The Stuff We are Made Of
January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
I grew up in an intergenerational family and spent a lot of time with my grandmother who, next to my mom and dad was the most important caregiver in my world. I spent many nights with her throughout my entire childhood (and later, in adult years), often going directly to her house after school where we’d have dinner and then curl up in bed and watch Entertainment Tonight and 60 minutes. At night she scratched my back with long manicured finger nails painted in deep burgundy red. The smell of her Givenchy perfume floated on the soft pillow down and (high thread count) cotton pillow cases. I knew even then she had a special kind of grace and class, beauty and femininity, I might not ever attain. I thought femininity was something mysterious and wondered if, eventually, it would just “happen” to me; I wondered if I would one day start to smell sweet, and if my fingernails would grow long, slender, and beautiful. At that time, I gravitated towards scuffed up black army boots and ripped jeans, and could barely find the time or interest to even brush my hair. These memories, and countless others, of being with her in her home as a child are precious and even spiritual to me, an inseparable and beautiful part of my history and my identity — where I come from, the stuff I am made of.
Here we are at my high school graduation, one of the first times in my life I’d ever dressed up!
Intergenerational family also means sharing our lives with people who have grown up in very different historical contexts. This is an amazing learning experience for everyone in a family, if we are open enough to listen to one another and to care about each other’s lives.
There were a few times in my childhood when my two boy cousins and I were sitting around my Granny’s large oak coffee table and she turned to me (the only girl) to say teasingly “why don’t you make the boys a sandwich, they look hungry.” This was met with chuckles from us all. “Over my dead body” ripped into my thoughts like a self-protective reflex, and would have been my natural first response to her or anyone else who had such an idea, had my grandmother’s presence not stirred in me a deep respect. Thankfully, my cousins had the good enough sense to let her know this wouldn’t be necessary. “Thanks but we’re not really that hungry,” they’d say, trying to control adolescent giggles. I wondered if my Granny was echoing a long-lost memory of what her mother might have said to her in a now distant childhood, in another era long since passed. I started to wonder about how she had been raised and what it meant to be a woman.
Well, more than two decades have now passed, and my grandmother, now 95, has very different things in mind when we all get together. She wants to know about my film work and what writing projects I am working on, she uses all the contacts she’s got (home care workers, cleaning lady, neighbours) to eek out important connections for me that might help along my career and my social life. She saves Maclean’s magazine articles she wants me to read. She is my ally and coach, and let’s me know with no uncertainty: “You’d better get cracking!”
This Christmas, which took place at my grandmother’s house, I thought of my 2-year-old niece playing in the same livingroom where I played when I was her age, around the same coffee table that I grew up with from the day I was born. I thought about how, in all likelihood, no one will ever say to her (as it had most likely been said to all of her female ancestors) that she should make a sandwich — or do anything, for that matter — just because she is a girl. I think of all the other rights, thanks to the ways our culture has evolved, she has been born into. Of course, there will be other challenges for girls and women of her generation, but I can’t help but to think that in some important ways she has come into the world a whole person: A person who will have equal opportunity to achieve in math and science, sports or sewing, as she will in English or art, if she so chooses (I was told in highschool that women aren’t good at science, math or computers – all of which as been disproved by all statistics as well as through my own experience and successes as a film producer). Many of the choices of women of her generation, I suspect, will not be made on the basis of gender but on the basis of interest and inspiration.
Gender equality is something that is learned in childhood, inside our homes. We learn that women are valuable and worthy of love by how the division of labour is established, or, in the case of divorce, through the equity with which assets are shared. Inside our homes, we learn that mom matters when mom and dad share the chores — not because they are “feminists” but because mom’s life has value just like dad’s and because equality and taking care of one another is actually one of the primary foundations of love itself. Inheritances, similarly, reflect whether or not, and how a family acknowledges the feelings and value of all of its members. All of these choices and how we make them, have their roots in the historical context that all of us — women and men alike — were born into. If left unconscious and unexamined, it dictates the amount of value we extend to boys over girls, women’s lives and potential over men’s lives and potential, work done by women over work done by men. The whole world is healed as we move towards equality inside our homes and between the people we love.
When I got a little older, I found out that my grandmother and all the women of her generation (including my great-grandmother as well, obviously) had been born into a world where women were not even allowed to vote. I found out a lot of other things about the context in which she was born and lived her life, through many years of studying and reading. Some of this knowledge hurt me (it is true that ignorance is bliss), and some of it fascinated me, but I discovered along the way that values of equality, freedom, and inclusion are as important to me as the air I breath. You could say this makes me a feminist, or simply, someone who believes in the worthiness of every individual soul.
In the span of her lifetime, my grandmother lived through nearly every wave of feminist history, and was there as within only a few decades nearly every expectation of women and centuries of habitual relating, was turned on its head. When I am in a room with my family, spanning – amazingly! – four generations of women now, I think about the incredible potential we have for healing not only our societal, cultural and personal pasts, but our entire world, by learning about one another’s histories, experiences, feelings, and memories.
Most of all, I am reminded that women of different generations don’t live our lives in a vacuum, but rather, each of us is part of a vast continuum of women’s history; we are inseparably linked to one another’s lives and experiences. Our relationships and our memories ebb and flow, interject and mingle with our daily lives constantly, they are the stuff we are made of.
Now, I am off to paint my nails and make myself a sandwich.