My Hero: Women's Day

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Sat, 03/08/2014 - 17:32

A few days ago I had the pleasure of perusing books at Children's Book World, a West Los Angeles bookstore that is filled and overflowing with amazing selections. There was an entire section devoted to women who had made huge break-throughs in science, art, literature and human rights. It was hard to tear myself away, but I had a lunch date and it was time to go. So I left my purchases to be gift-wrapped (because they still do that) and rushed across the street to meet my friend.

When I went back to pick up my purchases, I thought about what had precipitated the choices. One was a book about women artists, for my granddaughter who has exhibited a real interest and ability in art. One was a book about Rachel Carson, a ground-breaking ecologist (although I doubt she would have called herself that), who "changed the world" for my granddaughter who is always concerned about the things that might not be here for long - the things that are threatened because of how we are managing natural resources. The last one was for my grandson, a book about inventions -- a pop-up book because he loves those -- and a very detailed explication of what was invented when and by whom. I think all of them will be good choices.

Then I thought about the display of books exemplifying "women heroes." And I admit that I was somewhat intimidated about choosing books that would set standards that few of us can attain, whether we are male or female. Yes, it is extremely important that our daughters and granddaughters understand that intellectual and physical achievements are not limited to one sex or another, as it is important for our sons and grandsons to understand that as well. The gender-identified career, or passion, is expanding. And I am so glad to celebrate that.

What gave me the courage and stamina (and yes, it takes stamina to pursue the other-than-usual career or life-expression)? Books, of course, many many books that took me out of my ordinary life and into the extraordinary or even very ordinary lives or stories different from my own -- but also my paternal grandmother. She was a woman of great character, courage, and commitment. She was born in 1892, and married in 1916 or 1917 -- gave birth to my father in 1918. She was considered an "older" woman to have done both so late in life. A fact which, in today's world, is not easy to understand.

The little family left a poultry farm in New Jersey to seek their future in California in 1920. And there they found a very different world from the one they had left behind on the farm. My great-grandmother went too -- she never lived apart from her daughter. But she was a wise business woman in her own right, and was the one who held the purse-strings. She invested in property, and in those days she was very wise to do so. She was a widow, and left with three children, my grandmother the youngest. So when my grandmother was only 13, she left school and helped her mother with cleaning other people's houses. I never heard what the two older boys did during that time. But I do know that they both eventually followed the family to California. One died of influenza while in the military, and the other was killed in an automobile accident in Culver City before I was born.

I think I remember my great-grandmother - she died when I was three. But it may be only pictures that remind me of her stern face, her tall, thin figure. I do know that when the depression hit, and work dried up for my grandfather (he worked for the Hollywood studios building sets), he left California to return to New Jersey to see if there was work for him there or, indeed, anywhere. Not much was available, and what did turn up, he spent on room, board, and travel. He sang in a choir, and on the radio when he was in Hollywood, and had managed to take his tuxedo with him. From what I have been able to pick out from the family history, it was this tuxedo that drove him out of his home in California back to New Jersey. Buying a tuxedo to support a singing career during the depression was not what my grandmother or great-grandmother considered a wise choice.

My grandmother went to work, and my great-grandmother opened a boarding house in their home. It was a wise thing to do -- men needed a cheap place to stay, my great-grandmother was really good at making a home and cooking with very little money, and my grandmother had the energy and ambition to bring in more money by working as a telephone operator for a local radio station, after her "shift" at the boarding house. My dad was assigned whatever duties a child could peform after school, and even raised pigeons to supply a local restaurant with squab. He really missed his dad, but his dad was off pursuing his own "career" in various settings - day laborer, pianist, puppeteer for a traveling puppet show.

Eventually there was a divorce. Not a usual thing in those days, but not unheard of. By then my grandmother had established a routine of work at the boardinghouse, work at the radio station, and a life that was pretty independent and not usual for women. She managed to balance all of it with good humor and more than a little grace.

I was born right after Pearl Harbor in January of 1942. My great-grandmother fell ill, and my mother took care of her, and me, while my grandmother was working. By now the boarding house had closed. My grandmother made enough working at the Community Chest (now United Way) to support herself and her mother. Not  an easy time for anyone, however. The uncertainty of the depression was quickly followed by the uncertainty of a world war.

It is her undefeated spirit that I remember. She was able to keep going no matter what. And with heartfelt goodwill. She worked every day in downtown Los Angeles, either taking the street car or carpooling. She cooked and cleaned, and she had a large circle of friends who enjoyed her hospitality regularly. There were card games and parties. She read tea leaves, dressed as a gypsy and told fortunes. She couldn't carry a tune, but she loved to sing. Whenever she came to take care of me when my parents went out, she brought a present. Nothing big -- sticky paper strips to make chains, a new box of crayons, a "sparkler" in July. Her shoes were always polished, and so were her nails. She wore a hat and gloves to church and for social occasions. Her coats were stylish and her jewelry exquisite, though not expensive.

When she was 67 she eloped with an old friend, a widower. That marriage was joyful. They traveled, mostly to visit family from her first marriage, but that was a testimony to her ability to keep people she felt good about in her life  no matter what. He cooked grapefruit marmalade, made raisin pies and smoked cigars. They played endless games of cribbage and gin rummy -- and they kept a bottle of gin in the clothes hamper lest someone from the church come by and see it in the kitchen. He died suddenly of a heart attack five years later. She was devastated. She wept for days. 

Eventually she was able to look out from under her grief and see the world again. She hosted suppers and games of Yahtze, she bought a color television and asked people in to see Lawrence Welk, the first walk on the moon, the Rose Parade on New Year's Day. She took a cruise to Mexico.
Then suddenly, when I was pregnant with my first child, she took ill. No one ever named what was wrong -- she just slowed down to the point of being bed-ridden, and then must have had a stroke. She lived long enough to see her great-grandchild, and was able to proclaim him "wonderful!" My grief was terrible, and in the midst of all the joy that comes with birth, my heart was breaking. She was my rock, my touchstone, the person who knew me and loved me no matter what. I talked to her every single day of my life from the time I knew how to work a telephone. I miss her still. She taught me how to be happy in little things. The comfort of ironed pillowcases, canned peaches with the pits showing "for a little color," the bowl full of lemons on her kitchen counter, the laundry on the line getting the benefit of the sun, polished shoe leather, rose nail polish, all these things were the art of her life and embellish my memories.

She is still my hero. She, like so many women in so many hard circumstances, exemplified character, courage, and commitment. She didn't find a cure for cancer, she didn't swim the English Channel. She didn't learn five languages or build an airplane. But she taught me about living, and enjoying where you are, and who you are with. And she taught me that making changes could be hard, but that I could survive change and do it with grace. She embellished life in ways that nourish and lift the heart. She was my example, my teacher, my grandmother, and one of the great loves of my life. I celebrate her today -- and every day.