Great Grandpa Edward Lynch told my mother that women needed an education. He remembered his mother, Sarah Ryan, a leghorn plaiter, born in London city center in 1820; she could only sign her mark on the marriage certificate when she married Michael Lynch an Irish tailor in 1843. Michael signed his name on that certificate and made sure that his sons could read and write and they were listed on the census return of 1861 as scholars. Sarah plaited straw into bonnets, bore two sons, and disappeared from records after 1861. According to family lore, her husband took his eldest son Edward to Paris where the twelve year old learned to carve stone. By 1863, Michael Lynch, the tailor with political leanings, had secured passage to America for himself and his eldest.
Edward attended the University of Illinois from 1868 to 1873, gained an engineering degree and married the daughter of his English professor. Genevieve Baker had attended university for several years alongside her future husband. She descended from a long line of women who wrote their own names, read the bible, and gained a passable education even on the Maine frontier. Genevieve wrote for magazines on the east coast and later for newspapers on the west coast. By the time of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Genevieve had divorced Edward and was living alone near Lafayette Square working as a reporter.
When my mother visited Edward in Pasadena in the 1920s, when he gave her volumes of Aesop tales, Shakespeare dramas and assorted folk tales and songs, when he told her that women needed an education, she followed his advice and became a schoolteacher. She turned down a scholarship to Stanford because her father, Edward’s son didn’t want her to live away from home, a glitch in the dramatic improvement of Lynch women’s educational prospects. Nevertheless by 1931, in three generations Lynch women went from plaiting straw to graduating from university.
When I grew up, my mother suggested I get my teaching credential like she had. She said, “you have few choices: secretary, nurse, teacher.” I didn’t choose any of those, at least not to start with. I preferred being a hippie and living on the land, making necklaces and milking cows. I didn’t know anything about Sarah or Genevieve and had no interest in my ancestors’ trails. But I had read all of my Great Grandfather’s books as I grew up: I sang the songs, and knew the myths and plays. My middle name was a shortened form of Genevieve. I did become a teacher and then I did something different. I went back to school and became a librarian when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I discovered Archie and Veronica, the Bancroft library and the libraries worldwide, full of records. I gained the tools to discover and with that, I found Sarah, the leghorn plaiter and Genevieve, the reporter.
I think that Edward realized women, the other half, needed as powerful a voice as men, because without that, half the world is missing. Between his stone carving for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, passing the state bar and lawyering for the railroad barons, managing Auburn gold mines and writing on solar flares and climate change; between his divorce and drink, in his mind, he tipped his hat and made room for his mother, his wife, and my mother with the knowledge that the world would realign itself, from his granddaughters to his great great granddaughters and beyond. But here, I pause and I tip my hat not to Edward for his inclusive vision for women, but to Genevieve, solitary and fiery, who has loaned me her voice; and I bow to Sarah, silent and stubborn, who has given me purpose. With these gifts, I have become a plaiter of straw, from straw into words, from words into stories.