My mom and I sat curled in the hospital bed, staring down at my oldest child, Wyatt, born just moments before. “I never really knew how to be a mom,” she said, as she gazed at Wyatt’s face, “but a grandmother, this I know how to do.”
What she said made my breath catch in my throat—she was and is a mom extraordinary—this was one of those moments in time that forever shifts our understandings. While I knew that Mom’s own mother had died when Mom was a baby, that was the moment that, like the sun falling just right onto the keyhole into a secret garden, and you look through, just a glimpse, but enough to realize the world beyond, thorns and flowers, the tangled vines, the petals and birds, the secret garden of my mom’s heart to grow up without a mother. My world shifted irrevocably that day—I became a mother and I also leapt that chasm between childhood and adult daughter. And Mom, whose mothering came from her grandmothers during visits, at last entered the relationship she knew how to do – be a grammie.
Mom’s two grandmothers were as different as night and day. Grammie Lucille was all that was soft and gentle. She taught Mom to always set the table beautifully. When the Depression hit and her husband lost his job, Grammie created a hair salon in their front porch and got them through the Depression. The house still stands in Spearfish, South Dakota. Others in the town may call
it the Dakota Quilt Company, in our family, the house will always be Grammie and Grampy’s house, where I played with my cousin, Janet, named after our grandmother, in the narrow water canal that ran alongside the house. We played amidst the hundreds of flowers that bloomed each spring, bulbs sown by our great-grandmother over decades. The windows in Grammie’s house sparkled, fresh posies of flowers graced the table, and the wood of her shelves gleamed. Grammie honored her family and her life by creating beauty in her and her family’s surroundings.
Grammie Lucille’s daughter, Janet, married a cowboy off the plains who took her to a ranch on the prairie, where she met Mom’s paternal grandmother, Grace. The ranch held none of the softness of the Black Hills, whose trees and mountains provided shelter from the howling winds that ripped across the prairie. For all of Grammie Lucille’s gentility, Grandma Grace was strength, hard work, and determination. Pretty tables didn’t matter so much on the ranch, as whether the food was ready to feed hungry cowboys. “By the time I was 10, I was considered good help to Grandma Grace. We worked from early morning, until after the dishes were cleaned, and put away at night,” Mom said. While Uncle Jim and the ranch foreman, Paul, slept upstairs, Mom shared Grandma Grace’s bed in her room.
Her grandmothers gave Mom the best of themselves. From these two extraordinary and ordinary women, Mom learned gentility with strength, an appreciation of beauty with determination, what it is to create a home for one’s family. Mom experienced the lifeline in the fierce love of a grandmother.
This fierce love of grandmothers transforms our world. Seeing our world in such desperate shape and recognizing their unique power, grandmothers from around the globe rise to heal, counsel, and protect. In 2004, The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers from around the world, from Alaska, North, South, and Central America; Africa; and Asia, gathered to create and sign an alliance “to join with all those who honor Creator, and to all who work and pray for our children, for world peace, and for the healing of our Mother Earth.” Their mission states, “We represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come … We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.”
A few years ago, the Tewa Women United hosted the International Gathering of Grandmothers in Pojoaque Pueblo, New Mexico. Grandmothers from Tibet, China, South Africa, and around the world brought earth from their homelands. In a symbol of peace, understanding, and healing, the grandmothers mixed the earth from the different homelands together, and then mixed this earth with water and formed balls of earth. Some of these included turquoise for healing. As they mixed the earth and water, the grandmothers infused these earth balls with the hopes, intentions, and the tears of all.
From Indigenous grandmothers to the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, the transformational power of grandmother energy. Sugata Mitra, educational researcher, whose earned his Ph.D in Physics and whose early work focused on the structure of organic molecules has focused his latest work around Hole in the Wall Education. Dr. Mitra noticed that the “gifted” children seemed to be those of upper-middle-class education parents. Pondering this, he took computers to the slums in India and installed them in ‘holes in the wall.’ With access to the internet and motivated by curiosity, these children were soon explaining molecular physics to one another. Further research revealed that among other variables, “Encouragement” was a primary determinant for Mitra’s ‘school in the cloud.’ Who better to encourage than a grandmother? Dr. Mitra returned to his home in England and put an add in the paper for “British grandmothers with broad band and a camera interested in donating one hour a week to help children around the world.” Two hundred responses arrived within the first two weeks. From villages all over England, grandmothers Skype with children 6,000 miles away in the poorest areas of India, encouraging them as they learn. “We call them the Granny cloud,” Mitra said. “If there is a child in trouble, we beam a Gran.” And the children thrive.
To be a grandmother is a way of being, a way of moving through the world. One need not have biological grandchildren to grandmother the world and the world’s children. Some of the most loving, connected, soul-filled grandmothers I know are not related by blood, but those steel strands threading out from the heart to the world. The world desperately needs grandmothers. I have to believe, based not on any scientific study, but rather on every experience with every grandmother I’ve met, that
grandmothers will not readily send their and others’ grandchildren into war and allow children to go hungry. The body that creates new life and the spirit who nourishes its soul through the years, I believe, will do nearly anything to promote peace, care for one another, and love. Maya Angelou writes, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”
This piece joins other writers gathered around an honoring of Grandmothers. As I wrote this morning by candlelight, I thought of all the other writers, around the US and the world, focusing grandmothers and the energy created. Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” Let us celebrate grandmothers, celebrate their fierce love, their beauty, their determination—their presence cradles the world.
I give thanks to my own great-grandmothers, Lucille and Grace, for cradling my mom into adulthood, for their ways of beauty, determination, strength, and fierce love passed to her that she now passes to her own grandchildren, and the world. Lifelines. And, so it goes…
To read more pieces honoring grandmothers, click here.
(A heartfelt thank you to Frances Salles for inviting me to join this writers’ celebration of grandmothers, to Tara Mohr for this inspired idea and hosting, and to Erwin Rivera, for sharing sacred understandings and his experiences with the International Gathering of Grandmothers in Pojoaque.)
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