In my final nod to Women’s History Month, I wanted to share stories from my maternal grandmother’s life. I’ve enjoyed sharing two other heroes – Jane Addams and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but our lives are influenced by more by the women directly in our lives.
My maternal grandmother had a hard life. She was orphaned at the age of six. She was sent to an “old folk’s home” along with an older sister, where they were worked in the kitchens. Although my grandmother was a tiny child, she was expected to scrub dishes after each meal while standing on a stool. Eventually her sister begged a stamp from a resident and wrote a letter to a former neighbor.
The neighbor came to get them and allowed them to live there, but it was much the same for two small children. Eventually the girls were old enough to leave.
As her marriage began to disintegrate, my grandmother went back to work. At the time of her retirement, she supervised nearly 300 people for Western Electric. She worked in the accounting department, preparing enormous spreadsheets. The expectations were that her work would be perfect and it was. Remember there were no calculators or computers – everything was done manually and maybe you had an adding machine to help.
There were a number of lessons from her life that are noteworthy:
- She did not tolerate her husband’s infidelity, preferring to be divorced over sharing him with his girlfriend.
- She maintained economic independence, enabling her to get out of her marriage and support her children.
- She lived frugally. Bills were very tight for her. She cooked all her food from scratch, had a garden, and preserved food. She wore hand-me-down clothes and lived in a very small house.
- She maintained family relationships. Her siblings were scattered across the country within days of their mother’s death (their father had died several years earlier). She saw them frequently enough that I knew who they were when I was growing up. She also maintained relations with the family members who refused to help her when she couldn’t pay her bills.
- She didn’t gossip in front of us children. The family members who wouldn’t help her out and blamed her for kicking out her cheating husband? She never told me about that until long after I was married myself. She also never gossiped about my other grandparents who used to be her neighbors.
- She didn’t believe in exercise, but she walked everywhere and ate plain. She was in excellent health until shortly before she died.
Unfortunately, along with the many good qualities that she had there were deep flaws. My grandmother favored my uncle, to the exclusion of my mother. This went on even after she moved in with my parents. It was that way for as long as I knew her and it hurt my mother very much.
My grandmother never got over her childhood. It colored everything in her life. Although she did not gossip, she blamed nearly everything wrong in her life on her childhood. Today there are options for counseling, but I don’t know if that would have helped her. As a child and young adult, I was both frustrated and saddened that she couldn’t move on and enjoy her life more.
Her frugality also meant that she would not enjoy nice things. All the nice purses, clothing, and possessions that my parents bought her for gifts stayed safely in her drawers instead of her enjoying them for what they were.
My maternal grandmother found it difficult to give love. She was jealous of the affections my mother had for my sister and myself. She married four times altogether; none of the marriages lasted.
When my favorite boy toy first met my maternal grandmother, he was put off by favoritism to my uncle and her constant stories of what happened to her as a child. Later though, he began to admire her for her independence and her willingness to work hard. We were both amazed how she worked well into her 80’s, helping out at a small thrift shop and babysitting a young girl after school.
As with any hero in our life, they are a mix of both good and bad. For me, this is part of my family history, something that is worth sharing and recording.