March is Women’s History Month (in the US).
I’m taking this opportunity to write about women who’ve inspired me.
There was really little more than native grass and dust in the most of the province when my grandmothers were born – one in southwest and one in central Saskatchewan. They were both born into successful families – my paternal grandmother to a successful real estate agent (back then called ‘land speculator’), and my maternal grandmother to a successful lawyer. The world had just come through the Great War and there was, I am told, a general feeling of buoyancy and joy permeating most of the British Commonwealth.
My maternal grandmother was born in southwestern Saskatchewan, in a tiny town – probably even then not much more than a hamlet – to a lawyer and his wife. She had two older brothers and two older sisters, and when she was seven years old, she watched her elder brother die in the bath. He had tuberculosis, the same disease that had taken her mother when she was only two. Her father remarried, not, they say, for any passionate reason, but because he needed a woman to look after his home and his children.
She was cruel, the stepmother. She sent my grandmother’s elder sisters away to a nunnery (it didn’t take). The surviving elder brother went off to join the army, and so my grandmother was left with the stepmother and her son. Her stepmother beat and tortured her. She was kept in shoes several sizes too small, not because they couldn’t afford new ones, but because my great-grandmother couldn’t stand my grandmother. My grandmother’s feet were crippled her whole life.
Yet my grandmother survived the abuse. In spite of the horrible treatment, she thrived, if not physically, then intellectually. She finished high school and became a registered nurse. She practiced privately for a wealthy family in the US during the war, and when the war was over, she returned to the southwest corner of the province to make a life with her soldier man who’d refused to marry her before the war because he didn’t want to leave fatherless children behind. They had a fine life together – she, working as a nurse, and he as a mechanic and a farmer.
They had three children, and my grandmother never stopped nursing (and here I mean “working as a nurse”, and not “breastfeeding”). This meant she had to send my mother to live with my great-aunt in the next town, but those were, my mother assured me, the best years of her life. Not only because she was completely spoiled by her uncle AND her cousins, but also because she got to be the ‘baby’ of the family while Nama was busy with my aunt.
My Nama was brilliant and quick-witted. She was kind and sympathetic. Watches always stopped when she wore them. She was a witch. She was a healer. She grew a phenomenal garden. She participated in every community event to come through town and some that she held in her own basement. She was involved in the area’s drama clubs and carnivals. She would never pass up an opportunity to dress up, or to be ridiculous. She never stopped moving, not up until the day she died. She went a mile a minute and I don’t actually remember her ever sleeping.
If some poor unfortunate should happen into town, my Nama would make a plate for them at her table, and would usually find some work for them to do to earn their keep and spending money. She fostered hobos, drunks, soldiers riding the rails, and stray cats. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’d foster anything that was in want of fostering, whether they needed it or not. She’d feed them and water them. She’d force them to bathe, and while they did that, she’d wash their clothes. And when they went on their way, they did so with a bag lunch. I don’t think anyone the world over ever had anything bad to say about my grandmother.
When she died, the mourners filled two churches up and down and filled the yards (they had to set up external speakers so people outside could hear. It took two days for all the people to come through the house. It took months to eat all the baking and sandwiches and casseroles and soups.
When she died, everything changed and the world lost an awful lot of colour. She died just when I was about to need her most. It seems to be a theme with the women in my life. I was 12. It occurred to me when I was going through our family photographs that on the last vacation we took as a family, everyone took pictures of the sea, of the jumping dolphins, of the rides and the gunfights and the Mexican streets. We should have been taking pictures of her. But then, she was too big to be captured in a photograph.
My Nama taught me that there is no end to the amount of love you can give. That a person’s station in life ought not dictate how they ought to be treated – that everyone deserves to be cared for and to be cared about. She taught me how to plant a garden and how to swear at a seam or hem. She taught me that it’s okay to stand up for what you believe in, even if the people you’re standing up to have more power than you – nurses took a lot of crap from doctors (they probably still do), but my Nama took no guff from anyone. Especially not from doctors. She taught me how to fold linens and make beds, how to make pastry, how to bake tarts and pies, how to make Easter ham and Thansgiving turkey. She taught me how to clean and bind wounds and how to set a broken bone until you can get to a hospital; how to make healing tea and how to witch for water. She taught me that it is possible to love someone just because they need to be loved, and that it is possible to love without condition. I wish she could have taught me how to heal a broken heart.
She taught me that wisdom is sometimes more dear than knowledge, but if you CAN have both, you ought to try to. She taught me that money is no object when it comes to kindness. She taught me that the way you treat others is the way you treat yourself. Not in a golden rule sense. Not in terms of “treat others how you wish to be treated” – not that Golden Rule malarky. But rather that the way you treat others is the way you reward yourself; kindness is its own reward, in other words.
It would take a big soul indeed to fill the space my tiny Nama embodied (she was 4’11”). There is hardly a day that goes by I don’t think about her.