“I loved the idea of grandmother and granddaughter dancing together, plaiting beauty across the tears in the fabric of the world. Together we twirled, hoping beyond hope that our dance across the generations would serve those yet to come.”1
Ann Cahoon Mathys take the lead:
Unlike some of my ancestors, I avoided epidemics, early widowhood, shipwrecks, Texas and prisoner of war camps.2 Nevertheless, I shared my family’s determination to better life for myself and others.
After High School graduation, I bucked tradition and headed off to college. I graduated from Milwaukee Downer in 1913 with my Bachelor’s degree, and from University of Wisconsin in June of 1915.
I knew I was born for such a time as the opening years of the 20th century. From my family’s experience as Welch immigrants to my volunteer work at Milwaukee’s Settlement House, I understood that “my people/our people” included far more than my family or nation. Many families, like mine, came to this country in the midst of tragedy and poverty, needing a compassionate helping hand. I was glad to offer mine.
Personally, and through my teachers and fellow students, I also knew that the boundaries of intellect didn’t end at the edges of a man’s mind. Despite the belief that higher education was a waste of time for a woman, I couldn’t wait to become a scholar of both the intellect and the body.
The intellectual narrow-mindedness of the world around me also needed to expand politically. I joined other Wisconsin women to fight for our right to vote. I wanted to bring my wisdom and knowledge to the legislature and make a difference in the world.
Nancy, as a child and teenager, you thought I was a boring old woman, but now you know better. I am delighted that when you came to your senses, you too caught sight of the possibility of a just world. That is good, as you are living in the early years of the 21st century—a moment of history that is even more in need of awakening than mine.
Nancy follows Ann’s lead and steps into the dance:
Grandma, I have gladly stepped into your dance, plaiting justice and faith, compassion and equity. I know my approach and beliefs are different than yours, but we both loved to stretch the boundaries of our day and wanted to serve the larger community around us.
I knew so little about you when you were alive. Even when I walked across the stage to get my master’s degree—wearing the same gown you’d worn seventy years earlier—I knew little about the world outside my neighborhood.
I now see a bigger picture than I did during my university days. For example, I understand that doors opened for our educations because of our intelligence, to be sure, but also because of the color of our skin and the financial support from our family. Though today gender and race don’t usually affect admission, going to college too often results in substantial debt as well as a degree, strapping graduates financially for years.
The vote you helped secure wasn’t available to everyone for decades. Even today we battle voting irregularities and gerrymandering. The candidates on our ballots are just beginning to cross gender and color lines but have been much slower to cross class lines.
We as a nation seem to have forgotten that most of us came here as immigrants. Over the years our national racism controlled who was welcome—usually those with white skin—and who was not. We Americans enjoy the fruits of immigrants’ labor eating the food they grew, traveling the roads and railroad tracks they constructed, enjoying motel rooms and houses they cleaned—then turn around and threaten deportation, pay unjust wages or speak as if these newer immigrants are lazy.
In the midst of these two centuries, we’ve both listened for the song of justice playing beneath the inequities. This month it has been 125 years since your birth and 100 years since you graduated with your master’s degree. I am delighted to reach for your hand once more, and join you in the dance of Life.
1Thurston, Nancy, Big Topics at Midnight, page xviii
2Ann would love to share the details about these events at another time…