My maternal grandmother is 90 years old. She has been a widow for the past 14 years and never misses an opportunity to express how much she misses my grandfather. However, in the same breath, she will tell you about her health — “I still have all my teeth!” “The doctor says I can keep my driver’s license!” and “I’m the same weight as I was on my wedding day, but not the same shape!” — and her travels. After my grandfather passed away, she visited Israel, hiked Machu Picchu, went to New York for a mission reunion (she served in the North Eastern States mission in the early 1950′s), and walked on the beaches in Hawaii.
As the youngest of 11 children, and not marrying until the age of 32, many of her nieces and nephews are decades older than her own children. She grew up during the Great Depression, and because I am so far removed from that era (I was born in the 1970′s), I do not understand her characteristic ability of “healthy hoarding.”
This woman is amazingly strong; she has seen a lot of pain in her life. As the only surviving sibling, death is not new to her. Her mentally disabled brother wandered from his home and died due to the elements and was not found for weeks. Her father passed away when she was 16. Her son died when he was 50 years old, taken from his 7 children by cancer. She was there when her mother died, when her husband died. She has watched almost every friend and contemporary relative pass from this life.
It is not surprising that she expresses loneliness.
She’s a brutally honest and controlling soul with very high expectations. Her plans are set in stone, and we do not deviate! Many grandchildren and great-grandchildren laugh and complain at her stubbornness and ability to get what she wants. Sometimes it is difficult –even precarious! –but when I see her, I am reminded of the woman beneath the iron shell.
As a ballroom dancer, she glided across gym floors in church buildings all across southern Alberta for decades. Her long fingers have played pianos and organs, and her voice has led choirs and congregations. She worked hard at every job she attained, from house cleaner to telephone operator to rancher’s wife. She is a traveler, a missionary, a mother of six (four biologically and two from my grandfather’s first marriage) and a grandmother, great-grandmother, and even great-great-grandmother. She adores the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in every effort she makes, in every decision she decrees, she is simply doing what she feels is best for her and for the people she loves.
She stood by her husband as he served as Branch President and Bishop in small farming communities. She strengthened him when they lost their ranch to a torturous blizzard and had to move to the city. She was by his side as they raised their children in righteousness and worked long hours in order to survive. Placing emphasis upon family, I saw them travel for days to visit grandchildren, attend the temple with great-grandchildren, and save their money in order to gather their posterity together as often as they could.
When my grandfather died, very sick and delirious in the hospital, I heard stories of how she broke down when he didn’t recognize her, how she didn’t want to lose the love of her life. It did not matter to her that she had taken care of him physically and mentally for the last five of his eighty-five years; he was not a burden.
She doesn’t visit his grave. In a confident tone she told me, “Why would I go to the cemetery? He’s not there. If I want to feel closest to him, I go to the Temple.” And she did. For years she went to the temple (a 45 minute drive) three times a week to feel his presence and to honor her ancestors.
She has written several biographies, solely for her posterity, and because of this, I know the history of her parents, grandparents, great-grandparents… I know the stories of their lives, woven with her own testimony that Jesus Christ is our Savior.
The truth is that she has come, quite simply, from a long line of very strong women, women who marked their own destinies with all of their souls, pushing forward amidst fear, famine, and failure. My maternal line stretches back generations with stories of women with iron wills, women who served and ruled their families with a passion not easily dismayed.
She won’t be with us much longer, my grandmother. This past summer, we celebrated her 90th birthday party with friends, relatives, and cake. Within weeks, some of those relatives had passed away. Only a few short months afterward, I began to see her own deterioration. Her mind is now slipping, and it’s hard to witness. It has seemed, for the longest time, that our Matriarch will always be here. She has ruled with a stubborn, iron, but beautiful fist, and when she is gone, so much will change.
I never understood who she was to us until I read “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner. He writes about another controlling Matriarch, but what I gleaned from this character is so much more than a woman who simply controls. At one point in the book, a son-in-law ruminates on his wife’s grandmother, and at the same time, describes his mother-in-law:
I’m sure she loved him, but she wore the pants. This isn’t a f-f-f-family, it’s a pride. Females run it. Us males lie around yawning and showing our two-inch t-t-teeth, and get swatted when we get out of l-l-line. We have only one function.”
“Oh, Moe, I feel sorry for you!”
“Sorry for me why? I love to yawn and show my t-t-teeth, and have my d-d-d-dinner brought to me, and service all the l-l-l-ladies. I just wish the family would acknowledge its p-p-p-p… p-p-p-p… admit what it’s doing.” (p.68)
But it’s more than women simply controlling as they please. As Stegner’s main character ruminated:
“The clear lesson of New England’s history is that when there are not enough suitable men to run the world, women are perfectly capable of doing so.” (p.229)
My grandmother did not rule with an iron fist in spite of her husband or to despise others nor to ruminate upon some psuedo-sexual feministic creed. Like Stegner’s Matriarchs, my grandmother taught me that strong women love their men and they fight for them. But perhaps, even more than Stegner’s leading ladies, my grandmother taught me that strong women never –ever –take a back seat when living the plan God has set for them.
What is a Matriarch to the legacy she leaves behind? Who can sense the incalculable imprint she has left upon our hearts? For good or for bad, my grandmother has forever given us a part of her, a part of what makes us love and laugh, cherish and give. She, indeed, is a virtuous woman, the kind described in Proverbs 31, and truly:
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
- How have your Matriarchs blessed your life?
- What kind of imprint have they left upon your hearts?