. We can declare our sisterhood with all those who have been nurtured by Her on the land where we are now. We can always feel that we are not only with “family” but also that we are “home.”