Who’s Yo GrandMama?

Visiting Grandma by Felix Schlesinger

Lately I have  become obsessed with my maternal ancestors.  Not in a genealogical sense – I really don’t care whether I am related to anyone famous or have royal blood,  and the proportion of my DNA originating in Scotland, Italy or England  is of no interest to me. So I won’t be ordering the kit

It’s not the DNA, but the lives of these women that fascinate me.   Since there was no birth control  and children were valued as workers, it was not uncommon for women to have 10 or more surviving children; most lost at least one to sickness. Moreover,  because of the physical demands on their bodies and lack of access to medical care, death in childbirth was common.  Surviving husbands in need of help with their households remarried as quickly as they could, bringing their children with them, creating small communities.   All of this in an environment facing epidemics of Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis, Typhoid Fever without antibiotics, immunizations or dentists.  And don’t forget wars.  One of my grandmothers (3rd great 1775-1824)  lost a father and brother in a Tory raid and grandsons to the Civil War.

Life was tough.  But they rose to the challenge, there was no other choice.

 

 

As I sit here in my air-conditioned living room, typing on my wireless laptop, drinking coffee from Columbia, it is almost impossible to imagine how my great grandmothers began their days.   At my age, if she lived that long, she was likely living with a daughter and her family and if healthy enough, charged with the care of the smallest children and the family mending. Breakfast would have consisted of food raised on their farm or bartered with neighbors, and depending on their economic situation, could have ranged from sausage and eggs to corn mash. There was no  radio, tv, household appliances or indoor plumbing.  Access to books was limited, often to a worn copy of The Bible  and most women never completed high school. Nearest neighbors were miles away and a letter could take a month to arrive.

Last week I had a melt-down over the internet service.  Admittedly, it was stressful, maddening, and ate up most of the day.  But really?  Internet?  This is a  problem my grandmother could only have dreamed about.

My grandmothers were hardly saints, as I well know from family stories.   I’m sure they complained about their hard lives. I could never agree with some of their beliefs, but  they were women of strong convictions and the determination and courage to stand by them.  The more  I learn more about them, the more grateful I am for their examples and humbled by the grace with which they lived their difficult lives.

So the next time I’m tempted to go rogue over some minor discomfort, I plan to stop and consider what my grandmothers’ response might be.

I hope it’s in the genes.

 

 

 

Memorial Day

 

Memorial Day is typically associated with recent wars, World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War.  But the first observation of  Decoration Day, as it was originally known, honored those who fell in the Civil War.   Union Major-General, John A. Logan is officially credited for the first observance in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.  However, some 150 years later,  no one seems to agree on who is really responsible for the first ceremony or where it occurred.

One intriguing story predates the observance to 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi when four confederate women decorated (hence the name)  graves of fallen Civil War soldiers.   What makes this story truly amazing is that while the women decorated the graves of their own fallen soldiers, they also put wreaths on the graves of Union soldiers that died in the Battle of Shiloh and sent notes of condolence to their families.  This remarkable story is said to have been picked up in newspapers around the country and to have been the inspiration for General Logan to proclaim May 30 as Decoration Day as well as for Francis Miles Finch’s poem  “The Blue and the Gray.”  The poem, published in The Atlantic in 1867 captures beautifully the poignancy of that gesture by these women who acknowledged the loss of their northern sisters as they mourned their own dead in the aftermath of defeat and destruction.  The first stanza of the poem is below.

Civil War widows mourned husbands as long as 2 years in 3 phases: Deep, Full and Half Mourning, with corresponding dress and behavior.
As many as 20% of Civil War soldiers were younger than 18.

 

The Blue And The Gray
Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907)

By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.

 

 

 

 

 

For more about the four confederate women and the complete poem, see the Atlantic archives,  https://theatln.tc/2kx8MpK

 

 

Mothers Matter

 

My mother and I  weren’t close.  But we never fought, not overtly.  She was gentle and mild-mannered to a fault.  Mother didn’t raise her voice or indulge in corporal punishment.    She had very few rules  but her  “no” meant no and there was no point in challenging her.

Her tastes were simple and her needs modest.  Frugality was a way of life.  We never bought anything we could make, grow or barter for.    Collars were turned, hems let out.  We sewed our clothes,  ate leftovers. Nothing went to waste, nothing was for show. We wore our clothes until they were too threadbare to wear in public and then they were recycled into fabric for quilts.  She never went to movies or took
 vacations.  She didn’t wear perfume or go to a beauty shop. Lipstick was her only concession to cosmetics.

Farm life is  strenuous and follows a set routine with little margin for error.   Rules and boundaries are necessary to insure productivity and safety.  They aren’t up for vote.  Mother worked hard, gardening, running a household with no modern appliances, cooking, feeding livestock.   In spite of its  demands, she  seemed comfortable with her life and in those days,  it was not out of the ordinary.  Girls married, raised their families on the family homestead, and once the children were out of the house, they cared for their parents and grandchildren,  continuing the pattern of generations.  If girls went to college, it was to become a teacher or a nurse until the children came. Though we never discussed it, I knew this was what was expected of me, of all of us, and it terrified me.

I  was a boisterous and curious child, a puzzle to my parents; forever pushing the boundaries, challenging the rules, asking why.  I read everything I could find in our small library.  I was fascinated with faraway  places, exotic religions, unfamiliar life styles and beliefs.  From a small child, I ached to get out in the “real world,” and abruptly left home at my  first opportunity.  It was a foolhardy decision made with all the selfishness and confidence of youth.  Of course I expected Mother to be disappointed, but instead she was profoundly, uncharacteristically, angry. This was not a decision I could not undo, she told me.  Once I crossed the threshold, she told me,  the door would lock behind me.  That shocked and baffled me, still does.  But I knew she meant what she said and anyway, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back.

And so began our decades-long uneasy journey. Over the years, she “forgot”  birthdays, ignored awards, expressed no interest in my accomplishments.   All  contact between us was one-way.  She rarely visited; she never called or wrote.  Nothing I did seemed to interest her.  I get it, I thought. I blew my chance when I rejected her and her way of life.

It hurt, but I moved on.  I couldn’t go home again, so instead I tried to convert her to my lifestyle.  This may have been an effort  to justify my rash decision to leave home, I’m not sure.   But leaving any guilt aside,  I couldn’t believe  she could be happy, that anyone could be, with such a claustrophobic lifestyle.  She had few friends, little outside interest beyond church on Sundays and visits with relatives.  Her recreation was  limited to  crossword puzzles, soap operas and romance novels.  I was sure she would want more if only she knew about it, if it was offered to her.  Surely she would be delighted to have some of the luxuries her harsh farm life had denied her!  I was relentless. I enrolled her in exercise programs, bought her the latest labor-saving appliances, sent her books to read.  But to my frustration, she was not interested.  The appliances remained in their boxes, the gym membership expired, the books lay on the coffee table, untouched.

This distorted dance continued for years;  I pursued, she withdrew.  As much as I told myself it didn’t matter what she thought of me, it did matter.  A lot.   I believed she never forgave me for leaving home, and that her withdrawal from me was my punishment for  breaking the rules.   I thought she saw my leaving as a rejection not only of my heritage, but of her way of life.    But in my mind, I was simply choosing the way I wanted to live my life, nothing more. And in retrospect, I wonder if the same might have been was true for her.  Was her withdrawal from me not a rejection at all; but simply her way of living out her life as she saw fit?

The mother-daughter tie is primal, enigmatic, eternal, the strongest of the familial bonds.  It is Mother who breathes the  breath of life into us.  She is our first role model, the architect of those first deep wrinkles in our  developing brains.  Regardless of what we think or  what we tell ourselves, our mothers matter to us, will always matter, probably much more than we realize.

On this Mothers Day, I wish I could re-live the times I hurt and disappointed my mother. I wish we had understood each other better;  that we could have been close.   But at the end of the day,  the maternal bond  prevailed and over the years we developed  a companionable, if not affectionate relationship.  We had some good years.

My mother died over 25 years ago.  But there are still nights that she visits my dreams, mornings when I wake up thinking I need to call her.  Mother still matters, she will always matter.

 

 

 

 

THE INCONVENIENT COMMUNITY

 


About 20 years ago, my husband and I bought a lake house near the small community in Louisiana where I grew up. During our working years, it was our retreat, our refuge from the stress of our fast paced lives. We loved drinking  our morning coffee on the deck,  watching the miracle of the morning sunrise over the lake:  squirrels chattering and swinging from tree to tree,  Blue jays, cardinals, finches, and sparrows competing for the bird feeder, a whooping crane perched on one twig-leg, snatching fish from the lake with a stab of his beak, and if we were lucky, one of the two resident golden eagles skimming the lake in search of  breakfast.  We watched as fisherman sped past in their bass boats headed home with their early morning catch.  And  lazy afternoons gliding over the mirror-waters of the lake in our “barge boat” (pontoon boat if you’re further north), our two Boston Terriers perched on a bench, tongues lapping the breeze.

  Nirvana.

What we hadn’t expected, however, was…..

The Community.

If not for the satellite antennas, jet skis and BMWs, a visitor might think he had stepped through a time warp into the ’60s.  The pace of life is pretty much the way I remember it as a child.  No need to rush, even when driving. (Maybe that explains my collection of speeding tickets…) Going to the grocery store is a visiting opportunity – allow at least an extra half hour.  There is a  time-honored sequence visitors must follow upon leaving; fixing-to-get-ready-to-go, getting-ready-to-go, fixing-to-go, and y’all-come-to see-us.  Allow at least 20 minutes.

Community is seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily life. There is always time to visit.  Friends, relatives and neighbors drop by unannounced, bringing  fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries (lots of) squash from their gardens, blueberry muffins, home-made bread warm from the oven, a crocheted do-dad, (“I’ve been needing me one of them” is an appropriate response).  No need for neighborhood watch or security cameras here.   If you aren’t seen leaving home, (and you always are) for a day or two, someone will come around to make sure you’re OK.  This is, of course, also a fine excuse to see what you’re up to.  Once when we pulled to the side of the road to make a phone call,  someone stopped, rolled down the  window and yelled, “Y’all OK?” Case in point.

Community is hardwired into the culture. 

Although I was unaware of it, that was my mindset when I left for California after graduating high school. I was desperate to get away,  to shed the confines and responsibilities  of community.  I was weary of the nosyness and yes, the accountability of community.  In a word it was just plain inconvenient.

But the values of hospitality, trust and honesty were so deeply ingrained in me that they were unconscious.  It was just the way I operated.  So I was bewildered when my smiles at people on the streets of San Francisco  were met with glares as they  brushed past.  (“What’s she up to…”) Confused when the cookies I took to welcome a neighbor were met with a door slammed in my face (after all who knew what was in those cookies!! )  Offended when my request to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor was  grudgingly granted with the admonition to be sure to pay it back (people can’t be trusted…)  Embarrassed at the sly chuckles as I ran after  the stranger who dropped his wallet.  (What a hick..) 

It took awhile, but eventually I got it: Trust, honesty and hospitality are naive and totally uncool.  And no way to get ahead.   Every man for himself.  Self reliance.   That’s cool. That’s how you get ahead. 

So I learned to look through people I rushed past on the street.  I was astonished, but not distressed, when a co-worker was murdered and cut into chunks by her father. (Was there a memorial service for her?  I don’t think so..)  I watched  dispassionately as a handcuffed neighbor was escorted from his house followed by EMTs carrying a body on a stretcher.  

Eventually there was no more “we”; only “them” and “us.”  And “they” were assumed adversaries until proven otherwise.  People I met daily at the bus stop were familiar strangers.   I became adept  at “working the system.”   I learned how find tax loopholes,  to badger merchants to get the best “deal,”  to rewire cables to “beat” (not cheat..)  utility companies,  to push  to the front of the line.   In short, I learned it was not about us, but about me; all about me.  After all, where had that hokey countryfied attitude got me but broke, belittled and marginalized.  “Smart” people put themselves first and if that caused problems for someone else, well, that’s life.  And this attitude was not limited to California; it was  my experience of metropolitan life in general.  

This “me first”  philosophy seemed to work well for a while.  I did, in fact, “get ahead.”  My standard of living greatly improved. I had the latest appliances; services and conveniences my mother could never have imagined. I never ironed.   My clothing came from “the right” stores, I drove an expensive car, my dog came from championship lines.   But the more  “stuff” I got, the longer my list of “must haves” grew.  Not what I expected.  Neither was I expecting that this way of doing business would leave me increasingly lonely and  isolated.  I was sure I would attract an adoring crowd once I was “successful.”   But of course,  the people around me we all just like me….expecting me to be part of their adoring crowd. This kind of success had brought anything but happiness.  And eventually, the pains of chasing mirages disappearing over the horizon became greater than the challenge of living out my own truth.  I knew better, had always known better.

Because of time and distance,  trips to the lake were infrequent during these years, but we managed two or three a year. And on each visit, as I reflected more deeply about  this community, I saw truths I hadn’t seen growing up, truths only visible through the lens of age and experience.  I saw how a sense of place grounds the soul.  How immutable our symbiosis with the earth and its creatures.  How the soul of the community is continuously formed and re-shaped by the spirits of each of its members.  And I get it, all communities have their problems.   But paradoxically, it is when the community thrives, that its members are nourished.  Not, as I had been led to believe, the other way round.

I might have learned these lessons elsewhere.  But it is here that I feel most grounded.   It is here that I learned that true success comes only to the soul at peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WE RISE AGAIN

Our communities erupt in anger and fear 

 

                     BUT WE RISE UP

 

We lose our homes

 

                 AND WE RISE UP

 

Our children are terrorized at school.

               AND STILL WE RISE

 

We are lost in addiction

                                 BUT WE RISE UP                                                                                                                 

 

We find strength in  faith, in hope, in each other,  in the beauty of nature, in the goodness of life.  We rise  because there is a God that loves us in spite of our foolish missteps and selfishness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter is  for me the physical manifestation of hope.  It is when the scarcity and withering of winter is transformed into the abundance and new life of spring.  It is the symbol of the faith that sustains me when life pushes in and tempts me to lose heart, to wonder if  it’s all just a cruel cosmic joke.  It is the reminder that I am not alone and that together, no matter what,  we always rise.

The price of longevity

…is getting old.

A Fountain of Youth, 1917 – Cuno Amiet

We Americans are youth worshippers.  We are repulsed by old age and all of its trappings.

Recently, I realized with a start, that, incredulous as it seems,  I am approaching my 80th birthday!   I had expected to grow old  mindfully, gracefully,  not to be “struck old.”   In her nineties, my  mother used to say she  “felt 18 inside.”  It seemed ridiculous, even
embarrassing then,  but  to my chagrin, now it’s my turn to feel   younger than my years.    Friends say I have “aged well” (putting me in mind of a Camembert round) but the benchmarks are there.  People  rush ahead to open doors for me,  offer to walk me across the street, pick up things I drop and,  (worst of all)  call me “cute.”  There’s no escaping  it.   I look…. I am….well..old.

Which is not all bad.   I am grateful to my ancestors for the sturdy genes that allowed me to reach  this stage in life, still  healthy and somewhat sound of mind.   I am blessed in so many ways.  I have wonderful friends and neighbors. My husband and I enjoy a very  comfortable life in a  beautiful community.  My family  actually likes me.

But getting old is not  easy.   Aging is a  process of letting go, of loss.  We outlive friends and family, we lose mobility, it takes concentration to perform tasks that were automatic a few short years ago.   Our health, once taken for granted,  becomes unpredictable.   We spend more time in clinics and more money on medications.   We have less energy;  we need more rest.  It takes regular exercise just  to maintain the status quo.  We avoid ladders and stairs,  give up night driving.  We struggle to maintain our independence.

But even with all its obstacles, aging has really never been easier.  Our livestyles would have been  inconceivable to our grandparents, even our parents. There is a rapidly growing industry devoted to  social activities and services  for seniors.  There are  cruises, exercise programs, trips to exotic locations,  clubs, sports, educational courses and programs, retirement communities. Treatment for conditions that incapacitated our grandparents are now  almost routine; cataracts, joint replacements, heart surgery.    Cancer is no longer a death sentence.   There is a steady stream of new information on aging in  books, and TV.

We should take full advantage of all of these resources.  We  need to keep active, to take care of our mental and physical health, engage with our communities.  But we must also feed our souls.   We need to be mindful of who we are  and the person we are  becoming.

I think the Irish poet  Dylan Thomas says it best:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Although at  first glance this may sound like a call to arms for  a frenzied assault on mortality,  I think that is an oversimplification.  I believe the poet was challenging us to face our mortality and to live out our best lives courageously and with grace. The journey to  the end of life doesn’t have to be; shouldn’t be,  a  morbid and dreary slog of  loneliness loss and pain.

But it’s not easy.  The people I know who have aged well have confronted their  mortality head on and early on.  They planned for it just as one plans for any stage of life, education, career, marriage and children.  They expected  medical expenses to increase at a time they would be living on fixed incomes. *  They were not surprised when  sudden life-changing events required  a transition to new, more restricted lifestyles.    They were aware of the  need strong inner resources and for  each other. They  learned  the art of interdependence.  Preparing for old age is hard work.

Fortunately there are  models for aging well.   One in particular stands out for me.   She seems to  navigate this challenging passage effortlessly.    In her 90s, she is alone, but not lonely,  busy but not burdened,  engaged but not entangled.  She takes her appearance as seriously as she did in her 40s. OK, she’s a little vain, but she is still beautiful.  You are unlikely to find her on the sofa watching TV; more likely she will be  entertaining  her great grandchildren, gardening,  or volunteering in the local sewing guild.  She drives herself to church, does her own shopping and is not much interested in discussing her ailments.    Unfailingly cheerful and slow to criticize, she is the first to reach out,  expecting, and more often  than not, receiving,  nothing in return.   Although she has outlived two husbands and most of her friends, she is surrounded by people who love her.   Her faith is strong and  she doesn’t believe in entitlements.

It’s a high bar, but I’m going to give it a shot.  After all, old age  is simply a season of life for those  who live long enough. I am fortunate to be among them.

*According to  a 2016 GOBanking Rates survey, 35 percent of all adults in the U.S. had only a few  hundred dollars in their savings accounts and 34 percent had zero savings.