I recently started a project to chronicle our family’s history. It started as a labor of love for my children, but it has grown into something much more satisfying. My project began when I discovered that no one in our family could find any photographs of my maternal grandmother. She was a strong, determined, powerfully religious woman who raised nine children while contending with the ravages of racism, sexism, poverty, and domestic abuse. Without any photos of her, I found myself struggling to remember what she looked like. She died when I was around ten, but I can only recall two memories of my grandmother.
The first involves chickens. Grandma would always go into the yard, grab a fat chicken with her strong callused hands, and wring its neck. Watching the helpless bird spinning to his death always disturbed me. And its flopping around on the ground until it died made dinner much less appetizing.
The other involves my cousin. After my grandmother doled out our chores, my cousin, who wanted to play instead, called my grandmother a “bitch.” I was panic-stricken as that vile word escaped his lips and lingered in the air like a heavy fog. Grandma’s tiny body stood rigid until the gentle lamb turned into a lion. She grabbed my cousin by the scruff of his neck, dragged him outside, grabbed her bullwhip, and taught him a lesson in respect.
While these two memories are violent and unsettling, they are etched in my brain. But this is not how I want to remember my grandmother. I wish I had fonder memories to replace these, however, there are none.
That’s why I’ve been more determined to learn more about my mother and document her story so my kids can know more about her.
What I’ve discovered so far is that she was on her high school’s basketball team (which is surprising because she’s only 5 feet tall). She worked as a traveling salesperson in the 1960s. Her parents disapproved of her relationship with my father, but they got married anyway.
My mother is the single biggest influence in my life. The lessons she taught me have served me well and I’m grateful for her investments in me. Although my mom gave me advice and shared words of wisdom, she taught most of her lessons through actions.
I learned the importance of family through my mother’s devotion to my sister and me. She showed us that nothing was more important than us by being available whenever we needed her. Her hugs and kisses always made us feel loved, safe, and secure.
I learned the importance of giving to others by watching my mom help those in need. Even though we often struggled to get by, my mother never passed up an opportunity to offer her time or resources. Her sacrificial giving taught me that we have to look beyond ourselves and work to improve other people’s lives.
I learned the importance of hard work by watching my mother work a full-time job, care for my sister and me, and serve at our church. She was often tired, but that never stopped her from completing tasks with excellence. I often wondered how she managed to do it all. She told me that her desire to make a better life for her children is what fueled her drive.
I learned the importance of education by watching my mother attend night classes to earn a degree. She also filled our house with books and provided other educational experiences for my sister and me even though she couldn’t always afford them. I was interested in art as a child and I wanted to attend a summer art class. I was hesitant to ask my mother about it because it cost $100 (a huge amount of money for my family). My mother told me not to worry about the price. She was more interested in giving me new experiences and nurturing my passions. In addition to these specific lessons, I learned the importance of respect, integrity, and faith by watching my mother live her life.
I encourage everyone to research and document the history of the women in your family to better understand their impact and influence on your life. Women are the backbone of our society and they deserve to be celebrated not only during WOmen’s History Month, but every single day.