This past week the world celebrated International Women’s Day. News outlets are highlighting the heroic women we all admire for their amazing contributions to gender equality, rights for women and standing up against sexism. It got me thinking about the strong women I’m constantly quoting in my daily life, the ones who are no longer with me, my mother and my grandmother.
I grew up in a small noisy house with three older brothers, no sisters, a dog and my mom and dad. There was a lot of talking. My spry, fancy, fun, barely 5 feet tall, with size 4 feet, grandmother, Clara, who enjoyed her family, a good party, family picnic, card game or just hanging around, was a fixture in my childhood. Clara spent a lot of time at my house, probably more than my father enjoyed. The time I spent with Clara was usually filled with laughing. Clara loved to laugh. She wasn’t the type to harp on advice or meddle or pelt me with questions, like my mother. I used to think it was because she loved to talk so much and sometimes, I admit, I tuned her out.
My mother, a registered nurse, like so many women of her generation, had so many “sayings” she would bestow on us, no doubt, handed down to her from Clara. One in particular my mother offered when I called seeking advice to get my young son to listen was “Keep telling him and eventually it will sink in.” And now, decades later, I hear my mother’s “sayings” coming out of my own mouth repeating them to my own kids. I spent so much time with these women, it’s no wonder I sound like them.
My grandmother didn’t go to college and at a very young age worked in a paper factory. She had the special talent of being able to count the number of papers in a thick phone book just by pulling her thumb against the ends of the pages as they fanned by. I found this fascinating, although she didn’t think it all that fascinating. Her intent showing me this special talent when I was still in elementary school, was to first capture my attention, and then impress upon me that life can be hard, harder without an education. She wanted me to understand the importance of doing well in school. She didn’t want me to have to go to work in a paper factory, special talent aside.
Her young life looked very different from mine. She talked a lot about her sisters and her time working with them when she was young. She grew up in the Great Depression (the first one) and it had an enormous impact on her. I used to remark on how she saved things like paper towels (dried after having been used) and paper bags, newspapers and shoe boxes, among many other things, just in case. You see, “money didn’t grow on trees.” She never ever threw out a carton or tin or can of food until it was scraped clean. She cut coupons. She ate leftovers. She also divorced my grandfather after over 20 years of marriage, which was very uncommon back then among our large Catholic circle of relatives and friends. She was kind of a rebel. And I loved this about her. Her challenges in life seemed to make her even more feisty.
I remember fondly the time I was sent to stay with Clara because I had some childhood illness and my mom was afraid my brothers would get it. Cuddling on the sofa and watching Love Boat, she suggested making some popcorn. Back then you made popcorn on the stove before we all had microwaves. She forgot to put the lid on the pan and came back to see if I needed anything. Then we heard the popping pretty loudly. We ran to the kitchen and popcorn was flying madly in the air and my petite grandmother was blocking the kernels flying out at her with the lid like a gladiator. Neither of us could get the lid on because we were laughing so hard. Clara laughed so hard “she peed her pants.”
Right before I was to leave for college Clara sat me down and said we needed to have a chat about me going away to school. I was expecting some serious earth shattering advice. Clara grabbed my hand and in her in no-nonsense, blunt way said “Cathy, when you’re away at school, never ever wear sweatpants outside your dorm room. You don’t want to look like someone who isn’t put together. You want to be taken seriously. And remember, you can always tell a lot by a person’s shoes.” That was it. I was to leave for college with wardrobe advice.
After my college graduation in 1990 “jobless and in search of,” I was taking my grandmother shopping to the only store that sold her size shoe, Cohoes Manufacturing, a high end discount department store. On the way she seemed to feel I needed some confidence boosting. She told me how proud she was of me graduating college, something she had never been able to do. She told me I had so many gifts and I was ready to use them. And if I ever needed anything, I could come to her. She also asked me what it was I wanted to do for a career. And like most young 20 something year olds, I wasn’t exactly sure. She encouraged me to go out and try, to not be afraid, that sometimes life will “throw you a curve ball”, and you need to be ready to face it and keep going. She Said, “Cathy, you may not know now where you’re headed, but I do. You’re strong and you will do well.”
I don’t think we ever finished that conversation about what it was I was going to “do with the rest of my life” after arriving at Cohoes being distracted in the shoe section by Salvatore Ferragmo, Etinne Aigner and Franco Sarto, a new brand at the time my grandmother didn’t recognize, but was an instant admirer of. “Look, they come in my size!” I wore a 5 and 1/2 size shoe (at the time) and appreciated Franco just as much as she did. Clara fully believed to never pay full price for anything unless it was a very special occasion or a gift for someone else. She did believe, however, in quality shoes, bags and clothes, a trait (good or bad) she handed down to me.
I wasn’t as grateful for those encouraging words she offered me on the car ride as I am now. Part of me expected her to champion me back then, I guess, and I din’t really let them sink in. It wasn’t till much later that my grandmother’s encouraging words came back to me, long after she had passed, at a time in my life when I really needed to hear them. And it was also then that “saying” my mother offered to me many times before came flooding in “Keep telling them, eventually it will sink in.” Clara’s words had finally, decades later, sunk in.
My grandmother, the petite popcorn gladiator, had a strong influence on me. To me, she was fancy, always dressed up, always with matching bag and shoes. Her hair was always “done.” I very rarely saw my grandmother in a state of anything but “put together.” She loved to read and always talked about whatever book she was reading (a lot). She was kind. She was loyal. She showed up. She didn’t cancel. She was interested. She was especially interested in the things I failed at or struggled with or when I was being a tad mischievous. She even laughed (at the dismay of my mother) at some of my naughty escapades. She found perfect people rather boring. And she had no use for those who pretended to be. She was quick to point out when someone or something wasn’t “on the up and up.” She shared her wisdom all along and I didn’t realize then she was giving me resources, and “sayings”, I would use twenty, thirty years later.
My grandmother’s words of wisdom were not about fashion or the importance of good shoes. She wanted me to take college seriously and work hard because life will “throw you curveballs”. She wanted to instill the importance of “dressing for the occasion,” which, in turn, would prompt me to think about the occasion, by way of taking myself seriously looking “put together.” And then others, too, would take me seriously. She wanted me to be mindful. She wanted me to have persistence. She wanted me to resist laziness. She wanted me to be strong.
My mother, Patty, having inherited much from my grandmother, including very small feet, also emulated traits I now find invaluable as a mother, wife, friend and woman in a complex, modern world. Although much more involved in my young life, happy to pelt questions and eavesdrop on my phone conversations, my mother, Clara’s daughter, also left me with tools I didn’t know I would need till much later, after she was gone.
My grandmother passed away soon after my son was born. My mother passed away soon after my daughter was born. I was too young to be without my mother and felt at times anger and regret and grief that she would never know my daughter. My daughter wouldn’t know her. I know now, as my daughter is about turn 15, I’m wrong to think this because I hear my mother, and, in a way, so does my daughter, with my own words and all Patty’s “sayings”.
I am grateful for those two women who showed me over and over what it is to be a strong woman in the face of adversity and challenges with steadfast support and encouragement. Theirs were not grand gestures or dynamic feats effecting women everywhere. Their teachings, through their words of wisdom and personifying what it truly means to be strong, was to benefit me and help guide me into becoming another strong woman.
Neither my grandmother, nor my mother said this, but I know they would love this quote just the same:
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”
Some of my favorite sayings of my mother and grandmother or things I heard them say over and over that have stuck with me:
“God loves you as much as He loves the person in jail.”
“Put some socks on, my feet are freezing.”
“You need lipstick, without it you look dead.”
“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
“Never judge a book by its cover.”
“No news is good news.”
“No one likes a bragger.”
“You have to invite the entire class and leave no one out.”
“You don’t know what anyone else is going through until you have walked in their shoes.”
“I’ll light a candle.”
“You’re only as happy as your most unhappy child.”
“ Let go and let God.”
“Just keep telling them, eventually it will sink in.”