By Julia Soto Lebentritt

I called her Aunt Gladys, but she really was my Great-Aunt Gladys. The last time I took my 95-year-old father to visit, my cousin was caring for her.

Pop could no longer walk so we pushed his wheelchair through the door to the foot of the stairs. Well, Aunt Gladys could no longer walk either. She and my cousin Jean peered over the railing down the short steps happy to see us. We all honored Pop’s gruff command that no one try to muscle him up into the living room.

The first words out of the two women’s mouths as they turned to greet me wedged behind the wiry white-haired passenger at the foot of the stairs were not my name.

The two family women spoke to each other with the intimacy and breathless confidence of a mother and daughter. Cousin Jean said, “Doesn’t she look just like her mother?”

Great Aunt Gladys narrowed her pale blue eyes on my face, and announced with a certain hope, “She looks like May.”
The two women were not unnerved but assured by the presence of the past in me. They too seemed to be in other worlds. Most of all, they did not address me as Julia. They saw my mother and maternal grandmother.

A few years later, I sat down with the family photo albums to search. One snapshot fell out of a loose stack that had missed my attention in the past, a studio photo of a young girl standing alone beside a large vase of artificial flowers. This shorthaired girl in Victorian white ruffled dress, black stockings and high shiny leather boots, looked directly at the camera. Hand written on the back I discovered, “May Zion, Age 9 years.”

I faced her like a time traveler. Her photo takes me back three generations when my mother’s mother was being raised according to late nineteenth century standards in a Troy tailor’s family of seven daughters. There is a determination in this child’s fixed gaze. Photos of me at age nine show a shy smiling awkward girl but May Zion poses over a century ago like a mature young woman dressed in royal English style.

My grandmother was raised in a family that prided itself in the power of generations. She married my grandfather, gave birth, raised three children, and passed away before I was born.

Now I recall my mother addressing me during our frequent battles as I emerged a young woman under her tight discipline: “I see that determined look on your face again….”
It was hopeless to control the female powers emanating from the generations of hopeful stubborn grandmothers.