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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  • Moose

    To me, the thing that’s beautiful about this article is that it reminds me that no woman is JUST a wife and a mother and no person can be defined by their vocation. And a full life doesn’t mean one that follows a certain script.

    My maternal grandmother was not allowed to go to college (too expensive and why would a girl need that anyway). Before she died, she confided in me that she would have loved to go to college and become a social worker. But even though she hadn’t been afforded that opportunity and didn’t have a career, she wasn’t JUST. She was accomplished at needlepoint and knitting and less accomplished at, but still loved, playing piano. She was an AMAZING cook and baker. She was the chair of the synagogue Sisterhood and took care of everyone in the synagogue during times of joy or sadness by making her famous kugel (they still use the recipe and it’s still named after her in the Sisterhood cookbook). She was a bridge partner and video poker player. An opera lover. A woman who drank coffee in the morning and ice in her rose at night and was kind to everyone, but would also make snarky jokes to people who she would let stand close enough to hear them.

    She was also a wife and a mother and grandmother and aunt and sister and friend. But she was also more than the sum of her parts. Just like everyone.

    • ruth

      Awww this beautiful description reminds me so much of one of my great aunts who recently passed away, famous for her kugel and her joie de vivre. If you don’t mind sharing – could you share the kugel recipe or a link to buy the Sisterhood cookbook? One of my great regrets is that I never learned my great aunt’s recipes before she passed on

  • Kate

    It sounds like your grandmother led a beautiful life that she loved and embraced wholeheartedly, but I think our generation sometimes forgets that in our grandmothers’ time, you didn’t get too much choice in whether you had kids or not. The Pill wasn’t available until the 60s and even then, it wasn’t available to everyone. Not everyone could access safe abortion or family planning services. Even the sale of condoms was restricted in some areas. Our generation has it better, but many women in the US still don’t have real access to birth control or family planning services.

    • NotMotherTheresa

      In some ways, that’s one of the things that I find most fascinating and admirable about my grandmothers: There were many major aspects of their life that weren’t what they would have picked for themselves, but that they still managed to fashion meaning out of the cards they were dealt. Every time I have one of those “Why am I stuck dealing with this?” days, I think of my grandmother who had three kids by 24, and a husband who she likely wouldn’t have chosen to marry had it not been for an unplanned pregnancy.
      I don’t say that to diminish their struggles–every day, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had that neither of my grandmothers could have dreamed of–but if nothing else, it puts all of my problems in perspective. It also gives me hope. After all, if my poor grandmother could deal with three screaming kids and a husband who once spent his last $5 on beer and cigarettes, surely I can deal with diverting a bit of my vacation fund to fix the broken hot water heater.

  • My grandmother is 91 and the woman who inspires me most. My grandson had 3 kids and including myself 5 grandkids. She also only had an eighth grade education. But she is so well traveled, knows a lot about many things, cares deeply for people, is a phenomenal cook, and worked for years serving lunches in the local public school. More than that she has encouraged me in all my dreams, prayed over me, supported me finacially, and constantly given me solid advice on how to navigate the world. It’s easy to think we’ve gotten more sophisticated, but there is so much we can learn from previous generations.

  • Sarah E

    This is so beautiful. I’m really close with my grandma, who’s in decline at age 94. She, too, had a life much different than mine: raised by a single mom (so taboo that her mom left her dad, she won’t talk about her dad at all), fairly poor, raised four kids who were her pride.

    I like to think I take away from her the commitment to family (even if my family isn’t all blood relation) and her mountains of sass. Seriously, so much sass in that 4’11” woman. I cook and bake and make my home welcoming because of her– yeah, it’s a gendered thing, but it’s also how I honor her lessons to me. Just don’t tell her about the dumplings I had to scrap last night. At least they got composted.

    • ssha

      “I cook and bake and make my home welcoming because of her- yeah, it’s a gendered thing, but it’s how I honor her lessons to me.” Love this- women passing on lessons and traditions.

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