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.