This week, I couldn't stop thinking about them. Among "them" was not THE woman in my life who guided me, took care of me, shaped me. That was my grandmother and like most grandmothers of women in their forties, they're no longer a phone call away.
The benefits of being raised by your grandmother is that you are surrounded by older, wiser women at a much earlier age, all of whom have stories, many of which remind you not to take the world....and everyone in it so seriously.
In my grandmother's circle was an incredible group of women who got together for lunches, martinis, and shopping, even in the 1930s and 40s when they were all healthy, raising children and had husbands that they 'navigated.' (see My Mother's Kitchen -- 2004 blogging days)and a dedication to mothers).
All of them strong, yet sweet...the kind of women who didn't tolerate weak character or housewives without some other mission or job. It wasn't the south, yet a couple of them had moved north for some reason or another. Most of us were "baked" in that small upstate New York town and with that came things like country fairs, football games, horse farms, 4H, piano lessons, and more sewing and craft aficianados than wine snobs.
Learning the basics of being a 'woman' of that time was part of living in a small town...you know, the traditional stuff: sewing a button, baking a cake, rolling pie dough the 'right' way, dance lessons, serving tea. Yet, they absolutely tolerated if not encouraged sports for women. While I regularly played many a' sport in school, none of these stronger older women who influenced me in my life played a thing.
In their walled garden, which I used to eavesdrop on from time-to-time, they often talked about navigating their family unit. Many women relied on my grandmother's advice (today, they'd call her a 'coach'), to help them negotiate things at home, whether it was getting their husband to purchase something to make their lives easier, or being able to work and play more while raising a family of 5, and so on. She was also the master peacemaker and networker.
The constant, common thread woven into all of their personalities was spunk and perseverance. Lately, I've been thinking about them more than ever, three gone, four still living. I dreamt about one of them a couple of nights in a row recently and woke up with my heart racing. "How old is she now?" I thought. "Could the dream be a sign that she's sick and in her last days" I thought. "Is she already gone and she visited me at night to say goodbye?" I thought.
The number I had for Bernie was disconnected, which is never a good sign. She was with my aunt and uncle in the driveway waiting for me the day my grandmother died. I was too naive to believe my grandmother would actually die despite a long battle with cancer -- remember no one talked about stressful situations then...they just smoked and drank and smoked and drank some more.They didn't tell me the news in the driveway that day nor did they go with me to the hospital. I drove there alone and heard the news alone from some fatigued nurse who didn't know who I was and released the information about my grandmother's passing in a not so gentle manner. I was 16. I had no reaction until I belted in the elevator moments later but without shedding a tear - where was everyone I thought?
Among the faces that came in and out of my mind were all the strong women in my grandmother's life...my life. I imagined their pain learning the news I had just been given, knowing that not all of them had known yet.
My grandfather wasn't in the driveway that day but Bernie had been. Perhaps she wasn't 'authorized' to tell me? I'm highly intuitive and yet something blocked me from 'knowing,' even after seeing Bernie's red blotchy eyes on that sad and long summer afternoon when I was "just" 16.
I learned a lot about Bernie and the other strong female forces in my life, almost all intuitively. When we visited her house, I had to pass time while the 'grown ups' played cards and drank their martinis. It was the 70s - there were no cell phones, online games on TV or computers.
And, no one had a parenting rulebook that said your kids had to be in bed by 8 every night. It was a time loaded with boundaries, an era when adults dictated the agenda, not children.
I used to crawl on my hands and knees through their attic, unpacking boxes and snooping inside. I'd roam through the closets, dressing myself up in her hats and oversized jackets. Downstairs, I'd hear her strong laughter dominate the table and that beautiful and feminine way she egged the men on exuding her confidence and wit. A gift. I even knew it then but didn't have a label for it. My grandmother had it too.
Audrey was a little more refined in public yet exuded the same strength and gift. She's 95 now and lives in Florida, alone. I managed to get her on the phone for a long chat a year or so ago. I feared she'd barely be able to hear me or keep up with my pace, but the first thing she did was drill me, like I was still 18. I smiled as I listened to her first question, which may have come before hello: "are you still playing the piano? I hope you're still playing the piano" suggesting that my grandmother would be shedding more than a tear had I not let her gift and now my gift, pour out into other people's silence.
Truth be told, I had stopped playing but a piano remains in the house and I told her, I can't imagine any house without a piano and will always feel that way. She tells me she's trying to order music online now (online in her nineties -- really?) but some of the music she's looking for is hard to find. I imagined Colony Music in mid-town would have it, I told her, a place I visit every time I'm in New York just because.
Then we got onto men. She's dating a younger man (mid-eighties) but his eyesight is failing so she often has to drive on longer hauls (1-2 hours). Without complaining, it was clear she did most of the work and I kept wondering, is there ever a time when strong women like us ever get "taken care of" before we hit the grave? She told me that her biggest beef was that he was a fan of George Bush and she couldn't really get him to change his mind. "These are the compromises you make for companionship," she said.
I was reminded to listen to my inner voice...the wonderful intuition that women have, rely on and use regularly for all sorts of things, yet it's a skill and gift that doesn't list well on paper or in the boardroom.
When I was 18, I lived out of my car for awhile, not far from where Audrey and her husband lived in Florida at the time. A workaholic from the beginning of 'life' itself, I had three jobs, two boyfriends and was eager to save as much as I could for travel. Frankly, rent just seemed like a waste of money when I was working 6.5 days anyway. Somehow my highly intuitive grandfather discovered this through his Sherlock-skills over 1,500 miles away and sent Audrey to deal with me. What was and is remarkable for a woman born at the turn of the century is how much she understood my need to do precisely what I was doing.
They had traveled in academic circles, lived in Paris for awhile and let's be clear, did not and would not ever have slept in her car or on a park bench in her life. Yet, it was okay that I did, for then. She believed in the process of life and that everyone's process is different. Her handwritten letters which I receive every year and have since I was ten demonstrate her perseverance, her tolerance and her inner strength - letter after letter, word after word, you can sense her gratitude and faith in the world, and her positive role in it.
Marcie was a longtime neighbor who grew up in the south on a farm. She was 8 in a line of 11, her youngest sister from Pittsburgh being the only other sibling alive. She has also lost two children of her own and her in-laws, husbands and wives are all gone.
When I couldn't reach Bernie, and countless Google searches didn't pull up a thing, I called Marcie considering it a universal sign and nod that it's time to reach out to these strong female forces in my life. It's these quiet nods that we have to not just listen to, but act on, for it is action on these nods (messages if you like, from our inner voice aka the universe), that allow US to DESIGN our lives, not let someone else design them for us. From this place, we proactively live life, not react to it. We become the creator, not the victim. The designer, not the canvas.
Alongside my grandfather, Marcie taught me to drive. Through the neighborhoods we went in a beat-up old Chevrolet. She said, "I was trying to recall how long ago that was again?" It's amusing how much easier it is to come up with a precise number to that question to someone in their mid-eighties than it is to the hot 30-year-old man you just met from Argentina.
Three things were on her mind: how much harder it was to do physical things, the climate, remarking how much warmer it was this winter and how odd the weather has been in recent years, and the economy.
I on my iPhone and she on the same square black GT phone she has had in her kitchen since 1966, we talked about my life in the "bubble, the Silicon Valley eco-system that doesn't seem to subscribe to recessionary issues that affect the rest of the country. That said, it is increasingly becoming harder for people around me to keep up with the accidental millionaires and billionaires who are sprouting up overnight as a result of some freak paranoia acquisition play by an industry giant.
This led us to gratitude and reality checks. She told me about a time in the early forties when she put an apple on her father's tab in the country grocer on her way home from school one day and her reaction to the scolding she received when it was "discovered." Given that she has the same strong, resilient streak that all the women in my grandmother's circle had, she decided to take charge of her own decisions and got a job in an ice cream shop. It was 1944, she recalls, and she made just under $3 for two days of work.
It's hard to imagine numbers like this today, yet despite what salaries have become, the majority of Americans can't pay their bills on time or if you happen to live in a major metropolitan area, afford the id="mce_marker"M+ that it cost to purchase a home today. And so, people don't, or they go bankrupt.
It seems as if everything is inflated around me...last time I walked down Fillmore Street, I don't remember seeing so many unremarkable $500 tops and $800 bags. Shopping culture and consumerism despite the economic situation remains high (read my blog post on Qatar's over-the-top growth) and yet, the happiest people I know have less. Only two days ago, I came across a photo with a quote from Justin Wolfers at the Aspen Ideas event saying "Richer countries are overwhelmingly happier than poorer countries." From a viewpoint that poorer countries are full of people with sicker family members and less ability to save them, I agree.
In my experience traveling to 80 countries and living in nearly a dozen, it feels like the people I've met who have had less and live simpler lives with less stuff, are richer in spirit, and are focused on doing rather than earning, less weighted down by money.
So, I'm not sure if I agree with you Justin, but I do agree that communities where economic and social balance becomes far out of whack, depression and a feeling that the world doesn't make sense can certainly be higher.
People from the old world, Marcie, Audrey, Bernie and my grandparents among them, understood contrasts, balance and gratitude and had so much more resilience, kindness and empathy than what I encounter on a regular basis. It's not that the world has become a harsher place, it's that we may all too busy responding and reacting to things being thrown our way (on and offline), that we may have forgotten to tap into what and who we know best - ourselves.
Returning to and relying on ourselves and trusting our own intuition for guidance and our life path may be the best gift we can give ourselves. Refer to my review on Rescue America: the urgent calling to return to what made America great.
How well I know these women or knew my grandmother is not as relevant as the impact they had on me, and the inner strength they have provided and still do, even those who are no longer walking on this physical land.
It's always about our journeys and the joy and yes, even sorrow, we leave behind along the way. Within that joy and sorrow are lessons learned and gifts we share and receive, strength, courage and empathy passed on from our tribes, in my case, a tribe of strong fabulous women I think about often. And, when their smiling faces and empathetic hearts come into clear view, there's sunshine in the house and my day somehow gets breezier and lighter as I think about them weaving in and out of my life. Never gone, just displaced and forever cherished.
A few blog posts on happiness worth referencing:
- What Motivates People Across Cultures
- We're Happier When We Share
- Bhutan's Gross Happiness Experiment
- On Laughing More
- Money Doesn't Bring You Happiness
- On Death (but one that will bring you comfort)
- Tony Hsieh on Happiness & Profits
- First Image (women/wind): 3D Art
- Path: Wharton Executive Management Site
- Bird with wings: Society 6
Credit Image: Fabliaux on Flickr
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