“You,” my Mom looks at me with a blend of certainty and empathy in her face, “are so much like me.”
“Moooom,” I whine as I roll my eyes, “I knooooow.”
I couldn’t possibly have kept track of how many times I’ve heard my Mom tell me this in my 30+ years. Typically, it wasn’t a welcomed comment on my end, probably because my Mom usually tells me about our similarities when I’m being stubborn; in the depths of my stubbornness is not the time for me to ponder generational resemblances, Mom.
As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve come to receive my Mom’s comment about our similarities with great honor. Instead of saying a dramatic, “I knooow”, it comes out tender, grateful, and with a smile: “I know!”
It turns out that I’m a lot like my Grandma Lily, too. My Mom passed Grandma’s stubbornness, sarcasm, and work ethic down to me like a hot potato. (We’re a feisty crew—just ask the good men who live with us and love us still!)
Grandma worked several jobs to help support her and my Grandpa’s two kids. When he died at a young age, my Grandma didn’t get small—she bloomed. She grieved, of course, and continued to keep his spirit alive through stories, but she also grew active in her community, in her work, and in her family.
While I was in college, I witnessed my Grandma lay her youngest child to rest. She had cared for him throughout his battle with Multiple Sclerosis; when my Uncle could not fight any longer, she and my Mom were at his side as he passed away—again, far too young. I vividly remember Grandma’s presence at his funeral; she cried, she laughed, and when it started raining at the burial, she put her face to the sky with closed eyes and whispered through a small smile, “He loved feeling the rain splash on his skin.”
I can’t imagine the level of loss Grandma endured in her lifetime; how do people “do” the far-too-soon passing of their husband and child? She did it, not merely surviving their deaths, but managing to remain so very alive, even after such incomprehensible loss. Her strength looked raw, painful, difficult, and powerful.
It is a strength that reminds me of someone else I know—my Mom.
When Grandma died in the winter of 2012, my Mom became the only living member left of her immediate family. In the same Missouri funeral home, she has picked out the coffin for her brother and parents. Where does the strength come from to walk through something so deeply grievous—and then, to keep living? I don’t know that there’s a formula for it, but I believe there’s something to be said about those fierce traits modeled and passed down to the next generation.
Maybe that stubbornness handed down from one woman in my family to the next isn’t just a demand to be difficult—it’s the demand to survive. It’s grit, will, and pain, swirling together to create an inspired blend akin to “WE CAN DO IT,” even if the darkness of death keeps showing up and trying to knock us over.
What I’ve learned from these two strong women is that, when faced with gut-wrenching loss, we have a choice. We can let ourselves die with the person, dream, or idea that was taken from us—always much too soon—or we can let death lead us to pursue a fuller life.
When grief barges in and parades all over my life with a force and volume that feels intrusive, cruel, and paralyzing, it’s easy for me to consider hiding. I want to pull the covers over my head and say a hearty “NOPE” to all responsibilities, dreams, and people that try to pursue me. Grief is too heavy, life is too hard, and I don’t feel quite as rosy as Rosie the Riveter.
But these women that I’m so much like—they’ve shown me a different way. They’ve shown me that when tragedy strikes and grief invades, yeses are still possible and, they would argue, necessary. We can still love the people around us, pursue new opportunities, write new books, and laugh until the tears roll down our cheeks. Grieving exercises muscles we don’t want to remember we have, but guess what happens when you exercise: You get stronger.
We are standing on the shoulders of strong women who have come before us. When we vote, enlist in the military, or enter the workforce, we are standing on the shoulders of spirited women who have fought to help move us there. My Mom has the wisdom and strength to endure so much loss because she witnessed her Mom choose life, even after the deaths of her loved ones. Mom is standing on the shoulders of, among many, my Grandma, who worked hard to model for her daughter that loss will hurt us and it will change us, but it does not have to keep us from living. Now I’m on my Mom’s shoulders, wondering what is in store for me that will lead me to utilize the strength I’ve seen in her.
Already, it’s happening. Through heartbreak and funerals, transition and wandering, I have faced grief and I have stubbornly fought to choose more life, thanks to these women. We pass down all sorts of things through the generations—wild stubbornness, high cholesterol, and strength of character so fierce we have to pause to marvel at it.
Strong women, pass it on—to your biological-or-not daughters, your friends, your students, or the littles who look up to you whether you know it or not. Let them climb up on the shoulders of your courage, your strong will, and your fierceness. Stand tall with your feet firmly (read: stubbornly) planted—on your shoulders, the young women rising will not wobble, but will be grounded in the path you’ve helped to pave.
I thank God that I’m so much like you, Mom.
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!
Here’s to strong women.
May we know them.
May we be them.
May we raise them.