Pay yourself first

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.

Of course, it wasn’t to last.


The years got drier and drier and the money wasn’t coming in because the crops wouldn’t grow and the famers couldn’t pay their bills, and although he did what he could, eventually my great-grandfather lost everything. He’d extended all the credit he could, until finally the bank took *his* house, because he was bound and determined he wouldn’t send the bank after the farmers because, he said, you cannot get blood from a stone.

This meant that my grandmother began working to support her family when she was just a girl. At 8 or 9 years old, she used to run errands for people in her town, and by the time she graduated from grade 8, she had taken in laundry and done deliveries and she was fortunate to find work with a local shopkeeper. But, the shopkeeper was into some shady business and he had to shut up his business. So my grandmother found other work. She supported herself and her family while her brothers went off to WWII; while her elder sisters got married and moved out of the dust bowl. While her younger sister tried (and failed) to finish school.

She met the young man who would become her husband, and he was a farmer, which in the 30s had seemed like a pretty bad idea, but now that another war was looming and the rain was back, it was clear that people had to eat, and farming didn’t seem so foolish. So my grandmother worked to support her husband while he farmed land that they together saved every penny to buy. My grandmother had a baby, and instead of doing what every “respectable” woman would do (which was to stay home with the bairn), she, thanks to the kindnesses of her own mother and mother-in-law and neighbourhood ladies, went right back to work. When Dad was too little to be left with anyone else, she took in laundry and scrubbed the sheets and pressed the linens and boiled the unmentionables of several families in town who could afford such a luxury.

Her hands, she told me, would crack and bleed, but she contributed, by God, to that household. She went back to work in shops and finally at local banks, and continued to be self-sufficient even after her husband was killed in a farming accident in his fifties. Even after she lost her second husband to cancer in his early sixties.

My grandmother taught me that self-sufficiency is one of the most important things you can have, *especially* as a woman. “If you don’t take care of yourself,” she said, “you oughtn’t expect anyone else to want to. It’s no man’s job to keep a woman, Jillian. It’s a woman’s job to keep herself.”

We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but she taught me a lot – the value of a dollar, to pay yourself first (always have savings), to never be in debt more than you can pay off with interest, and to always, ALWAYS put something away. Even if it isn’t very much – a little bit every week goes a long way if you need it.

Gram and my own self, selling lemonade in front of Mum's first car.
Gram and my own self, selling lemonade in front of Mum’s first car.

On a much different level, she taught me how to talk to people, and how to get the crap out of my own head long enough to realize that other people are out there, and that they *want* to talk to you. And that that’s how you build a community – one person at a time.

My Gram passed away just about one year ago today. She was my last living grandparent. I have found myself missing her in ways I didn’t think I would. Ultimately, she was a good person who taught me that feminism doesn’t have to be about fighting *against* something – it could be about fighting *for* something. I love her.





One response to “Pay yourself first”

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Avatar

    Hugs. Your grandmother was a good woman and a wonderful role model. I miss mine, especially the one I grew up close to in Mexico (she was from Illinois – farmer’s daughter).

    ‘It is no man’s job to take care of me’ should have one caveat: ‘as long as I am able.’

    Sadly, disability took my ability to work away 24 years ago. Fortunately, because i had always worked, there was disability insurance which has made the huge difference to us as a family.

    Now that I can write, I will write – as long as I am able. And I hope to make some money at it – as soon as I’m able.

    Somehow that ‘take care of yourself’ attitude was deeply ingrained in me – I think almost by accident – because I was the oldest and money was tight, so I did odd jobs, which, in Mexico, and for a daughter of the middle class, was not done. Ditto in college.

    It is a good thing to not fear work, and to not see yourself as somehow entitled to support.

    Negotiated support – you work outside the home, so I can stay home with our kids because that’s what we both want – is good, if dangerous (because everything falls apart if there is a divorce).

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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