What Can a Modern Feminist Learn from Her Grandmother?

She had seven kids. I might have none.

Family and grandmother adjusting the back of a bride's dress

The summer before my senior year of college, I stood in the back of the living room of the cabin my family had rented for a week in Whistler, British Columbia, and listened to my uncle make a speech about my then-eighty-five-year-old grandmother.

My Grandmother And Her Family

I was twenty-one, fresh off a semester abroad in Ireland, not yet done annoying everyone by talking endlessly about how it was the best experience of my life. (My large, Irish-Catholic family was being admirably patient with me.) I was just starting to feel like an adult, like I knew where I wanted my life to go.

As I listened to my uncle praise my grandmother for her dedication to her husband over forty-five years of marriage, her selflessness as a mother to seven children, her endless love for her eleven grandchildren, I turned with a frown to my own mother, who was standing beside me.

“That’s it?” I whispered. “She gets remembered for being a wife and a mother?”

My mother, who holds a doctorate in education and has dedicated thirty years of her life to serving others’ families and children, said, “It’s been the most important job I’ve ever done.” Bright-eyed, twenty-one year-old me didn’t have anything to say in response to that. And yet, every time I think about my grandmother’s life, or about the question of motherhood (both of which have been on my mind a lot lately), this scene, in the wood-beam cabin in Canada, comes back to me.

Filling Her House With People

My grandmother declined slowly and passed away just about a year ago. A few months before she passed, almost all of those twenty people who gathered at Whistler to celebrate her eighty-fifth year—children, spouses, grandchildren—gathered again, this time in the living room of her home. It was the last time, for her.

Her death was bittersweet. She is still, a year on, sorely missed. But she died, at ninety-two, almost exactly as she had been throughout her life. It’s not something everyone gets. She was still cracking jokes, doling out advice (asked for or not), eating good food, and overflowing with love for us all, up to the last. Her house, all throughout her final illness, had been full of people—family and friends. She always said the best part of having a house is filling it with people.

This, I think, is why that speech from my uncle, seven years ago, has always stuck with me. As a wife and mother, my grandmother was exceptional. But that was not all she was.

All The Other Things My Grandmother Was

When I think about her life, I think first about what she did on her own. Growing up during the Depression, she started volunteering with the homeless as a teenager. She graduated with honors from high school and college, and went on to earn her master’s degree and teach nutrition science at the university level. When she stayed home to raise her children, she continued to dedicate herself to the broader community around her. She formed groups for professors’ wives to be more involved in the university, created academic study groups, continued her charitable work, and traveled the country and world. After retirement, she kept going: she sponsored refugees, extended her travel around the globe, helped found a transitional housing program for the homeless, read voraciously, and sponsored and organized a community learning lecture series.

I see a lot of discussion in celebration of female historical figures that notes how rare and phenomenal it was for women to defy the odds of their time. To be more than a wife and a mother. This is an important celebration and cannot be emphasized enough. Yet, what strikes me about my grandmother is that she has never discussed what she did in her life in the context of her gender. Everything she did in her life has been something she chose to do—and that includes her marriage and children just as much as it includes her political activism. Simply because it was something she believed in. She decided she wanted to do something, and she did it. At the end of her life, no one can say she left anything undone.

What Do I Want To Do?

I’m pretty sure that by that summer in Whistler, I’d already decided I never wanted to be pregnant. Having struggled with hormones, medication, and anxiety, being pregnant has always sounded like a great way to send me over the edge, emotionally and mentally. Children, I passively assumed, I’d have; I’d just adopt, someday. Three of my cousins are adopted, and they all seem to be doing fine. All of this, though, was very far away in that cabin living room.

Six years ago, I started teaching high school. Five years ago, I met my future husband. A year and a half ago, we got married. It’s a lot more immediate, now.

I am not the first millennial woman to write angstily about the choice to have children, or not. At twenty-eight and a public school teacher, I am constantly surrounded by pregnant women near my age. For going on five years, every time I tell a class I have an announcement, some kid in the back calls out, “You’re pregnant!”

But here’s the thing: the more I’m surrounded by all this, the less certain I am that I want it. Not wanting pregnancy is morphing into maybe not wanting children, not now, maybe not ever. There’s so much I want to do with my life: travel, write, dedicate myself to teaching, make a quilt, bake cookies on a Thursday night because I feel like it, pick up the violin again, start volunteering at a women’s shelter, teach myself how to code. And I know, my grandmother did everything in her life with seven kids.

But more importantly is that, again, my grandmother chose what she wanted to do with her life. If she ever felt that motherhood had been a tradeoff in her life, not once did she show it. Not in one of the things she did.

Make No Excuses, Just Love

In my greatest moments of doubt, I replay that scene in the cabin, hear my uncle’s speech, and my own mother’s response. I wonder what I will be remembered for when I approach the end of my life. I wonder if it will be my children in the room, remembering me. I wonder if there will be anyone around at all, to surround me with love, even if their memory of me is not what I would choose it to be. And then I think, is that enough? And then I also think, why isn’t that enough?

Grief, as I’m sure has been said more accurately and eloquently by other people actually qualified to say so, is mostly about one’s own self. Your regrets, your insecurities, your loss. As my grandmother passed, I saw it, and still see it, in my family and feel it myself. Her death puts all our own lives into sharp relief: Will we be granted the passing she has? With a life well lived, surrounded by love?

Wife, mother, teacher, advocate, friend—my grandmother excelled at every role she took on in her life. All the people—the hundreds of them—whom my grandmother has touched, remember her in their own way, and that’s their prerogative, as each of us processes her loss in our own way.

As for me, she has been and will be my inspiration: to do what I want, to make no excuses, and to greet all the world with love.

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