My Maternal Grandmother
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.
My grandmother married. She had tremendous difficulty getting pregnant, only to lose her first child during childbirth. My mother and uncle finally completed her family.
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.
[Other posts for Women’s History Month include Jane Addams and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.]
Family Life Lessons Maternal Women's History Month family grandmother maternal postaday Women's History Month
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I am a backyard adventurer, philosopher and observer, recording my life in journals and photographs. Visit my blog at www.livingtheseasons.com.
I love the photograph of your grandmother. How hard it must have been to be put to work at such a young age. Thankfully, that sort of thing isn’t allowed now! I am proud of her for not taking her husbands cheating. In those days it was practically unheard of for a woman to estrange herself from her husband and provider, no matter how awful the circumstances. Thank you for sharing a bit of her life with us. ~ Lynda
Thanks Lynda. The older sister who was with my grandmother was put to work at the age of 12. I just cannot imagine that. It’s interesting that I wrote about Jane Addams earlier in March. She was very influential about the legislation against child labor.
You are right about my grandmother divorcing – it was a huge stigma for my mother. Women were expected to just suck it up and put up with their husband’s no matter how bad their behavior. You know though, my other grandparents lived next door and for them it was never an issue. My grandfather looked after his next door neighbor. My Dad & Uncle were sent over to shovel her yard, he shared food with them, and my great-aunt passed down her clothing each time she bought a new wardrobe.
The photo of the 6 kids is amazing – your maternal grandmother with bare feet in the field, the little boy with the tin bucket. all with their eyes squinting in the sunlight. Your grandmother endured much and survived. It is not surprising that her childhood stayed with her and shaped her values and views. So often, our best attributes (your grandmother’s ability to stay in touch with her family) are also our worst attributes (your grandmother’s constant stories of childhood). Thank you for sharing her story.
Beth – thanks for the great note. I hadn’t thought of it that way until you pointed it out (this is what I love about comments).
I loved reading your grandmothers’ story. Isn’t a life lived an amazing thing? I recently found out that my grandmother was a WWII Canadian War Bride. I’d never heard that before and it made me realize that her life was amazing! Thanks for sharing some of your grandmother’s life with us.
Wow, that’s quite a story about your grandmother. I hope we can read about it sometime.
I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I’m really surprised at how many of my fellow bloggers can relate to it.
Great post for Women’s History Month. Life was so different then – How resourceful of her sister to write a neighbor. She sounds very determined and independent. Many women had no choice but to make a life for themselves – most history didn’t even note. It was also very common for that generation to favor boy children over girls. (My grandmother did which also hurt my mother). It’s so nice you are recoding this for the future. Nice read
Thank you! Yes, that generation was so very different and you’re right that my grandmother wasn’t the only one to do that. I appreciate you sharing that you’ve seen the same thing with your mother – that hurt runs very deep and it’s had a large negative impact on my mother. When my grandmother died, my Mom stopped talking to her brother and has cut him out of her life. It’s too bad; I enjoy my relationship with my sister and my Mom doesn’t have that.
Your point about recording this for the future is a good one. My niece and daughter read my posts and this is good for them to remember.
I am always struck with how different things were back then and the stories of how people managed. I mean, sure things have changed in my lifetime, but not like back in those days. You did a real nice job with this, by the way.
Thanks for the wonderful compliment! Yes, society expectations were very different. I’m amazed at how my grandmother survived everything thrown at her. For her to kick out a cheating spouse was pretty unheard of – women were expected to just put up with it.
what an interesting woman. they lived in different times and she made some hard choices. and yes she’s a mix of good and bad. well done.
Thank you, Louise. The times were very different, from the emphasis on having children to women not divorcing or working with small children at home. My daughter and niece find it hard to imagine how things were back then – which is why I keep telling the family stories to them.
Thank you for introducing this wonderful woman to me, and for your loving and honest portrayal of her.
Your grandmother was an incredible woman for her time. You obviously acquired your strength, hard work and deternination from her. I come from strong female stock myself and must write about them sometime soon. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Darlene! I do think that’s where it came from. I’d love to hear about the women in your family – do try to write it up sometime this year.
I think we’re all a mixed bag. I’m glad you could honor your grandmother’s qualities. Angie
Thanks Angie. I think you’re right on that, but it’s a realization I didn’t come to until more recently. I think mostly because she made life so difficult for my mother, my sister and I.
I am glad I inspired a theme for you to blog about this month. I have enjoyed incorporating guest bloggers into my blog and hope to continue. I have considered continuing to honor and celebrate women but I still need to sit with that for a bit. Perhaps a new theme will come my way.
I know what you mean – as much as I enjoyed the random word last year, I was glad when it ended and I could do other things.
I can see where she would be both inspiring and challenging. It seems so odd to us today to hear of young children being made to work in such extreme conditions but this wasn’t all that long ago. Thanks for sharing this story. I agree with you that it is the women in our lives that really shape us. I also want to remark at how much I like your writing style. It is always so readable and flowing. I aspire to write as well. Finally, thanks for the trackback.
I don’t think my grandmother’s experience was all that unusual for a child who was orphaned and without relatives. Still, it seems harsh though.
Thanks for the compliment about my writing style! I do work at it because it sure doesn’t come out that way on the first draft. Your writing is good also and I enjoy your blog. For sure, I wouldn’t have done these entries for Women’s History Month if you hadn’t prodded me to do it (you and that sharp stick of course).
You’re welcome. If you want to reblog these last two, feel free. Your readers seemed to enjoy the Jane Addams one.
That is an amzaing story, and although there are areas where she could have improved and ‘gottn over’ her childhood, for someone of her generation asking for that kind of help would have been seen as weak. I feel sad that she was obvious in her favouritism and not wanting to enjoy beautiful things. But she still sounds like she was a wonderful woman with many admiral qualities. :)
Jen – thanks for the note. I think you’re right that to have asked for help would have been a serious sign of weakness in that generation. She was a good woman, but it took many years to realize that. She spent so much time winding my mother up and fighting with her. It was hard watching my mother be so miserable because my grandmother could not be pleasant to her. After I married, I had an opportunity to learn much more about my grandmother and get to know this other side of her.