We are the sum of our experiences. I try to remember that when I wonder how people who have been raised in very similar circumstances to my own end up with vastly different opinions and outlooks on life, politics, and religion.
It has made me think about how my own opinions and outlooks have developed and evolved throughout my life.
I like to tell people with whom I have differences of opinions that “we are the sum of our experiences.” The sum of my experiences includes many people and things, but my early life includes three women who helped shaped my world view.
Grandma Anderson – My Maternal Grandmother
My Grandma Susan Theresa Anderson (I recently learned that her birth name was Susanna Teresa) was born in 1892 and was the youngest of four daughters born to a pharmacist in Galesburg, Illinois. My youngest sister and I share a name with her. I always felt that gave me a special connection to her. My memories of her are of an older woman with white hair. She always seemed to be in the kitchen. I remember my father complaining about the crispy edges on her over easy eggs.
My Grandma Anderson as a young mother with her oldest three children – Baby John, Ruth, and Jean, circa Spring 1922.
I knew that she bore 10 children including a set of twins (one of whom died in infancy). Many of her children left home at an early age never to return or who returned only rarely. That was mainly because of my grandfather. One uncle left home at 17 and served in WWII. He swore that he would never return until his father was dead. Since my grandma preceded my grandfather in death, my uncle did not even attend her funeral.
I always thought how sad it was for a mother to have children whom she could not see or spend any time with because of the behavior of her spouse. I was very young when I had these thoughts.
I remember my grandma and my mother and everyone around my grandparent’s home being terrified of my grandfather. I remember him being mean and never smiling. I actually remember my grandma and mother tremble in fear in his presence.
My grandma died on August 23, 1968. She was 76 years old. I was 11. In the months leading up to her death, my grandma remained in the home she shared with my grandfather. We would visit my grandparents so that my mother could help to take care of her.
On one of these visits, I remember standing in the doorway of her bedroom. She was bedridden and needed help to use a bedpan. Her bed was often soiled when no one was available to help her in time. On this occasion, I remember her calling and moaning for help, but it was too late. She had soiled herself. My grandfather, who was obviously very angry about it, ripped the soiled bed pad out from underneath her and flung it across the room where it hit the wall and stuck for a few moments, sliding slowly down the wall, until it fell with a plop onto the floor. He then stormed from the room. My mother cowered at the bedside of her mother and, after he left, she methodically cleaned up my grandmother, changed the sheets, cleaned the wall and the floor, and laundered the soiled linens.
My cousins have various other recollections of my grandparents and their relationship, but one of them mirrors my own as it relates to this period in my grandma’s life. My cousin, Patty, remembers her own mother being upset and frustrated over her inability to help care for her mother since she lived a distance away and was raising eight young children of her own. Grandma used to tell her that strange men were in her home, and my aunt thought it was just hallucinations. She discovered later that my grandfather was having card parties and drinking while leaving her lying in her soiled and wet bed clothes.
Later in life, I would learn that my grandma was more than the wife of a poor, alcoholic, and abusive husband, mother to nine surviving children, and grandmother to a myriad of grandchildren. She and her three older sisters were well educated. Her three older sisters received educations beyond high school – truly unusual for that time. My grandmother was valedictorian of her high school class. Valedictorian. She was studying pharmacy at her father’s side until his untimely death. She was educated and smart.
She went from being a city girl living with a family of some means to being a poor, farm wife during the years of Prohibition and The Great Depression.
When she was 24, she married my grandfather and proceeded to bear children every year or two until she was 44. He was not a good husband or a good father, but she remained a loyal and devoted wife and mother who must have felt that she was being true to her Catholic faith, one of obedience and sacrifice not rebellion as my cousin, Connie, puts it – a faith which her husband did not even share with her.
While most recollections of my grandfather are one of an angry and unhappy man, the memories of my grandmother were the opposite – her bright blue eyes, her soft hugs, and her high-pitched voice.
Grandma DePaepe – My Paternal Grandmother
My Grandma Cecelia Octavy Lava aka Julia Octavie Lava was born in 1903 in Ruysellede, Belgium. She was the third daughter of four girls born to her parents. They immigrated to America when she was a young girl. She married my grandfather in 1924 when she was 21 years old. My father was the oldest of their three sons.
My cousin, Tina, tells me that every time she looks at me, she sees our grandma. While my snow white hair definitely comes from my Grandma Anderson, many of my facial features are like my Grandma DePaepe.
My Grandma DePaepe on her wedding day, 1924.
My grandma’s mother died in 1945 and sometime not too long after that, my grandma divorced my grandfather. Yes, she divorced him and lived the rest of her life on her own, continuing to attend the Catholic church, and as far as I know never seeking an annulment. After my grandfather died, I remember that she had a few suitors, but she never was interested in giving up her independence. She said as much in one of the letters that she wrote to my sister. It never even occurred to me that my grandparents being divorced was unusual – it just was the way it was.
Christmas 1959 – while you can’t see my Grandma DePaepe’s face, I love this picture because it shows how well dressed she was.
I also remember that her home was always impeccably clean, and she was always perfectly groomed. She never got her driver’s license or owned a car. She took the bus or walked everywhere she went. I used to watch her make apple pies when we went to visit which was not often.
What I have learned since I was a little girl is that my grandma learned about her “marital obligation” on her wedding night. This, apparently, so traumatized her that she made it a point to try and talk to her granddaughters about it before they got married.
There was no such thing as no fault divorce in 1945. What possible circumstances would possibly lead a woman of that era to seek a divorce? She still had two children left at home. She had no education or skills to fall back on. We will never know the exact answers to this question, but it most probably involved alcohol abuse, abusive behavior, and philandering. We saw these same patterns of behavior in her sons.
My grandma would support herself and her children by taking in laundry and being a seamstress. She owned and maintained her own home.
My sister has some letters written by my grandmother. In one of them, she mentions her hope that my then pregnant sister would have a daughter. The way it was written made it feel like she was more than disappointed in her sons. I do know that in spite of the fact that we lived a few short blocks from her home, we rarely visited her, and, when we did, it was because my mother took us to see her.
My father did not have a high opinion of his mother or most women for that matter. To him, they were all psychologically flawed. It’s interesting that he ended up with 7 daughters and only one son.
My grandma died on January 20, 1984. She was 80. I was 27.
I lived in Boston for several years in the 1980s. I was in my early 20s. During that time, I got to know an older Armenian woman whom everyone called Gram. I spent many hours with her in her kitchen watching and learning how to make the many Middle Eastern foods that she served in her home.
While working with her in her kitchen, she would share the stories of her youth. She was born in Armenia and lived there during the time of the Turkish genocide. She was a teenager and told the story about the time her family hid her in a well to protect her from being “hurt” (a euphemism for raped) by the Turks. Many of her family members were murdered. She talked about the deprivations they endured including having only cabbage stalks to eat during the Winter.
Her family made a decision to send her to America so that she could have a better life. To get her there, they agreed to an arranged marriage. She was 17 when she immigrated to this country. She married a man twice her age and whom she had never met until she landed in America. She did not speak English and would never see most of her family again.
Like my paternal grandma, she learned about sex on her wedding night. She used to laugh about this experience.
Interestingly, this is where her story is different than my grandmas. The man she married was kind and compassionate. The Armenians that I met and knew in Boston had very matriarchal families. It was apparent that in spite of her young age and language barrier, her husband allowed and even expected her to be in charge of their home. He worked and provided for her, and she managed the household and their three children. It was a true partnership, and a marriage that ended up being based on love.
While her husband died while she was still young, he left her with the resources to continue to live and manage without having to work outside the home.
She was strong and lively and funny and fun to be around.
So how have these three women shaped my world view?
Domestic violence, abusive behavior, and alcoholism defined the lives of my two grandmothers. One stayed in the relationship and endured a life of hardship. We’ll never know if she survived because she was strong or if she stayed because she was weak or whether she just accepted this life as her fate. Another chose to terminate her relationship in spite of societal norms which would have left her an outcast. Did this mean she was unusually strong and brave? She did end up living her life on her own terms.
The third woman, Gram, gave me my first glimpse that marriage could be something more than something that was bad or to be avoided at all costs. How strong was she as a person to leave her family behind, travel to a strange, new foreign land with no knowledge of the language and customs to marry a complete stranger who was twice her age? It just boggles my mind.
These early experiences in my life made me an advocate for social issues particularly those that affect the powerless – mainly children, women, and the elderly. It made me into a champion for women’s rights and the fight against domestic violence (both against women and children). I am sensitized to addictions and addictive behaviors particularly those related to alcohol abuse.
Women are more than receptacles of reproduction. We have been gifted with minds and intellects, and we are obligated to use them. Women’s rights, including the right to manage our own healthcare and reproductive systems, are particularly important to me, not only as the mother of five daughters, but as a compassionate and empathetic human being, and I will always work to prevent any erosion of them.
These women left me with lessons about what to do and what not to do. I raised myself to be able support myself and not to rely on anyone else to do so. That is one of the lessons that I have tried to teach my own daughters. You can’t rely on others to support you.
These women taught me that the best marriages and relationships are not based on power and dominance. They are based on partnerships. I love being married, but it is hard work, and I try to work on it every day. I am blessed to be married to a man who respects me and our marriage and our children. I know, from experience, that it could have been a different story with a different kind of man.
My hope is that if and when our daughters marry, they will choose wisely, too, but they are not obligated to get married or to have children. I support their choices and their ability to manage their own lives.
These women taught me that it is okay to be brave and courageous and independent. Women are not property or animals or second class citizens. Women are not chattel. We must stand up for ourselves and other women to protect our rights, our children, our lives, and our futures. Because we cannot be guaranteed that anyone else will do it for us.
The sum of my experiences includes these lessons that I learned from these women.