A reason to remember our female forebears
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
All but one of the homes where my grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived is still standing. Every now and then I drive by and remember my visits as a child — the color of the curtains, the things they collected, the holiday dinners. There are so many things I don’t know about these women, but over the years I have pieced together a mosaic from family stories, public records and fragments they left behind.
None of them were famous. Three of these four women were first-generation Americans whose fathers made a living with their hands — farmers, a logger, a stone mason — and whose mothers bore and raised children, tended gardens and critters, canned vegetables, baked bread, cooked and cleaned, sewed, crocheted, quilted, laundered, hung and ironed clothing, and slept, if no one was sick and needed round-the-clock care. My great-grandmothers, who were able to take advantage of a few modern conveniences, lived much the same way. Adventure came in the form of postcards, magazines or radio broadcasts.
The stories of their lives will remain untold, except for the 704 words here, as will the lives of millions of other women whose day to day experiences were unremarkable. But wait.
My maternal grandmother was one of thousands of women who worked in the shipyards during World War II. She was a welder who came home after her shift and cared for two little girls — one of them, my mother. She had a beautiful alto singing voice and a no-nonsense manner. She was an accomplished seamstress who made her own patterns and was known to tear apart major appliances and repair them. She also tackled the odd home repair project, once arguing with the fellow at the lumberyard for cheating her of the full dimensions of a 1x10 and several 2x4s. In her mind, if she asked for a 1x10, by golly, she ought to get one. She died in 1993 in the three-room cabin where she’d lived contentedly for decades. It had just recently been outfitted with cold running water.
My paternal great-grandmother grew up in Brimson where her father was a logger. He later moved the family to the Iron Range when he went to work in the mines. She was one of many children in her family, but she lived alone for much of her adult life. She had a small two story house in a working-class neighborhood. In her early years she played the in-house music for silent films. She was an outspoken, short, barrel-shaped woman with mischief in her eyes. She crocheted masterpieces, made pierogi and potica for which I still have cravings, and her house and yard were neat as a pin. Always. She did it all by herself day after day, but could not walk without the aid of two canes. She scooted herself up and down the stairs on her bottom, one at a time. She did her laundry, bathed, cleaned, cooked, shopped and did everything else without the mobility that most of us take for granted.
When I was a kid, these women were just my grandmas. But now I look back and I see how remarkable they were in their own ways. One had a steady practicality and the other was fiery and iron-willed, all qualities that I admire. They are not the women we frequently see as examples of movers and shakers, groundbreakers or newsmakers, but they were the foundation and structure upon which generations were built. Their opportunities were limited because of social, physical and economic barriers, but they made their contributions nonetheless.
March is Women’s History Month. Alongside the hundreds of women we consider icons of academia, science, politics and service to humanity — women whose pictures appear in books or on inspirational posters — and women who have the good fortune of facing fewer barriers and more opportunity, there are millions more who guided the early years of younger generations and inspired, nurtured, mentored or made them pierogi and potica and a warm winter coat. We all stand on the shoulders of these giants, even if they were just five feet tall and stood with the aid of two canes.