Saturday, March 10, 2012

Queen Bee

[I started writing this post on International Women's Day, but a) I'm slow and b) I'm note a huge fan of selecting a calendar date on which to "celebrate" a huge swath of the population.  Anyway. Shout out to all my ladies.]

It's easy to lose track of the idea that the people who've always been your seniors were once young, or, even if you know the basic facts, to really imagine who they were. The pictures are so abstract compared to the complexity of a real person.  Family stories fill in some blanks, but those too, get fairly static after a  few listens and stop feeling connected to their subject.

My grandmother is a great example.

In family photos, she's child number 8 in a Von-Trapp-style line up. She's grinning and maybe a little mischievous. You can pair it with the stories of cramming her feet into her sisters' hand me down shoes or listening to her mother playing little tunes that she taught herself on the piano to cobble together the picture of a wholesome childhood light on material wealth but rich in resourcefulness and small pleasures.

We've got pictures of her on the basketball court later, refereeing women's basketball games, a young woman in charge.  We can put it next to the story of winning the Bausch and Lomb Science Award, an important moment for her, and here's a picture of a girl with talent and ambition.

I know these pictures and stories, and plenty of others like a favorite book I've read a million times, but what I love best are the strange asides that come out from time to time:  that her older twin sisters gave her her name, Rosalie, and that she didn't really like it. Some game they used to play with their dolls.  The little stories that go nowhere: the way she and her friends used to horse around walking home from school, the hilarious nicknames that everyone in that generation apparently had. Hers was Diddy.  A family favorite is Flubby (or Fluvvy...we're never sure) Cowan.  I think I'm not making my point very clear, but it's essentially this:  the illustrated book we use to describe our lives often only hints at our real experience, and not a day goes by that I don't find myself trying to imagine what happens on the pages of I can't see.

In my grandmother's case, there's one photo, a senior high school portrait inscribed to her future husband, that says volumes more that any anecdote.  The inscription reads, "Too bad you're an English teacher. Diddy"

Nana, you sassy thing! How bold and flirtatious! What a clever, demure and simultaneously forward way to go after what you wanted!  This is the girl I want to know, whose brain I want to get inside.

Of course to a certain extent, I do.  That girl married the English teacher and when he passed away young, raised five children to be kind, funny, loving people.  She raised them to be like her: resourceful, gracious, ambitious but easygoing, curious, open-minded, and tough-as-nails as the situation required.  And while I think she'd balk at being called a feminist for dubious semantic reasons, I can't think of a better role model.

And when I think of it that way, it occurs to me that I probably have a pretty good idea what she was like as a young woman because I grew up with her daughter and think to myself nearly every day what a lucky break was.  She was a single mother who rolled with the punches, figured out how to make things work, and still managed to be sweet and silly and wonderful.  She's still sweet and silly and wonderful and as I get older, I realize how difficult and rare it is to hold onto those qualities with the kind of responsibility she had.  And I know my grandmother as a young woman because I know my aunt, my mother's sister and another really special mom.

And I know my grandmother as a young woman because of all the children her five kids had, six of us are girls.  Some of us excelled at sports and some of us are musical and most of us inherited a quick, dry wit. Some are mothers to little girls and early indicators suggest that we're right on track for another generation of awesome women. All in all, it's a pretty amazing group of hilarious, bold, pretty, talented gals.  And we may not represent exactly who my grandmother was when she was young, but we are a testament to our matriarchal roots where the "Queen Bee" runs the show.

So I'll keep listening to Nana, hoping to catch additional glimpses of what makes her tick, but ultimately the evidence is all around me in a family that forms like a feminine Voltron.  I love you ladies!