There is a wonderful show called Listen To Your Mother that the fabulous Ann Imig created about a decade ago. The show is all about supporting motherhood in all its forms. I have been planning to submit an essay to participate in a show for years, and have put it off for years. Then Ann announced that 2017 was going to be the last year of the show. Since this year is my year to move, I pushed aside my excuses and submitted an essay. Mine was one of the 12 chosen for the Austin show, and we presented them on April 29th in front of a sold-out crowd of 300. The whole process from writing to auditioning to getting to know the amazing women who read too, and then the actual performance was amazing. The heart and laughter that was shared during the show is something I feel so privileged to have been a part of.
Below is my essay. And, yes, I cried through most of it.
It’s said that parents are your first teachers. In my case, the women in my family have been my first and best teachers. Their lessons started long before I was born and continue to this day.
My Great Grandma Evie had 9 children who lived to adulthood. When four of them were still young enough to be in school, she married her third husband. She’d been raising the children by herself for a while when she met a man who spun quite a story about how she and her kids would live if they married and moved from Texas to California with him. Grandma Evie made him promise that the kids would finish school. It turned out that not only did this new husband not have a place to go in California, but he had no money to get there. He conned his way into jobs picking cotton to get money for the trip. My Grandma and her twin were 8 years old and were not only not in school but were working in the fields. The family made it as far as Arizona when Great Grandma Evie learned her lesson.
She packed up the few things they’d brought with them, and she and the girls walked 900 miles back to Texas. They traveled at night and slept during the day, with the girls hidden up in trees so they wouldn’t be seen. When they got home, she divorced that man and never looked back.
Great Grandma Evie’s youngest, my Grandma, inherited the iron will and the instinct to teach her family. The day after my Grandpa died of cancer, my father and I moved in with Grandma. I was 10 years old. My mother had moved a few states away with my stepfather, and my father was rethinking the whole parenting gig.
I lived with Grandma until I was 18 and went away to college, and she was an incredible teacher.
Grandma taught me to love reading; that you finish the job you are given and do your best; that math is hard but you still have to try; that laughing until you cry and your sides hurt is the best. She taught me that once someone lies to you, it takes a great effort to earn your trust again. And she taught me that you love your family even when they are fighting demons; but, even though you love them you don’t have to put up with their mess. Grandma also taught me unconditional support. She went to every basketball game, she let me try out for any activity I wanted (even though we were living on social security), and she let me date a boy she really didn’t like.
Though I lived with Grandma, I spent weekends with my Aunt Karen and Uncle David. They taught me that some dads do stick around; that intelligence comes in all shapes and education levels; that you continue to learn your whole life; that moves are magical; and that a child doesn’t have to be your biological child for you to love them like one.
Grandma couldn’t teach everyone. When my father decided parenting wasn’t his thing, I was 11. We never saw him again. His choice has tormented Grandma. We found out last year that he died a few years ago. His death wasn’t shocking, and I think Grandma was relieved to know that he wasn’t in pain or causing others pain. But he was her baby, and she will always grieve that she couldn’t save him.
She also tried to help me save my first husband. But his years of alcoholism ravaged his body too badly, and he died in 2005. Our son, my first baby, was 5 months old when his father died. A year later, after trying to make it without any family close, I moved back to my hometown with my son. Grandma helped to teach me how to be a mother.
It started because I wasn’t sure I could entertain a toddler by myself an entire weekend for what I was sure was the rest of my life. Really, I wasn’t sure I could stand to be alone with my thoughts an entire weekend. Nicholas woke up every morning by 5:00 regardless of the day of the week and I was exhausted. I knew she understood my exhaustion and worry. Even though she was never technically a single parent, my grandfather had spent most of their children’s youth at sea. Grandma knew what a relief it is for a mom to have someone to hold her baby while she naps. So we just showed up one Sunday morning and stayed until early afternoon. I didn’t intend to do it every Sunday, but that’s what happened.
I learned how to be the kind of Grandma I want to be, watching her snuggle my kids and make everyone pay the “toll” of a hug as they come in the door or risk not getting ice cream after lunch. I learned to find the right sized containers after every lunch to put the leftovers in since it’s literally impossible for the woman not to cook more than necessary. “Just in case” is the motto she learned from Great Grandma Evie. I have also learned that lesson and have the Tupperware to prove it.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved with our kids, and we’re now a 7-hour drive from Grandma. It’s hard not to be close to her. It’s getting harder for her to get around, and she is still taking care of her younger daughter who is living with Alzheimer’s. Grandma has just now let us take over most of the cooking when we are visiting, but it was a fight. Luckily, she can’t move as fast as she used to, so we just wrestle her to the ground and do what we want.
I remember going to Great Grandma Evie’s 90th birthday celebration. I was 4 or 5 and it was a big ol’ party. Grandma is celebrating her 90th birthday in May, and has been telling us for a year that we’re not allowed to throw her a big party. Instead, we’re planning lunch with our immediate family. I’ll bake her favorite cake and we’ll tell stories. And a room full of people who learned so much from this amazing teacher will tell her how thankful we are for her lessons and love.