The Daisy Chain
A family memoir
When I was aged twelve to fifteen, my favourite book was one of the best-selling novels of all time,
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I still have the dog-eared copy gifted to me by my cousin's Leah
and Dan (via their mother) for Christmas in 1983. I read it hundreds of times. Like so many other
girls before me, I identified with the awkward Jo March who was a misfit inside her own family, and
who loved reading and writing. However, it wasn't Jo who I was in love with. It was Marmee.
Marmee who knew her girls inside and out, revelled in their uniqueness, provided love and advice
like sugar and spice and managed her daughters without ever raising her voice.
I knew Alcott had based the novel on her own family, although at the time I didn't know how much
or how little. The concept that a real Marmee had existed in time and space fuelled the fantasy I was
building up of what a mother should be. As an adopted person, I am far from alone in building an
image of a fantasy mother in my mind...a mother so perfect that neither original or adoptive mothers could ever hope to live up to the ideal.
What I didn't know at the time was that the Alcott family, while sharing many events and character traits of the March family, was quite different in reality. The Alcott family moved around a great deal, but at the time of penning Little Women, they'd settled in Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is now known as the home of a 'genius cluster' of authors and great thinkers during this era who were also Transcendentalists (Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community can form - thanks Wikipedia...hmm, maybe I'm actually a transcendentalist? I digress). This genius cluster included great minds such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who are believed to have penned some of the greatest American literature within a radius of just three houses in Concord.
Alcott wrote Little Women while ill and in a rage. She was living in Orchard House, a home that is
now visited by upwards of one hundred thousand fans a year (probably more now thanks to the
latest film adaptation). The events and characters that Alcott draws on from her own life and then
fictionalises in Little Women, actually occurred down the street in Wayside. Very few
people visit the Wayside House however. American Bloomsbury author, Susan Cheevers (2006),
noted how she was confronted with the difference between fiction and life when she toured Alcott's
Orchard House. She said she found it to not be as warm as anticipated and observed that visitors to
Orchard House did not wish to see the reality of where the Alcott sisters came of age. If they did,
she suggests they'd have walked down the street to the Wayside property. They were more
interested in the glossy, fantasy version of the March family. So was I.
A couple of interesting trivia points that I didn't know until I was an adult are that Louisa May Alcott and I are born one day (and 188 years) apart in November (yay Sagittarians!) and that my family are also from Concord...Sydney, NSW.
So, where am I headed with all of this? Okay...
In 2014, I finished a doctorate that explored adoption wounds and the writing of a memoir about my own experience. It was an enlightening process and I learned a great deal through constructing my identity using writing and questioning how I felt about my adoption experience. The memoir, (Darling Adopted Daughter) is written through my lens, exploring my life, with other characters stories told only via how they relate to my experience.
Most telling to me is what I did after I finished the memoir (not much). I'd gone into it with the end goal of publication, however, instead I did pretty much nothing. I half-heartedly revised the manuscript and cast it out on the end of a fishing line a few times. Deep down I knew it wasn't finished. I didn't know what was missing - what I didn't understand or what revelations I hadn't experienced yet. It was just incomplete as a publishable manuscript in my eyes. Also, my goals weren't limited to publication. In writing the memoir I was trying to connect. Connect dots, family and ultimately to knit myself into the fabric of something larger than myself...a family and a community. The memoir might have achieved another goal of holding a mirror up so that I could see myself for the first time, however, I was all alone in that reflection. And that isn't how life works. We stand on the shoulders and stories of those who came before us, even if we don't know who they were or what happened to them. Shelley Davidow explores theses emotional legacies beautifully in her memoir, Whisperings in the Blood (UQP: 2016). I was largely alone in the reflection I had constructed. It just wasn't right. The memoir sat and collected dust.
A couple of years ago I completed an AncestryDNA test. I had a few hopes in doing so, however connection was the foundation of all of them. Though the DNA test I was blessed with finding two female cousins on my mother's side. These connections brought me a refreshed sense of belonging to something larger than myself and incredible stories about three generations of mothers in my family - my great grandmother, grandmother and mother. Women who had faced enormous challenges as mothers. Their stories and my own collectively span more than one hundred years. Their stories inform my own. When I look in a mirror, I now see them standing behind me.
Thanks to my cousins opening up and trusting me, I am now able to trace back traumatic events
that spread out like ripples on a lake to an epicentre. That epicentre is my great grandmother,
Daisy. There is a chain of events, set in place and starting with her story that has created a pattern
in my blood line. The chain begins with Daisy and I hope it ends with me.
I'm now deep in the process of re-writing the memoir, (new working title, The Daisy Chain) to
include small portions of these women's stories. I am grateful for the trust placed in me to do so
in a respectful way that does no harm and retains the privacy of those still living.
Part of this is process is donning my archaeologist's cap and sifting for fine details amongst the
big picture I have been gifted with. The story begins in 1894 and ends in 2020, so it is no small
task. Researching family history is always challenging. Researching family history as an adopted
person is next level. I'm up to the challenge and with the help of the women in my life I will fill in
as many blanks as possible.
I'll be sharing bits of pieces of my research process, stumbling blocks, directional changes and thoughts as I find them interesting and figure someone else might too. Keep an eye out here or on my Facebook or Instagram pages, where I will post updates from time-to-time using the hashtag #thedaisychain. Don't expect great writing (punctuation or grammar oops), it is just going to be quick, informal information, discoveries and musings. I'm too much of a procrastinator to spend a lot of time editing and not working on the project. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying the research. Jo
Louisa May Alcott - author and legend.
My great-grandmother, Daisy.