When I turn and look back, I see a line of strong women standing on both sides of my family. My mother raised eight children, starting from next to nothing, in a deficit situation truth be told. During my early years, she worked for a dollar an hour at Famous ‘n’ Barr. She walked to and from the shopping center. The children would stand on the porch at nine-thirty each night, waiting to hear her whistle. The notes came to us long before we could see her. On Friday nights, she brought vanilla ice milk and Gold Brick topping. She would spoon the thick chocolate into our bowls and we would watch it harden then crack the surface with our spoons. We sat on the living floor and watched Twilight Zone while my mother dozed beside us.
My mother’s mother spent several years as a regional manager for Montgomery Ward, and then opened Sonotone House of Hearing with her husband, my grandfather. I remember her as blonde, stocky and composed, with rounded Austrian features and a deep-throated laugh. She took my hand and walked me down the street in Springfield, Illinois, to Strong’s where we ate stewed chicken and blueberry muffins with warm butter. Nana sat in the office working on accounts while we read books borrowed from the store room, which she and Grandpa loaned to the bookstore in the adjacent shop. She pretended that she did not notice when I slipped through the back door to wander among the stacks of boxes in which I found gateways to the world. At night, she sat on the back patio with a cold drink or a cup of coffee. She listened as I prattled but kept her own quiet confidence, gazing out across the corn field as the night wind whistled.
My father’s mother grew old before I knew her, but nonetheless she summoned my mother and one or two children to her apartment each Saturday. Her maid served individual boxes of cereal to each child, set in a bowl, on a plate, beside a small pitcher of cold whole milk. Grandma Corley sat at the head of the table, casting her eyes about, moving her strong jaw to make grown-up conversation in clipped precise tones. A few years later, she moved to a nursing home, reduced to one room with an easy chair, a desk, and a bed. Her curios surrounded her. When we visited, she held court dressed in her nightgown with Daniel Greene slippers on her delicate feet. We children spoke in hushed voices and hovered in the background, in awe of her regal presence.
I do not know if I am a credit to these women. But I am of their line. They showed me how to be a lady, a woman, a mother, a wife, and a widow. This evening, in need of a covering garment, I gingerly lifted my grandmother’s pink flowered house coat from the hook on the bathroom door and eased it over my shoulders. I did not fill its contours. I had not realized how much smaller than my grandmother I have become. As I snapped it down the front, I ran my hand over the soft cotton and thought, My grandmother wore this robe. I closed my eyes and saw her face; and my mother’s face; and my Nana’s face. My heart rose; and my soul soared. I am my mother’s daughter. I am my Grandmother’s granddaughter. And I am Nana’s granddaughter too.
These women inspire me. I pray that there is something of them in me.