Sunday, May 15, 2016

Grandmothers' Secret Lives (Moms part 3 of 4)

When I say "grandma," what comes to mind?

Extra-emphatic smile lines and grey hair?  The world's best babysitter, baking cookies, knitting booties, tending colic?  "You drive like a grandma," implying excessive caution, or perhaps the terror of failing eyesight and reflexes?
A few people will have specific memories of meddling mentors, mother surrogates, or creative elders sweeping in like a fairy godmother.

I do have vivid memories of knitting and sewing projects with both my grandmothers, both for fun, and for events like weddings and school plays.

I also have is something that many people my age didn't.  Our hallway wall sported portraits of my grandmother Mary in a lab coat, my great-grandmother with a superb horse.  Grandma Enid's name once listed at #6 on the top-ten list for welding yardage in her Swan Island ship-yard.

Seeing those examples before I was old enough to read meant that I grew up without certain mental barriers, with a wider field to imagine my own future.

There was no sense that women couldn't, or shouldn't, or weren't capable, of ANYTHING.  The unspoken assumptions that stopped many friends from considering a career in the sciences, or the trades, didn't seem to affect me in the same way.

The lab coat didn't stop GrandMary from being elegant when she wanted to be, either.
This image first appeared on my brother's blog,
in his 2016 post entitled "Lady Science."
https://rwillritter.wordpress.com/
The other thing I remember about that hallway is that while Grandmary looks attentively elegant in her pearls, the expression is almost bored compared with the lab picture.  In her lab coat, she is not looking at the camera - she is handling some test tubes in a rack, and smiling to herself.

The intrinsic pleasure of challenging work, done well, seems like a critical value to absorb in childhood (or as soon as possible thereafter).

I don't have a photo of Grandma Enid in her welding gear, but I have vivid mental pictures from her stories.  Stunts like driving off a feckless teen admirer by shocking him with her welding stinger, if possible while he was standing in a puddle; racing across the logs in the parking lot for the carpool home; swapping jobs with some of the bigger welders and squeezing into interior spaces that were more accessible to her small frame, until the supervisors insisted that everyone do their fair share of all types of assignments. 

Her talent for writing great stories made all her other careers come alive: being a 19-year-old high-production welder. A gifted seamstress whose family managed to publish her wedding banns on 2 weeks' notice, compelling her to come up with a wedding dress in the middle of what she thought was a normal 2-week visit home.  Being a student of home architecture and a resourceful homemaker (she had to be, raising 4 children in 27 different homes while Grandpa's career on hydropower plants took them all over the Western USA).
She even wrote evocatively about the embarrassment of being a rural cousin bathing in a bucket during the Dust Bowl (it wiped out their indoor plumbing when the well filled with mud), and about the hallmarks of widowhood.

Through all the stories, there run threads of humor, resilience, and the pluck to make the best of any situation.  It was my privilege to spend a couple of Grandma Enid's final years in close contact, as a part-time caregiver, and she is one of the most intimate ancestors in my personal pantheon.


Mycology, welding, and throwing convention to the winds.  My great-grandmother Nan was known for bypassing the hounds on a fox-hunt, and for starting a successful business after the family fortunes tanked in 1929.  My great-great-grandmother accompanied her missionary husband to the Dakotas, figured out how to pluck chickens in kid opera gloves, and walked through a blizzard to give birth to her first child.

My lady ancestors always set their own definition for "ladylike."

My forefathers had their own creative quirks, but that's a story for another time.