When Mother’s Day rolls around each year the men in our family typically make brunch for the women. A yearly tradition (it is not lost on us that they could do this more than once a year!) in which the men handle all aspects of the meal: planning, grocery, cooking, serving and clean up. I look forward to this celebration in which we banter with our male family members, while they pretend to be annoyed that they have to cook and clean.
Mother’s Day is also a reminder that behind each of us is a lineage of strong women, whether a mother, an aunt, a big sister or a family friend, typically older and wiser who seems to know when we need her most. Our women role models often teach us who we would like to be, or in some cases, demonstrate behaviors we might just decide to NOT take on and whether good or bad, they influence who we become. We all have a legacy of women that came before us and touched our lives, mine are on my maternal side: my Mother Mary, Grandmother GG and Great-Grandmother Mitzy.
In the first five years of my life we lived next to my Grandmother GG. Her house was directly behind ours in the hills of southern California. I can state without a doubt that she was my earliest blessing. Between the gentle words of my own mother and the boldness of my grandmother I was blessed with good-hearted women who influenced me in countless ways. In those early years I would run to GG’s small house, burst through the door and retreat into her arms. Some days she would hand me a spoon with a jar of peanut butter or a freshly washed mound of green grapes that were somehow always perfect, better. Her words were kind and full of acceptance and reassurance. She was striking to look at with her jet-black hair, her porcelain face and homemade aprons. She had collected basket’s, blankets and knick-knacks from her years in Alaska and my fascination only grew.
Decades later I traveled to Alaska to see where GG and my mom had lived. Following a close family friend around the tiny seaport town, I saw for the first time the local theater where my mother worked as an usherette (her first job), the apartment where my mother had to be carried up and down the stairs when she contracted Polio and the multiple places GG had worked. In the course of that afternoon, between the tales of earthquakes, school dances, tidal waves that lifted homes from their foundations I also heard how my mother’s stepfather left and never returned. Single, with a daughter, working various odd jobs GG held their lives together trying to “make ends meet”. Whether my grandmother liked her life or not I will never know but she chose to stay in that seemingly wild place. She was extreme for her time and lived an adventurous life, unafraid to step into what was seen as male territory. GG has always remained in my mind as a woman ahead of her time, untethered by what others thought she should do—while living her life to the fullest, riding horses, sailing ships, hunting grizzly bear, flying in early airplanes, raising her daughter alone in Alaska…the tales go on.
I would never know her from an adult perspective as she died when I was 9 years old. To this day I still have an ever so slight remembrance of what it felt like to be near her. She was wise, kind and beautiful—living a life I could only access through my mother’s stories and later a dozen or so photographs she left behind. In these photos you see GG dressed in western attire with her horses, walking along a desert road with a burro and nameless faces, dressed rather boyish—holding a rifle with a bear at her feet. Most of the photos depict her in places I don’t recognize with people I never knew. But these photos serve not only all as moments that meant something to her but have also given me strength throughout the years standing in as proof that the women who came before me were capable, powerful, creative and resilient.
As free spirited as GG was she was keenly aware that her father had raised her like a boy so she made sure that my mother was raised “properly” and more “delicately”. It took me decades to realize that the glamorous photos from my mother’s youth were actually taken indoors in her rough and tumble Alaskan town. When I inquired about this years later I was told by my mother’s best friend “oh honey—your mother was in complete denial of her surroundings!” As a child (and tomboy) I would often climb trees and get dirty playing in the yard. My mother would often look at me in dismay and say that I was just like her mother —which always made me smile. When I look at photos of my mother I see the ways in which she was not like her mother. As a young woman she was interested in fashion, the latest hairstyles, going to the movies, listening to classical music and dreamed of living in the city. The photo of her [above] with her hair in a chignon curled up with a Cosmopolitan magazine (circa 1950) tells the story. I adore the differences between these two women who were mothers before me and I am grateful for the invaluable life lessons they taught me.
At least once every couple of years I revisit these old photos, each time turning them over, forgetting for a moment that I’ve done this countless times before. I check the backs—looking for clues, writing that might indicate a name, date or place. Most of the photos are blank on the back— no answers, no clues. All the photos are kept loose in a box except for a trio of photographs in a thin, distressed frame with yellowing mat board. The framed photos have been in my home for decades now and I’d never thought to remove the backing–until this week. Deciding to scan them in I lifted the remaining tiny nails from the back of the frame and gently nudged out the fragile cardboard behind. What I discovered were names and dates in my Great-grandfathers handwriting on the back of the old photographs—an unexpected treasure that had been hidden for decades. The writing indicated that my grandmother was 6 when the photos were taken—the same year she lost her mother. My great grandfather left information on the back that stated that his wife Mitzy had died at 27 years old—December 21st, 1914. There it was, the answer to why GG disliked Christmas and was raised without female influence.
The photo of GG in full cowgirl attire lives in a frame on a shelf in my office. I love how free she appears, so full of life with a big smile on her beautiful, round face. The stories, like the photographs she left behind lead one to believe that she lived her best life and on her terms.
As a mother I recognize the adventurous and untamed parts in each of my children and I love it—most of the time. I want them to feel the inherent, internal freedom that we are all born with and to have an “Untethered Soul” as writer Michael Singer talks about in his book of the same name. Yes, there are plenty of times when their high energy needs to be brought down a notch—in class, at the dinner table, at bedtime…but this legacy of adventure, fearlessness and internal freedom is their inheritance from the generations of mothers (and fathers) who came before them and I hope they never lose it.
Wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day,