I adored my grandmother, and she adored me. In my youngest years, she was as much a mother to me as my mom, who needed to return to a full-time job once I started school. Grandma Bessie lived with us; she’d moved in after Grandpa passed away. We formed a bond from the very beginning. The story goes, one night at the age of two, I crawled out of my crib and into Grandma’s bed. We were roommates from that day on for the next eight years – until her stroke which, within several months, took her from my life.
Not only were we roomies, but she was my emotional lifeline. Sad Gina? Angry Gina? Disappointed Gina? I knew exactly who would help me feel better. It’s not that Mom and Dad were neglectful, but there were five older sisters and a brother to take up their time and emotional resources. And my siblings were 12 – 21 years older than me, so the household into which I was born was decidedly no longer child-centric.
Easter morning in front of the azaleas, ready for church with Grandma Bessie.
Thank goodness for Grandma who took the time for me and my childhood neediness while the rest of the household swirled with the activity and drama of young adulthood. I can honestly say that Grandma was my first friend; attentive, nurturing, patient and good-hearted. She comforted me when I was scared to go off to kindergarten and she delighted in hearing me sing the songs I’d learned there when I got home. She taught me to pray before bed, coaxed me to eat the crust of my breakfast toast and played with me when everyone else was otherwise occupied. We watched her “stories” and afternoon game shows together; and the westerns she was so fond of in the evenings.
By the time I came along, Grandma was 72 but it never occurred to me that she was old. She looked like an older lady (white hair, dentures that she rarely wore and raised veins in the backs of her hands that I innocently – and adorably – referred to as her “worms”). She dressed like an older lady (housedress, support hose, a hair net and sensible shoes). She acted like an an older lady (moving slowly, not engaging in physical activities and having a standing house call from Dr Eiseman every Tuesday morning). But nope, little Gina never considered her to be old. I now realize that by the time I’d come to know her, she was living life as a “senior lady.” Looking back, I now see how she was regarded, even by her family. She was all that she’d ever be; a cherished piece of the past. No one begged her opinion on current events, no one asked if she had more to contribute beyond baking amazing bread and cleaning the house every Friday. By all accounts, it seemed she was fulfilling her destiny, becoming more dear to us, yet less relevant to the world at large. And that fate was fine with her, and with us.
But here’s the thing… As much as I idolize her, I know to my core that I’m destined to go farther than Grandma Bessie did in her life. As the first woman of mature years I knew, Grandma Bessie is my mind’s archetype of a woman in her seventies. Intelligent, warm and capable, yet with her fruitful years behind her, fading into the cabbage roses on the wallpaper of life. My mature years are going to be full of personal growth, self fulfillment and brave, energetic steps toward finding deeper meaning in my life. I will not go gentle into that good night because my light is far from finished shining. There’s a lot more that I want to do. The way I see it, there’s no time like the present to get to it.
On the brink of 57 years old, I often consider how alarmingly close to my seventies I am myself. Looking forward into the next couple decades of my life, I’m terrified of the prospect of slowly, silently slipping into irrelevance with nothing more to offer.
Grandma Bessie as I remember her
I believe Grandma reached the limits of what a woman could be in her era – all to which she could aspire and was allowed. It seemed Grandma accepted her elder status with grace (or perhaps she had little choice to do otherwise…) but I do not accept the inevitability of that reality for myself – because I DO have choices!
So what do I believe I have to offer myself and the world? In recent years, I’ve reached a significant juncture in my life where I acknowledge my wisdom and revel in my maturity. I’ve achieved an awareness I wasn’t expecting; it’s empowering and delightfully surprising! I don’t think I could know it until I knew it. One day, out of the blue, I realized it with every fiber of my being: There is something more that I have to be and contribute. The myriad of experiences throughout my life have led me to this revelation.
I will NOT sit back and let my accumulated knowledge and wisdom remain untapped. Likewise, I will not squish the big, meaningful life I want to live into a small box with narrow parameters and shallow depth. Although I don’t know what that will look like in action, I know that the next section of my life needs to fulfill an inner longing I have to serve myself – and thereby the world. And I know I’m not alone. Women of maturity today are nowhere near the end of our usefulness to ourselves, our families, our communities and the world. For many of us, this time in life marks a time to refocus our energies and discover our “next,” transforming into the reality of today’s female maturity.
Grandmothers then, grandmothers now.
The photo to the right says it all. The same age does not mean the same degree of vitality (or lack thereof). We are so much more evolved as mature women of the 21st century! All those years of feminism and increased opportunities are finally yielding us a world where we have many role models of female empowerment and accomplishment. While the playing field still isn’t close to level regarding men in relation to women, I’m of the opinion that, rather than bemoan that which we don’t yet have, that we celebrate the opportunities we do have, which will in turn open more and more of those previously closed doors. We women are world leaders, scientists, business executives, artists, activists, warriors… We are now highly engaged in government, education, leadership, finance and in positions of authority and influence. We’re on a path bathed in sunlight and possibility, rather than shrouded in darkness and constructed of brick walls. And that’s where we differ dramatically from my Grandma Bessie and her contemporaries… there is a path, there is precedent, there is possibility to continue to be valuable, valid, powerful and influential, even after some arbitrary age is achieved. We don’t have to be “done” until we choose to be done (if ever).
The thing I love most about women’s empowerment is that we didn’t need to turn ourselves into men to attain it. We embraced our whole selves, which includes our perspective, empathy, so-called “soft skills,” diplomatic nature, nurturing proclivities… all of it. That’s what we bring to the party, in all our complex, multi-dimensionality. Intelligence, drive, raw instinct being equal between the sexes, these feminine attributes have proven to be our strengths, not our shortcomings (as some men would have us think). Traditionally female characteristics give us a unique way of moving through and operating in the world. Now that ours’ is accepted as an equally valid way, women can step up, use our empowered voices and make the world a place that uplifts all people – that’s our strength. That’s our power as women.
Grandma Bessie helped lay a strong foundation for the woman I’ve become by nurturing my emotional life and demonstrating the the importance of love, inclusion and patience (as well as eating all the toast). I’m fortunate that I have the opportunity to live this next stage of adulthood with more choices and empowerment than she had in her time. I can remain vital, engaged and powerful as I mature. Not only am I not nearing an end of relevance; I’m entering an age of new-found relevance. I believe that as a woman who chooses to embrace my maturity, rather than settle into invisibility, I can make a profound impact in my life – and upon the world.
Grandma Bessie poured her heart and soul into me. I hope the life I lead would make her proud.