the women in my bones
I think about them a lot, my grandmothers.
I never expected I would, at this point in my life. One died while I was in high school, the other while I was living abroad after college. My life today looks nothing like it did while they were alive, and as a teenager and young adult, I never thought to ask their advice on marriage or parenting or growing up. Yet their presence has become palpable since I became a mother.
One had seven children, one had six. They raised their boisterous broods Catholic, kept beautiful homes, aged gracefully as matriarchs of their clans. My memories of them are thick with hugs, snuggled into sweaters and perfume, all warmth and smiles at the welcome of grandchildren.
But the funny thing about grandmothers is that we never knew them when they were simply mothers. The messy part of parenting – the blood-sweat-tears of raising their own families through life’s dreams and disappointments – is behind them by the time we enter the picture. The next generation rarely gets to see their elders as parents, only grands.
Yet I find myself wondering about my grandmothers as mothers. How they did it with all those kids. Where they fell short. What they loved about family life. Naturally I wish I could sit down and pick their brains, now that I’m ready for their wisdom. But I’ve come to realize that the conversation might be unnecessary, even if it could be possible. Because these women are in my bones.
I felt them deep when I was at the end of my first pregnancy, so anxious about childbirth and caring for a newborn. I remember rocking in the glider in the freshly painted nursery, eyes closed, trying to pray through my fears. And suddenly I felt the strongest sense that my grandmothers were with me, one on my left and one on my right. Standing, silent, smiling gently. My eyes flew open with a rush of reassurance, and I sat blinking in the sunlight, trying to make sense of the strange and familiar all at once. Since that day they remained with me, haunting me in the loveliest of ways.
Sometimes I call upon their presence in the hours of frenzy and frustration, the twists of time when I feel control slipping from my hands and I want to scream instead of soothe. I try to breathe in their wisdom, the long view of the short moment. I tell myself that generations of strong women have made my bones strong, too – mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, all loving from the depths of their woman-hearts.
It’s imperfect inspiration; I know they failed, too. But perhaps that’s just what I need. The sheer persistence to keep trying, keep loving, keep mothering even when I feel frightfully inadequate.
My grandmothers, long-gone yet still lingering. I breathe them in again – rose perfume, pink peonies, Hershey’s kisses, Milano cookies – and I feel the force of a generation behind me, pushing me in that gentle grandmotherly way to just keep going.
This is beautiful, and so true. My mother died when I was 7, and her mother raised me. Now, she is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and when she sees me, sometimes she calls me by my mother’s name. It’s so heartbreaking, but she is a beautiful woman, and if I can be half the mother she was to my mother and me, my daughter will be blessed indeed. I wrote about my relationship with my mother, and being a mother on my blog when my baby was a newborn (she is almost two now!):
What a beautiful (and honest and heart-breaking) tribute to your mother and your daughter all at once…thank you for sharing this.
My grandmother loved Milano cookies, too! 🙂
I love what you write about how we never got to see our grandparents as parents. It is easy to imagine that they had it all together and were as calm and unruffled then as they are now as grandparents, which of course is far from true! But they are a testament to the fact that we too will make it through the icky parenting moments and will one day have the life perspective that we lack now. Thank you for showing us what a gift that is.
Oh I love this post soooooooo much! We are where we are because of the women (and men!) who came before us. Even when they leave us, their life and lessons continue to impact who we are and where we’re headed.
You’ve inspired to me to “interview” my grandmothers and write a blog post about it. Stay tuned 🙂
Absolutely – all the men are there, too!
And I can’t WAIT for your interview piece. What I wouldn’t give to be able to do the same! Two of my grandparents did write something like their memoirs, and I know I will treasure their words as I continue to wonder about their wisdom.
I loved this. My maternal grandmother died when my own Mom was 8, so in some ways the only stories I have of her were when she was a mother to her brood of 5. She was refined, gentle, firm, devout, organized yet simple in her ways. I think about her all the time, this woman I never met. My paternal grandmother raised 6 kids while working full time as a school teacher and still amazes me in her grace and wisdom every time we meet.
Beautiful words and thoughts, thank you!
Thank you, Lydia. It’s fascinating how we come to know some relatives only through stories, yet they can still become so real to us. I really believe we hold the memory of our ancestors deep within us somehow.
My mother passed away when I was 19, and now that I am a mother, I love her in an entirely different way than I did before. I always loved her–but now I love and miss her even more.
You are right that our mothers (and grandmothers) are “in our bones.” I recently wrote something about that idea (thought I didn’t say it as beautifully as you do) on my blog: http://fyionrachandry.blogspot.com/2012/06/lessons-from-my-mother.html
No, you wrote about your mother with absolute beauty and grace. What a tribute to her, and what a keen sense of mothering each child she had – giving you the gift of late-night chats because she knew that was how to reach your heart. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.