My paternal grandmother had five children. She was also an entrepreneur. She was a loud, opinionated, outspoken, highly intellectual woman at a time when women were supposed to be quietly homemaking. She was the first female editor of her university’s school newspaper, in the 1940s. When she ran for editor, university officials suggested she start with “secretary.” She said “no thanks,” and ran anyway. And won.
After that she went on to buy local newspapers, which she ran with the proverbial iron fist, eventually founding a small publishing corporation. She believed in grassroots journalism, had a fiery, mercurial personality and a temper that could melt a puppy, and she said whatever she believed, loudly. She took local issues to Senators and Congressmen in Washington, DC, while raising her children.
She fought anybody in her path.
She wore red velvet to her wedding. When she told me about that dress and saw my look of awe, she put her hands under her chin, tilted her head to one side and batted her lashes sarcastically, saying, “They weren’t going to turn me into some ‘blushing bride.’”
She was 87 years old when she spoke those words. She died when she was 88.
I miss her every single day. I keep a photo of her on my bedside table, holding my oldest daughter. She was well into her 80s when the photo was taken at her office. She published her paper, as a writer and editor, as the boss, almost until the day she died.
I want to tell you about her – particularly you working mothers - because when held against certain standards, my grandmother failed as a mother. She was too busy, too professionally hardcore, with a terrifying temper and the patience of a squirrel on methamphetamine. She was never particularly affectionate. Her nurturing nature was, um, limited (to say the least). She had other things on her mind. She did not wring her hands about “having it all.” I know she had help raising my dad and his siblings, and I understand they spent a lot of time alone.
But I’ll tell you something: that woman made me who I am today. Through her tales of resistance and strength, through her example of pitbull-like tenacity, she taught me that excuses don’t fly, that if I find myself somewhere I don’t want to be, I’ve got nobody to blame but myself. Yeah, that’s right, not even my kids.
Sometimes I look at her photo when I’m having a rough day and I touch the image of her face, because something about it makes me feel stronger. I remember her wrinkled hands with her rings that seemed enormous to my childish eyes, and the way she used to read “Democracy in America” to me as a bedtime story. I remember the chicken sandwiches she made on white bread, with mayonnaise and walnuts and sweet pickles on the side. And I feel stronger.
She was as much as a mother to me as anybody could ever be. Her love poured through the ice cream she let me eat before dinner, the berries and cream she prepared me for breakfast, the conversations we had in the car when she’d tell me about growing up backstage (her parents were traveling actors).
I’m telling you this so you’ll give yourself some slack, so you’ll rest a little more comfortably on those days when you just know you’re working too much and you’re going to “ruin” your kids. I’m telling you this on Mother’s Day because maybe you feel like you don’t deserve a celebration, because you’re gone too much or you’re too career-oriented, and the mothers on TV are doing things you never do, and so on.
I’m telling you this because you have no idea how your choices today, how your strength and determination, how the life you lead, will resonate with future generations, kids of your kids, and their kids.
You have no idea how you might stand, even when you’re gone, as a beloved mother.
So Happy Mother’s Day to you, and to my grandma Bonny, possibly the best worst mother in the world. I’m sure grateful for you.