There is a picture in my room of the grandmother I never met. She died when my father was just a child.
The picture is sepia-toned. The woman in it is wearing a hat and smiling. Not a broad smile, but something more opaque; a Scottish immigrant girl’s take on Mona Lisa. I find myself gazing at her for long periods of time trying to read her eyes, which don’t quite match the smile. I always come back to the question of whether she was happy at all. She worked in a factory. Her husband was an alcoholic. She had six children and, at the time she died, she was pregnant with number seven.
I can’t begin to imagine such a life. Did her children bring her joy? Was she too exhausted to feel it?
I had it in my head for many years, I don’t know why, that she had died of Polio. Later, I heard the official story; that she died of blood poisoning from an injury at the factory. Only recently, my father (who is just now working through the mountain of emotional detritus left by her death and the subsequent abandonment of him and his siblings at a local orphanage) told me that she died as a result of a botched abortion. She was twenty-six.
To say that I was floored by this revelation might qualify as the understatement of the year.
It’s not so much that I discovered that “my grandmother” had tried to give herself an abortion, since I never knew this woman as my grandmother. I never even saw a photograph of her until a few years ago. It’s just that this was the ‘30’s. She came from a time when these things didn’t happen.
The following are some excerpts from an essay someone sent me about the suffrage movement that fought for and won women’s right to vote (as chronicled in the HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels”). I’m afraid it didn’t include the author’s name, so if anyone recognizes it, please let me know.
Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of 'obstructing sidewalk traffic.'
They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.
It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy.
The doctor admonished the men: 'Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.'
The nineteenth amendment was ratified on August 26th, 1920.
While it would certainly be easy to do, I’m not going in a “rock the vote” direction here. Reading the passages above, however, inspires me personally to vote and voice my opinion as a citizen at every conceivable opportunity (condolences are in order to my local City Council).
Nor is this meant to be an exhortation to pro-choice activism, although I do believe in a woman’s right to choose. Knowing how his mother’s death affected my father, and knowing how his own struggle with abandonment has colored my life and relationships, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if my grandmother had been able to terminate her last pregnancy and had lived to a ripe old age. But then, might she have terminated her fourth pregnancy, my father, thereby obliterating my and my son’s existence?
And how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Dad told me about a conversation he had with his older brother:
Vern tells me that we were all taken to the hospital to see her, an experience that is a blank in my memory bank. In a therapy session I had last year in which I was to think of my mother with my eyes closed, an apparition appeared to me in a prone position; it reached out to me with one hand. I told Vern about this experience at Christmas time, and he said she did reach out to all of us on her death bed.
My dad was four years old - the same age that my little man is now. I picture my own son in this scene and I can’t bear it. I wish I could travel to the universe in which my father is four. I wish that I could scoop that scared, abandoned, sad child into my arms and hold him as tightly as I can.
I am humbled and grateful that, if I wanted to, I could go right this second, burst into my own child’s preschool, scoop him up into my arms, and hold him as tightly as I can; at least until he looks at me and says “Mommy, can you be the Tickle Monster?”
I am humbled and grateful that I live in a time and place in which I can vote against the bums who don’t agree with my astute world view. I am humbled and grateful that I live in a time and, as messed up as our country is, a place in which, as a woman, I do have control over my life.
I look back at the photograph of my grandmother and I see a young woman, a sister, maybe a kindred spirit, who was born in the wrong place and time. A woman who got the short end of the stick.
My heart goes out to her. I’d like to think that her heart beats in me.
Her name was Eleanor.