Monday, May 11, 2020

Strong women

My mom (and, by extension, our entire family) was given a wonderful gift yesterday when she was notified that a distant cousin had uploaded a baby picture of my grandfather to FamilySearch. This cousin had been selected as the person to cart around all the family history and finally decided—because of this quarantine—to start scanning and uploading documents. Among these documents was a baby picture from 1915 (most likely taken by a doting still-unmarried auntie who was so sad to have her little baby nephew carted a thousand miles away, across the border, to grow up in the north (I can say this with confidence because the photograph was found in this particular aunt's collection)).

While I was clicking around on FamilySearch I started reading my great-grandma Ida's autobiography. She talked about the difficult time she had adjusting to life in Alberta (it is cold there, so cold, and the windy):
Oh, what I haven't gone through! It hasn't all been nice! I wasn't the only one—don't think it was just me that had it so hard. There was a lot of these old-timers, a lot that I could name now that's got nice homes, that had it tough. Once in a while, we'd get together, a bunch of us, and one or the other of us would start to say what we had to do and how hard we had it. And then, if I say anything the rest would say, "You didn't have it any harder than I did," and they'd go on. So we'd shut up! Because they didn't, any of them—well, there might have been some that I didn't know—have the conveniences and things that we have now. I know Emma Harris would say how hard she had it and what she had to do. I know I had to melt ice in the winter to do the washing. Oh, yes! You don't know the struggle we had! 

When Dad got his hip broke, I used to pack water from way up the coulee somewheres, for washing. I wouldn't go through it again! Yet I lived! But then everybody, or most people, had it rough for a while there. And if I hadn't have been so proud, or so independent! I'd pack that water...and Whit Harris, for one, got mad. He said, "look, whenever we asked you, when Art was laid up, how you were getting along, you'd say, 'Oh, just fine.' You never breathed you was packing water and doing things that was not necessary. If you'd have let any of us know, we'd have certainly seen to it." See! That was what pride and independence does! I never wanted to say that we didn't have all that we needed when he was laid up so long. That was silly of me! Very, very silly! That was my nature.
I wish she had gone into more specifics of what she found difficult, rather than simply saying that it was difficult. The story about carting water from the coulee was wonderful, but I do wish I knew more about what her struggles were (melting snow...and...what, Ida?!). No matter. The part that struck me here was that she wasn't the only one to go through a hard time. She recognized that others were similarly going through a hard time. Now, at the time she might not have thought that—she mentions that she was prideful and wanted to do everything on her own. She might have felt she had to do it alone because the burden was hers to bear—and, oh, it was a heavy one!

But years down the road (who knows how many) she could see that everyone had had a difficult time. Her experience was not unique. Everyone was having a hard time.

Still, when all was said and done, she said: I don't regret what I went through. And I'm glad it [hard times] is over with!! If somebody asked me to go [through] that again, just the same, maybe I'd do things more sensible.

Perhaps she would have let people help instead of shutting people out with that dratted independent streak. Who knows?

My take away from this is that my experience is not unique. I think believing our experience is unique is a trick of the adversary. Of course there are unique things about our experiences, just as we are individuals. But I am not so special that some clever little thing has been crafted to plague me and me alone. No. I'm just not that special. And what a relief that is—to know that I'm not special enough to be singled out for torture! Rather, my experiences—the good and the bad—are part of mortal life and everyone here is experiencing mortal life—the good and the bad. No one here is special. God is no respecter of persons.

I think we are tricked into believing that our pain is deeper, our life more tragic, our sorrow more genuine than anyone else's. When we believe this trick we start to look inward. We begin believing that "no one can understand me" and that we really do have it harder than anyone else. We alone have the worst sleepers (this one might actually be true of me), we suffer from the most acute form of depression, our knees hurt the very worst just before it rains (is this a thing that happens to people?). We can't allow others in because if they understood (which...they would) we would lose our...specialness. And for some reason that's a really hard thing to let go of. Which is weird because who really wants to win the gold medal in the Your-Life-Sucks contest?

I'm not perfect and sometimes I really covet that gold medal. Like, when Benjamin was in the hospital for "so long" (five weeks) I had some sweet friends reaching out to me, welcoming me to the NICU club (which, is not a fun club, for the record). They led me through that pit of despair and I will be forever grateful to them, my Crystal and Krystal. Both of these women had a difficult NICU stay, probably more difficult than mine.

Okay, definitely more difficult than mine. Krystal's little boy was in there for months and then when he came home he was on oxygen and a feeding tube for probably a year.

She just sweetly acted as a cheerleader for me the whole time even though my experience was not at all on the same level of what she had experienced.

When my sister tried to express her support for me I had a really hard time accepting it. I listened to what she said, which was that she "understood." I remember trying to keep my cool while chatting with her and after I hung up I immediately turned to Crystal and started ranting and crying because how could my sister possibly understand?! Her baby had been in the NICU for observation for a few days. Baby received no oxygen. Baby had no feeding tube. My sister stayed in the hospital and could hold baby whenever she wanted to. She could have baby brought to her room. This was not the same!

And I was livid!

I'm pretty sure Crystal told me to simmer down and just appreciate that my sister was trying to understand. My sister was taking her experience and multiplying it to imagine the rift being torn in my heart, probably thanking her lucky stars her baby hadn't had such complications.

In retrospect, I get this.

Those five weeks were tough, so my hat is off to Krystal whose little guy did something like five months in the NICU (no exaggeration). My experience pales in comparison to hers. But I can still empathize with her a little, just as I can empathize better (now) with moms whose babies wind up in the NICU for only a few days. It might not reach the level of my gold-medal NICU experience (who am I kidding? My experience was bronze at best), but it's still scary (and the first few days are probably the roughest, anyway).

In one way, our experiences were all unique: Crystal's husband was in medical school working insane hours so she was left to do all the momming on her own of the kids at home and the baby in the hospital. Krystal's baby had to be flown into a fancy NICU in Salt Lake so she had to drive a long way to visit him and he had come ever so much earlier than he should have. My sister was a single mom with three young kids—and now twins!

But our experiences were also similar: we were tired, we were scared, we were doing our best.

In that way—perhaps the most important way—it was a shared experience and shared experiences are what draw us together as people.

(Side note: I have a friend whose baby was in the NICU when the state shut down. She had been going to the hospital to see him every day (leaving her other two kids (one with special needs) at home, but then she was suddenly not allowed to anymore. And...that just sounds so hard. I don't relate to everything about her story (how can I?) but I know that it's hard.)

All that was a really long way to say, I think, that humans like to feel sorry for ourselves (rather than reaching out to connect with others). So for Mother's Day I thought about all the mothers who have come before me and how their lives have not been easy, but how much they must love me even though my life is probably comparatively rather easy. I don't have to melt snow or fetch water from the coulee, for example. But also, their collective experience covers just about any sort of trial known to man.

Great-grandma May raised eleven of twelve children to adulthood. Baby Mary Beth passed away from typhoid just before she turned two. She lost a brother in WWI and then had to watch her son head overseas during WWII.

Instead of getting word that he died in the war (he didn't; he lived), she died of a stroke while he was fighting in France (the day after my grandma's first date (she had asked my grandma to come and tell her about her evening and my grandma had declined saying she was too tired and she regretted that for the rest of her life because the last thing she told her mom was "no"; my grandma told me to always talk to my mom and to always end each conversation with "I love you" because you wouldn't want your last words to be anything else).

My other grandma's father passed away when she was young. He was driving drunk and drove his car into a tree. Her then dragged her halfway across the country (from Florida to Utah) to marry a man my grandma couldn't stand. So my grandma got married just as quick as she could and birthed a passel of boys who gave her quite a lot of grief (but, oh, did she love my grandpa).

My grandpa's mother was struck (by a drunk driver) when she was a young mother and died a few days later. My grandpa and his twin sister were in the car when it happened and were so young and impressionable that the sole memory they ever had of their mother was being in a terrible car accident with her and then having her never wake up. But, my great-grandfather eventually remarried (a sweet young widow—Cleone—with a handful of children of her own) and they raised their children together.

When Andrew's great-grandmother (who his mother knew as Grandma Boulton), was expecting her eighth child (Andrew's grandfather), her husband was kicked in the chest by a horse, developed pneumonia, and died. She married a man by the name of Boulton who...wasn't very nice.

Andrew's great-great-grandmother, Miriam, has a whopper of a tale, escaping Lithuania while fearing for her life (she, in Grandma Pat's words, "had to be smuggled out of the country because a Cossack Soldier tried to rape her and she either killed him, or injured him) and coming to America on a boat.

My own mom put herself through school—BA, MA, MLIS, PhD—all while working full time and raising six kids and not a day goes by that I'm not amazed by her.

Anyway, when I look through anyone's story it's always full of so...human. And I love that. I love that my ancestors went through these hard things and came out the other side (until they didn't...I guess that's part of the human condition as well (we're all so fragile)...but they made it through everything before they died). Clearly I am now rambling. All this is to say that I was so touched by everything that my foremothers had gone through that I decided to make a tribute to them, to help me remember that I'm linked to some very strong women—that their strength runs through my veins—and that however great my trials feel I won't be winning a gold medal any time soon.

Today I'm thankful for the countless women who have influenced me as a mother—those who walked before me and those who walk alongside of me. When I look at the pictures of these great women I see strength. These women have lost children, been widowed, died too young, stepped in to fill the shoes of an angel mother. They've crossed the plains, herded cows, worked the fields. They've been single mothers. They've battled cancer. They've endured abuse. They loved, they laughed, they struggled, they learned, and they passed their wisdom on. I am so grateful to them and all they've taught me.
This was the first poster (I'm calling them posters, apparently) I made, with appreciation for my mom in mind. But also for her family line. For my grandma, who had to finish growing up without a mother, but who was such a wonderful mother and grandmother; for my aunts who I admire so much; for my sisters who I love dearly. But I couldn't stop there. There are so many women in my life. 

I miss Karen so much. I know her own daughters miss her more deeply than I can fathom, and that's saying something because I miss her so much. I don't know how to help them know they're absolutely not alone and that there is a healthy, sustainable way through this grief.
 And then I just wanted a poster with my great-great-grandmothers on it. So I made one.
And then I wanted one for me that reached downward to my daughters so that they would know that they have strength and greatness in them as well. Because they do. And my beautiful nieces do. And my wonderful sisters-in-law.
And there are still so many wonderful, wonderful women whose lives have touched mine for good that should be included. I realized I left off my sister's twins (the ones I talked about above); they live with their father and have not had much contact with my sister for the last ten years or so (she misses them terribly, as do we all). I left off my aunts-through-marriage and my dad's sister and Andrew's aunts and all of my cousins and so many influential women in my life (friends and friends' mothers and teachers and church leaders). I could be at this all day!

So even though my children picked a bigger bouquet for the opossum carcass than they picked for me on our evening walk, I feel so very thankful today. Thankful to be a mother, thankful to have a mother, thankful to be surrounded and strengthened by so many other wonderful, wonderful women.

I mean, like, men are good, too. I know a lot of wonderful men as well. And I love all my boys with all my heart.

But let's be real here. We live in a patriarchal society and our family trees and family stories seem to be dominated by what men have accomplished, so today I just want to let the ladies shine because—ladies—you are amazing!

Also, it is Mother's Day.

So, yeah.*

* Zoë has started writing stories and trailing off with "so, yeah" at the end of them and it's darling and she totally picked it up from me...and...that's totally fine with me. 


  1. So yeah. I liked this. A lot.

  2. That's cool, I hope you don't mind if I copy your poster idea.

    1. (PS. I was definitely thinking of the strong women in your family when I was thinking of the myriad other strong women surrounding me. All you girls are amazing and your mom was as angelic in life as she is now. I just love you all!)