What’s a Mother to Do?
by Ann Edwards Cannon
In Praise of Older Women
[p.117]The first thing I remember was the day they brought my brother John home from the hospital. He was long and scrawny, this new baby. He didn’t talk. He didn’t hop. He didn’t open and shut his eyes when you wanted him to. He squeaked sometimes, but never on cue. If he had been a toy, I sure wouldn’t have asked for him for Christmas.
Only they thought he was terrific. They, in fact, draped a blue blanket over a chair, propped John up, and took plenty of pictures. Even though I was not quite three years old, I was embarrassed for my father who kept pulling funny faces for the new baby’s benefit. Geez. Talk about not reading your audience.
So I wandered downstairs and tried to get trapped behind the washing machine so someone would have to find me, then tell me how much I had been missed for the last five minutes. When that didn’t work, I went outside and stood beneath the crabapple tree, sending telepathic messages to the house such as AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT PERSON IS STANDING BENEATH THIS CRABAPPLE TREE. COME ADMIRE HER. IMMEDIATELY.
When that didn’t work either, I finally returned to the living room and joined the little group there—my brother, of course, surrounded by my parents and grandparents and great- grandmother, who, with her off-white hair and skin and lovely blouse, seemed the color of cream. I still recall the way her skin hung, light as lace, from her tiny frame.
My great-grandmother, known as Grandma Pat, doesn’t occupy center stage of this particular memory, but she’s a part of its supporting cast. She was also a part of the company of older women—grandmothers, great aunts, and an assortment of their friends—who spread their wings and hovered over the events of my childhood.
One of my husband’s aunts, commenting on the tendency I have to write about these women, lodged a mild complaint with me.
“You always refer to them as elderly,” she pointed out. “That word has such a negative connotation.”
[p.118]Her point was well taken. I have used the term in connection with my great-aunts whenever I’ve written about that time they nearly came to blows in the middle of the University Mall for all the world to see because Aunt Blanche accidentally sat down on Aunt Bea’s takeout order from Happy Halibut. I would hate people to think, however, that I did not have real affection for them, real regard for their toughness.
That’s what I liked best about them, in fact—their toughness. They weren’t hard or coarse. In fact, their good manners were ever a perfect complement to their unflagging generosity. But heavens, they were a steely lot!
When I knew her, Grandma Pat had grown quiet and gracefully slow, but make no mistake, I’d heard stories. How she left her husband, changed her name, and headed west to make a happier life for her small son. How she worked for the railroad. How she slept with a shotgun under her pillow. How she shook her fishing pole at a bull in a pasture and dared him to mess with her. How she became game warden in Sublette County, Wyoming. How she stuck her head out the window of a new Model-T and warned folks in the streets they damn well better get out of her way because she didn’t know how to stop the car. How she loved beautiful jewelry. How she broke the bank each December making sure everyone in town had Christmas.
My grandmother’s oldest sister, Bea, had her tales, too. An inveterate talker, she was interested in everything—everything—and could turn a description of her luncheon in the Tiffin Room into a story of Wagnerian proportions. She had other stories, too, memories of horse-drawn sleigh rides at Christmas, of elocution and deportment lessons, of her mother being hauled into court by federal marshalls to reveal the whereabouts of her polygamous husband—tales of an era long passed. Until the day she died, Aunt Bea had the stamina to outtalk, outthink, and outwrite everybody I knew.
My own grandmother was the very toughest of them all. The last time I ever saw her, she was bringing in a meal to me. And then she cleaned my house afterwards.
Did I hear all their stories? I’m sure I didn’t, and even if I did, I probably wasn’t listening. Now I can’t even ask them what I wish to know most: where did they find their spines? Was it a combination of history and geography that gave these frontier daughters of world [p.119]wars and the Great Depression their strength? In truth, I feel flabby next to them. A born whiner. Someone who has watched too much television instead of chopping wood.
Still, there are girls coming up behind me now, nieces and daughters of friends. Time for me to be a part of their supporting casts. And if I can’t give them exactly the same gifts my old women gave me, at least I can give them some of my own.