I Am the Strength of the Women Before Me: In Honor of My Grandmother’s Influence


PART I


I never knew my grandmother.

Not because she passed away while I was young but because, at the end of the day, I don’t think she really wanted to know me.

I don’t say that with a bitter heart or out of spite. I say that because that’s just who my grandmother was.

I grew up in Georgia while she lived across the country in Washington, which made this especially hard. My formative years were spent steeped in Southern culture, one that traditionally reveres extended family with the utmost importance. Generations live in the same neighborhood, attend the same church, and get together for a family dinner every Sunday evening. Tradition is a beautiful thing, and Southerners know it well.

But I never had that.

Instead, I became loosely adopted by the grandparents of my friends. I remember long summer days and lazy weekends swimming in their pool, feeling the love that only grandmothers know how to give.

That unique, unconditional love. The deep fried home cooking, too much dessert, and long sun-filled naps after spending the day outdoors drinking sweet tea kind of love.

While this was foreign to me, I am grateful to have experienced what I imagined a grandmother’s love was supposed to feel like.

I don’t remember the last time I spoke to Alvah, my grandmother. It had to be at least five years ago on her birthday… or maybe for my own birthday. Either way, our relationship slowly faded into one where my mother became the conduit between us; passing updates about our lives through the phone in monthly intervals.

And on Sunday, October 1st, my grandmother finally passed away.

She was 95 years old.

PART II


When my mom called to tell me that my grandmother had finally passed, she wasn’t crying. Her strength, her resolve, stayed consistent. My mother has never been one for tears, yet I was surprised to see that, despite losing her last parent that morning, she still wouldn’t let her guard down.

It was a gloriously sunny, warm day in Michigan. A Sunday. The weather felt unusually comforting for the first day in October and I had been basking in its warmth, embracing the casual serenity that comes with Sunday afternoons.

When I saw my mother’s phone number on the caller ID screen, I instantly knew the purpose behind her call.

And I was right.

My grandmother passed away quietly in her sleep from the comfort of her hospice bed, tucked in between two of her children’s stuffed animals: an elephant and a panda.

She was finally comfortable. She was finally at peace.

PART III


Alvah lived a very difficult life. One that I imagine most women born in her generation suffered through.

The mere desire to achieve a higher education was audacious. Pursuing a career was limited. Becoming a housewife with a large family was expected.

Ultimately that’s the life she lived because that is the only life she was allowed to create.

So Alvah got married at age 17 and immediately began starting a family. She gave birth to five children and one stillborn. Her only son, Kent, died in his twenties to complications that come with mixing heavy drug use and chronic asthma. Her oldest daughter, Ann, died during a surgical procedure to correct a crooked eye. This left three daughters to look after her: Bonnie, Cheryl, and my mother Donna.

With these three daughters came three strong personalities to match. Traits inspired by, I assume, the very same qualities of my grandmother.

But that made for a very contentious household. These four women were coming into their own during a time when feminism was becoming mainstream and women were finally encouraged to venture outside of the kitchen, to expand their professional horizons into previously unchartered territory.

Despite her traditional proclivities, Alvah never withheld those modern ideals from her daughters.

My aunt Bonnie was the first woman in the family to earn her college degree during a time when higher education was rare for a woman. My mother then became the first woman in the family to earn her Master’s degree from the University of Michigan. Under her guidance, Alvah’s three her daughters evolved into career-driven intellectuals, an evolutionary new step into modern femininity.

PART IV


The progression of modern women’s rights and liberties is seen through the generations my grandmother gave birth to.

The importance of a good education was never lost on my mother, a value that she instilled in me from a very young age. Through her example, I never had a doubt that I would attend college and that a Master’s degree was always in my reach. As of this June, I graduated with my M.A. in Luxury and Fashion Management, knowing it was possible because of the previous accomplishments set forth by my mother and therefore, by default, my grandmother.

My grandmother’s propensity to be a stubborn woman undoubtedly caused tension in their household. Her refusal to be pushed around, to stand her ground and to fight for her beliefs has always served as a good example for my own feminine conscious.

Stubbornness can be good. Fight for what you believe in. Who the hell cares if you’re short? That doesn’t change the size of your voice. Make them listen.

Had she not held onto these principles and raised her own daughters to believe in them, I would undeniably be a different person today. I wouldn’t have that example to live up to. And I wouldn’t have started my own journey in developing a platform that encourages women to do just that: share their voices.

PART V

Rumor has it that one of my great-grandmothers actually set fire to her wedding dress, and for some reason that’s a piece of my family history that has always made me proud.

I know that I come from a line of women that had no choice but to possess implausible strength, poise, and perseverance in order to overcome and thrive in the midst of a culture that systemically denied this of them.

I might not have known my grandmother the way that I wanted to during my youth. I never had the chance to drink sweet tea with her, or lounge by her pool in the hot Southern sun. I spent my whole life wondering what I did to make her not like me.

Now that she’s gone, I’ll never get those answers. At first it made me bitter upon hearing of her passing. Why wouldn’t she take the time out of her long, 95 years of life to get to know me? To see that I had become the kind of woman she had fought her entire life to see?

My mom still has yet to cry. The day after receiving the news, she went to work to stay preoccupied rather than taking the time off to heal. We’ve been conversing all week, sending love and handing out condolences, and she still has yet to break. I don’t know when that moment will come, but I know that it’s bound to happen. My mother might be the strongest woman in the world, but grief catches up with us all eventually.

And yet it’s through witnessing my own mother’s courage that my bitterness is resolved. I can see now the legacy of strong women before me and the lifelong impact that this has on the generations that come after me.

My grandmother might not have been physically present in my life, but her strength lives on through me because of the example she set through my mother.

And for that, I am thankful.


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