The Woman I’ll Never Be
During the height of the American Civil War, my great-great-greatgrandmother, at the age of 18, got on a boat and left her home in Sweden, endured weeks on a ship that eventually docked in Ellis Island, where she set out west, working as a seamstress in fancy homes until she got to Minnesota and settled in a community of other Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. Her name was Mary. I don’t remember if it was Mary or her daughter who made the last bit of the trip westward to Aneta, North Dakota.
Mary’s daughter was Caroline. Caroline, like most of the women in her generation, was a housewife who never went to school past the second grade. When she married (a Norwegian man, which was scandalous in its own right!) and had her own children, she sent them to school and then learned to read from them. She was very clever and hard-working, and when her oldest, Stella, was out of high school, she supported her desire to go away to nursing school in Fargo, and went on to raise five boys.
Stella, my greatgrandmother, was born in 1908, making her 106 years old as of last month.
Her age makes her the oldest person in her county and the oldest person most of us have ever known, but that’s not what makes her exceptional. Nanny, as we call her, is a force all her own. She is the Vito Corleone of the family, the “Godfather,” if he wore a skirt. She is the definition of practical love, the stout Midwestern kind that is endlessly gentle and still commands respect. In our big, loud-mouthed family, it wasn’t unusual for one of us kids to get sarcastic with or back-talk an adult, but nobody sass-mouthed Nanny. It just wasn’t done.
Nanny is tough. The kind of tough that comes from long, hard North Dakota winters with five little brothers. The kind of tough that comes from outliving your parents, siblings, husband, and both of your children.
Nanny is brave. The kind of brave that comes with leaving home to go to nursing school miles and miles from home, then on to Chicago in the middle of the Depression. The kind of brave who stood up to her creep-o boss, years before there were sexual harassment seminars and protections.
Nanny is smart. She went to nursing school when other women in her generation rarely graduated high school. She can make anything out of anything. Growing up, she always told us “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” which is undoubtedly creepy when you think about it, but it fostered in me a desire to find a way to get things done, one way or another.
Nanny tells the best stories. For centuries, history was oral, passed from one generation to the next. For years, I never understood how that could be until one day I found myself telling one of Nanny’s stories just like she tells it – same words, same pauses, same punchlines. These stories that belonged to her grandmother, mother, self, daughter, and granddaughter were now my stories. I’ve heard her tell them so frequently that I can’t help but recite them in my head every time she tells them, but I will listen every time.
Nanny is love. There is no person in my family, including extended family, who never moved back home to stay with Nanny. When I had to take a break during college because of finances, I lived in the yellow bedroom I had slept in during summers as a child. When I came home sick from work one day when in my twenties, she, at the age of 97, made me coffee, warmed the heating pad for me, and cared for me despite my protests. To come to Nanny’s house is to be nearly-force-fed a piece or two of Swedish bread and cups of coffee. She loves and welcomes everyone who walks through the door. I think I have only heard her say “I love you” out loud once in all my 32+ years, but I have felt it each and every day. There is no greater example I’ve had than Nanny.
Nanny is my heritage. I could write a million more paragraphs about her, but what I’ve learned lately is that more than being German/Italian/French/Canadian/Scottish-American, my heritage is Mary, Caroline, Nanny, Willa, and Connie. It is a long line of strong-willed women who, in as many ways as they could show it, loved/love people fiercely.
I don’t think I could ever be the woman Nanny is, but in another act of outstanding character, all she asks is that I am who I am and respect others. I don’t fit into the mold of what a woman -especially a pastor- should be. I find most women’s ministries things either annoying, cliche, offensive, or inapplicable, which is a problem for a woman in ministry. I struggle with the tendency of publishers and marketing professionals to “genderize” everything by sticking flowers on the cover of Bibles and pastel Bic Pens for Her. As a single person with no children, I am bored with the endless parade of Proverbs 31-style seminars, books, websites, etc. I stomp my feet in frustration that I have never, ever, ever, seen a Women’s Ministries Super Bowl Party. All of that said, I confess that I have a purple flowery bedspread, I do watch chick flicks, and while I do love football, I spent this Super Bowl Sunday in the kitchen with my sisters as I listened to the game from afar. All of that is OK, though, because if there’s anything my heritage has taught me, it’s that being a woman has little to do with doing what’s expected of me and everything to do with being a person of good character. And, perhaps, a little to do with feeding everyone.