Becky Sauerbrunn (number four in blue) is going to the Womens World Cup.
  • Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (number four in blue) is going to the Women’s World Cup.

Elizabeth Nusslein Heibel gave birth to 13 children and died in 1898 at the age of 46. Her husband, Peter Heibel, had come to America from Germany with an eighth-grade education when he was 22; he’d wrangled cattle in Texas, run a tavern on the Saint Louis levee, and founded a prospering box company in the same city. The loss of his wife posed a practical problem for Peter and his ten surviving children: someone had to run the household, and the children had no interest in a stepmother. If Peter had been tempted to provide them with one, they talked him out of it. Elizabeth Barbara, the second oldest of the four daughters, dropped out of school and took over the house, and Peter never remarried. She was 12 at the time. I knew her years later as my grandmother, my Nana.

I recommend an expansive sense of family. It allows us the pleasure of looking back, looking forward, looking to the far edges of the family tree, and claiming every story as our own. Nana married a silent immigrant from Switzerland with no more education than she had but a knack for billiards and poker. With mouths to feed, my grandfather started a business of his own and it prospered; but it’s said inside the family that if Nana had been the one running the business, a linen supply company, instead of merely finding a niche in Saint Louis it would have monopolized the market and expanded into other states. My mother (Elizabeth Caroline) used to explain to me that the sons of Peter Heibel were nincompoops who inherited the box company and ran it into the ground. But the daughters were pistols.

I won’t argue. I remember my grandmother too well to have any doubts about what she was capable of, and I’ve seen too many flashes of her in other family women. Everyone lived in terror of Nana’s older sister, Marie; and although the baby sister, whom I knew as Great-Aunt Rose Sauerbrunn, is remembered as kind and loving, it always seemed to me she dominated any room she entered. The problem we run into when we drop back in history a few years and try to take the measure of women like my grandmother and great-aunt is that there’s so little quantified evidence of their worth. Women were like football’s offensive linemen. They might have been overwhelming, but they left nothing behind but legend that says so.

Who knows what Peter Heibel’s daughters would have made of the company they weren’t allowed to run? Or to return to athletics as an example, who knows what women raised when there was no serious varsity competition in high school, no athletic scholarships to college, and no professional leagues might have accomplished if there had been? Was Nana a born jock with no alternative but to shape herself into a lady? Was Great-Aunt Rose?

But time sweeps on, and someone at my distance can admire the sweep. Last week Rebecca Elizabeth Sauerbrunn, who played her high school ball in suburban Saint Louis, her college ball at the University of Virginia, and her pro ball in Kansas City, was named to the U.S. national soccer team. This June she’ll compete in Canada for the Women’s World Cup championship. I wonder if she’s ever given her great-grandmother Rose a thought—we don’t dwell on those fading photos of ancestors we never knew pasted in family albums. We barely glance. But I can remember one as I watch the other, and I think of Becky Sauerbrunn as a worthy chip off the old whatever.

So go kick butt for the family!