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Our Grandmothers' Stories




Mother’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the modeling and impact of our grandmothers’ lives. Barbara and Kathy each share a recollection of one of their grandmothers and what they learned from these women of wisdom. We invite our readers to do the same. How has your grandmother’s story inspired you?



Lilly 

by Barbara Anne Radtke


I was the first grandchild on both the maternal and paternal sides of my family. It is not an understatement to say that I was welcomed into the family and into the world with extravagant attention and affection. This pride of birth order seemed to endure despite being followed by numerous other grandchildren, including four more in my own birth family. Although both grandmothers offered me guidance and love, my maternal grandmother Lilly I. Henzel played an enormous role in shaping my interests and, indeed, my career.

My grandmother had been raised by an aunt and uncle who could give her the advantage of being launched in society.  Although she faced many hardships when, in her 40s, she was widowed and left with five children to raise, she expected her family to maintain a decorum, reflected to the outside world, which spoke of her up-bringing. 


When I was around nine years old, after discussion with my mom, her middle daughter Anne, Grandmother invited me to visit with her in the summer.  My visit culminated by going on vacation with her and my aunt to a lovely hotel in Maine. 


The time preceding the vacation, was a time of preparation.  My grandmother was a one woman finishing school. Among other things, she taught me to knit, to set a formal table, to choose the proper fork and spoon when faced with multitudes at one’s place setting, to hem party dresses that I would wear on vacation, to embroider, and to edge and iron linen handkerchiefs.


Some of her admonitions are still tapes that play inside my head.  When I would run out to the barrels with the trash of the day, my grandmother would tell me that shorts and flip flops were OK for a little girl, but a lady always brought out the trash properly attired in hose and heels. I still sometimes hear that advice when I run out with my trash in sweats and sandals!


This education continued for several summers. Looking back, in the end, I was ready to be a character in a Jane Austen novel.


I loved our daily routine.  I had mornings free. We ate lunch in the living room on tea tables.  She cut the crusts off my bread and let me have ginger ale instead of milk!    We would watch an episode of some soap, I think it was “The Guiding Light.”  Then we would turn off the TV and practice having “civil conversation.” This was my favorite part of the routine.  We discussed wide-ranging ideas about which we were both curious. My grandmother was a rosary and novena kind of Catholic.  We always ended with either one of those prayer experiences.  Then I practiced some of my skills of refinement, set the table, and walked down the street to the bus stop to meet Aunt Rose, who was coming home from work.


Although some of the skills have fallen by the wayside, my grandmother’s formation had a lasting effect. Years later, my mother told me that Grandmother noticed my studiousness and interest in “reading beyond my years.”  She urged my mother and father to encourage that intellectual curiosity and see what shape it would take in my adolescence.  I credit my grandmother for helping to make the space, early in my life, to pursue and prioritize intellectual activities.


In these days of a divided society, I often think of the honesty of her curiosity.  She taught me that anything could be pursued if one followed the rules for having a good conversation.  A cardinal rule was to listen to what the other person was saying.  Conversation could be with anyone. Grandmother seemed totally comfortable conversing between generations. I came to expect the same opportunity – and got it -- with my nephews, niece, godson, and grandnephew.


My Catholic grade school catechesis focused on the Baltimore Catechism. The catechism gave me answers to questions I did not really have. My grandmother helped me find my own questions and to keep my exploration open-ended.  I see this practice as an early beginning to my interest in and pursuit of a career in theology.


My grandmother’s influence on me has been wide-ranging. Even more seemingly insignificant items had a lasting effect. Although I do not use linen handkerchiefs, or set elaborate tables, or dress like a lady to take out the trash, I do still knit, hem, and know which spoon or fork to use at a formal dinner.  I also have an unusual fondness for the soaps!



Cora

By Kathy Hendricks

 

My grandmother was livid when the 1964 film version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was released. Depicting her as a clownish figure who danced on tabletops and spoke in crude fashion was beyond the pale for my proper, “lace-curtain” Irish grandmother. Nanny knew more about this great historical figure than most. Margaret Brown (she wasn’t called “Molly” in her lifetime) lived across the street and took care to bring food to the family after my great-grandmother died. Nanny remembered her as a proper lady whose philanthropic work and early feminism (she ran for Senate in 1914) made her a role model and figure of high standing in Denver society. While best known for her role in surviving the sinking of the Titanic, there was much more to Margaret Brown’s story than that of a western heroine. According to my grandmother, she was cultured, generous, and incredibly intelligent.

 

I’ll admit that I didn’t pay much attention to Nanny’s protestations over the film. At the age of fourteen, I suppose I was more enamored with the film’s cast and musical numbers. As I learned more about her life and work, however, I came to appreciate my grandmother’s indignation. All too often, women’s stories get short shrift. Accomplishments are buried beneath superficiality and based on looks and quirks rather than an in-depth exploration of their intelligence and talent. This can ring true for historic figures as well as the women who make up our own family histories.


As I consider my grandmother’s life and how, at the age of 21, she moved from the safety and security of her family to start a new life in St. Louis with my grandfather, I can only admire her courage and spirit of adventure. She raised seven children and endured the deaths of two daughters due to tragic circumstances. She played the harp and was no doubt the inspiration behind my mother’s love of music and proficiency as a gifted pianist. I think of the value Nanny placed on being “proper” and how much we need to reclaim the kind of dignity and mutual respect that such a descriptor includes. While the term might seem snobbish and old-fashioned, we could do with a bit more proper behavior, courteous language, and attentiveness to the needs of others in the way that Margaret Brown showed to a motherless family.



Great news! Barbara is going to discuss her book, Entering the Next Stage with Grace, this Thursday, May 9th, at 1:00 p.m. EDT. It's free and open to anyone interested in planning for and experiencing retirement. Here is a link to the registration.

5 Comments


cmsnana5
cmsnana5
7 days ago

Kathy like yourself, I also have many fond memories of growing up with Nanny. She was a jewel.

Cindy

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kmhendricks11
kmhendricks11
7 days ago
Replying to

She was indeed, Cindy. I love this picture of her. She looks so content.


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Wonderful remembrances of your grandmothers. The richness of the past...

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Barbara, you lost me at the name "Lily" -- you and Kathy are truly connected. Debbie Chrzanowski

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Replying to

Debbie, thanks for your comment and for responding so often. Pls post again if you have a recollection of a woman who was model for you.


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