Women growing older with grace and gusto

Sharing stories of our grandmothers

To mark Dia de los Muertes, when we remember those who have gone before us, I thought it would be interesting and lovely to explore our memories of our own Grandmothers. Please share your stories, either on your own blogs and link to them in the comments at Pilgrim’s Moon, or write directly in the comments.

Here’s my story of the only one of my grandmothers I remember.

My Grandmother was not a Crone

My father’s mother had a certain sharp strength and a lot of determination, but they were not channelled into the wisdom, courage and compassion of the Crone. She shunned female companionship, investing herself in men.

The choices she made in response to loss and hardship perhaps arose partly from her class and time.

Louisa was born in the late 1800s in a poor area of London. Her father took casual manual jobs when he could get them and died, destitute, of heart failure in a workhouse not many years later. His widow took in ironing when she could, to try and support herself and her three children. By the age of 18, Louisa was a domestic servant. She was largely uneducated. And somewhere around this time she met my grandfather.

Thomas, it seems was one crucial step up the social ladder, and Louisa was beautiful. They fell in love, and married in 1916 while he was home on leave from fighting in WWI.

Eighteen months later, Louisa had a gorgeous baby son, my father, and held in her hand a telegram from the War Office informing her of the death of her handsome young husband. (I have that telegram and the first time I unfolded its creases to see what it was I had to sit down suddenly, so strong were the shock waves of grief stored in it.)


In her loss, she clung to her young son, placed him at the centre of her life and began to bring him up not as a son, but as a man she could rely on, as she had her husband. She turned away from her mother-in-law and her sister, who tried to help and companion her. She had a war widow’s income but struggled financially.

A few years later Louisa married again: a widower, quite well-off and with his own young family. It started well, but wasn’t a good match. The new husband’s daughter was the apple of his eye and Louisa couldn’t cope with competition from another female. She felt she wasn’t given enough attention, that her own son wasn’t valued.

Years passed. My father met and married my mother. They set up home together and soon had a baby son. They were blissfully happy.


Louisa became more and more resentful that her husband didn’t consider her to be the centre of his world, and this was thrown into sharp relief because her adult son had “left her” to marry. Photographs of this time show her lovely face becoming pinched in bitterness. She wrote long, slightly unbalanced letters to my father describing petty incidents in which she believed her stepdaughter was deliberately undermining her.

The marriage deteriorated over the years, inevitably and inexorably, until the day her husband hit her, and she turned up on my parents’ doorstep with a suitcase, a little while after the end of WWII. It’s greatly to her credit that she left him immediately, and divorced him at a time when divorce was still almost unheard of.

Life without a husband

Louisa lived with my parents until her death. And yet again my grandmother turned her face away from female companionship. She tried to marginalise my mother’s relationship with Dad. Manipulative stuff: subtle little criticisms and offhand remarks, redoing household tasks that Mum had done perfectly well then making it obvious how tired it had made her, harking back to the perfection of her own mothering skills, spoiling my older brothers. (My parents’ relationship was made of strong stuff and weathered this storm, but it was difficult for them, and a token of my mother’s generosity that she continued to try and befriend Granny.)

A room of one’s own

By the time I was born in the early 50s, Louisa no longer made any attempt to live as part of the family. She held court in a room of her own: the best in the house. I don’t recall her ever joining us for a family meal, not even at Christmas. She put my father in an impossible situation, insisting that Dad go up to spend time with her as soon as he came in from work every day, giving her preference over his own wife and family.

Strangely, for someone who always sought out male company, she took to me. Perhaps she saw me as Estella to her Miss Havisham.

I was far too young to be aware of how manipulative she was. I loved spending time with her, being allowed to look in her jewellery box, to try on her rings, to examine her photographs and memorabilia, to hear her stories, to read her love letters, to have her fix my hair. The photograph on the right shows one of her favourite outfits from her glory days. She would instruct me that men liked a woman who took care of herself, who listened to them and fussed over them. She had a glamour that my poor hard-working mum didn’t even aspire to.

I have beautiful eyes, and my strongest memory of Granny is of me sitting at her feet, gazing up at her and listening to her tell me with strange intensity “It’s your eyes that will get you your man. You must learn to make the most of them.”

An ending

In the early 1960s Louisa had a heart attack and was hospitalised. She was warned by the doctors that complete bed rest for several days was essential if she didn’t want a more serious attack. That evening, after my Dad visited her, she got out of bed and began walking the hospital corridors as fast as she could. She was dead the next day. She didn’t want a long, drawn out ending, she wanted it on her terms.

And the world was changing beyond her understanding. Louisa was quintessentially a man’s woman, and the feminist storm gathering on the horizon would have appalled her!


What about you?

What are your memories of your grandmothers? It would be wonderful if you would share them.


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21 Responses to Sharing stories of our grandmothers

  1. Your story of your grandmother so touched my heart. I only met my maternal grandma once but heard a great many stories of her. She was a lovely wOman and I”ll share about her when I get a moment to gather thoughts. This is such a beautiful idea – reminds me of “How to make an AAmerican quilt” We have such rich bittersweet backgrounds with the women in our histories. Thank you!

  2. My grandmother was an intellectual at a time that didn’t value that in women. She graduated from Cornell University Summa Cum Laude. She lived very much in her mind: was a poet (published), a writer (published) and I think was dismayed by the fact that she had children.

    Her books are thick with correspondences she carried on with the authors. She had no problem writing to various people – strangers – and pointing out the strengths of one line of thought and the difficulties of another in their work. This led to many friendships with varied people. (More than once someone has borrowed a book and said, My god. There are letters from the author in here. Yes. Yes there are. Not anyone anyone’s heard of, but people who wrote about the things she was interested in.) Mostly she was interested in poetry, the natural world and Unitarianism.

    She died in 1994.

    I loved her very much. And she was very influential and remains so in my life.
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  3. Sad story but wonderful that you remember her with understanding and compassion. I knew both my grandmothers and they were two very different women. Both born in the late 1800’s. One raised comfortably and one who was poor. The “comfortable” one seemed independent but was not and the poor one seemed to be very dependent on others but in truth she ruled the roost.

    I always encourage young women to talk to their grandmothers and mothers and ask to questions to get to know them and the history of their family. Once these women are gone so is the well of information and discovery.
    Patricia recently posted..Philippians 1:3 nltMy Profile

    • Thanks Patricia, for this illustration of how things are not always what they appear. I about talking to others in the family. I was delighted a few years ago to find a long-lost relative in Australia whose mother, my mother’s cousin, had just had her 100th birthday. The information she relayed through my contact about that side of the family was invaluable.

  4. That is one hell of a story. I’ve never heard anything like it before. I can’t say I’ve known a woman like your grandmother, at least not well. Surely I have known male-dependent women from a distance. I’m sad for women who can’t enjoy the utter delight of female friendship. Thank you for sharing such a poignant, intense, unexpected story.
    Alison Wiley recently posted..Downwardly Mobile On The Oregon TrailMy Profile

  5. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, but I knew both grandmothers, although not well. We lived about 600 miles from the area where they lived, but we visited at least every other year. Although my father’s mother was around me more, it is my mother’s mother who stands out in my mind.

    She was the grand daughter of a Lutheran minister whose Catholic family disowned him when he converted to Lutheranism. In 1864, he immigrated from his native Saxony (province in Germany) to the large German settlement in SE Texas, married the daughter of another German immigrant and raised a large family.

    Her father was also of German stock, the foreman of a cigar factory, who married one of the minister’s daughters. They lived in the house the factory owner provided for his foremen, and there my grandmother was born. (The tiny little house still stands. It has been restored and is now a bed and breakfast.) Her father fell ill with cancer, and when his constant pain became unbearable, he went out into the front yard and shot himself, in a time when suicide bore a heavy social stigma.

    Widowed, with no place to live, and with young children to support, her mother married a man who squandered what money she had, sexually abused her eldest daughter (my grandmother) and got her pregnant. As soon as she could, my 16-year-old grandmother took her younger sister and her son away to another town and got a job keeping house for a man who lived alone out on his farm. (Housekeeping was just about the only ‘respectable’ way for a woman on her own to earn a living in turn-of-the century rural Texas.) Her employer took advantage of her situation and was the father of her second son. He did not marry her (she already had one out-of-wedlock child, why should he?) but when he died of tuberculosis, he did leave my grandmother a sizable parcel of farm land in his will.

    Now with two children to support, she married my grandfather (he was willing to adopt her two sons and “give them a name”), and had 10 more children by him, my mother being the youngest. My grandfather was foreman of a cattle ranch at the time they married and he was reputed to have had quite a temper.

    When my mother was 2 years old, my grandfather, who was “moody,” fell into a deep, psychotic depression and decided that because times were so tough that he must kill his wife and children, and then himself as he was convinced that this was their only alternative to starvation. He had gotten out his rifle with that intention. Her oldest son was forced to shoot him to prevent him from carrying out his plan. He was arrested and put on trial for murder, but was acquitted on the grounds that he had acted in self defense; however, the whole affair created quite a scandal. (This was her stepfather’s child, who was by all accounts,including my mother’s, a mild mannered, gentle and kindly man who drove a school bus for over 40 years, and several years before his death had a middle school named for him.)

    Several years later, my grandmother created another scandal when she married a man who was younger than her oldest son. He was a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade (and a very capable one), with a 6th grade education. He loved her deeply and did his best to support her and her children. He and my grandmother remained happily married until her death and he was devoted to her. My mother does not remember her birth father. Her stepfather was the one who raised her.

    From our intermittent visits, I remember a sturdy, round-faced, clear-eyed woman with a German accent (second generation American, and yet she spoke German better than she spoke English). She and my step grandfather lived out in the country on a farm where my grandmother raised cows, chickens, and kept a garden where she grew vegetables, while he brought in cash through his carpentry and contracting. (That farm was an amazing place to this tomboy city girl.) I had a hard time fitting my mother (well dressed, always beauty-shop coifed, determinedly upwardly mobile, who worked outside the home all the time we were growing up) with the farmers and farmer’s wives all her siblings (except her oldest sister) had become. Though the resemblance was obvious, it was difficult to imagine my mother living in that context and being mothered by this weathered, overweight, plainspoken woman with her competent work roughened hands and frizzy brown hair.

    My mother was ashamed of how her father died, and deeply embarrassed by the fact that “everyone” knew that her step father was younger than her oldest brother. She was ashamed of her uneducated, unsophisticated family. After graduating high school (she was 2nd in her class by 1/2 of a grade point), my mother went to live with her oldest sister, who was married to an accountant and who lived in the city, put herself through secretarial school, got a job and went looking for a “better” life, determined to get for herself the material possessions (and the “respectability”) she had not had growing up. My mother did not find out until after her mother was long dead that her mother had been the victim of sexual abuse, and that her two oldest brothers were actually half brothers. (She was so ashamed of her mother’s abuse and the fact that her two eldest brothers were the illegitimate results of it that she didn’t tell me about it until about a year ago. It was a “shameful” secret that had to be hidden.)

    My grandmother could barely read and write (women didn’t need an education). She survived sexual abuse and raised–and loved — the children that were the constant reminder of it. She got her younger sister out of an abusive situation and protected her. She washed clothes for a husband and 12 children with home made lye soap in a tub hung over a fire built out in the yard. She farmed and raised cattle, and sold eggs and butter she churned herself for money to buy what they could not grow. They had coal oil lamps for light until my mother was in high school, but did not have indoor plumbing until after my mother had left home. She was feisty and opinionated, and worked hard all her life. All her children were born at home. She never saw the inside of a hospital (or needed to) until she was in her 70’s and she died at the age of 76. She clearly loved my mother and was intensely proud of her, and for all that my mother had tried to distance herself from her “shameful, deprived” childhood, she cried bitterly to see her mother laid out at the funeral home when she and I flew down to attend the funeral. It made a deep impression on me, a woman in my late 20’s, as it was the first time I ever remember seeing my mother cry.

    My grandmother was a remarkable woman — Unfortunately, I didn’t find out just how remarkable she was until after she died. I wish I had gotten the chance to know her better. She was tough and determined, practical and clear-headed, a no-nonsense woman, but she was also lively and warm, with a good sense of humor, always delighted to see us. She was who she was, and made no apologies for it, something my mother unfortunately never seemed to have learned from her.
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  6. My maternal grandmother was the most influential person in my life–even though I only got to see her once a year. She was the wife of an Arkansas cotton farmer, married at 14, and became the mother of 9 children.
    My grandfather was physically abusive at times (until my grandmother herself and her sons put a stop to it) and he always had other women. She felt she had no option other than to stay on the farm. She was NOT submissive, however. And despite her marriage, she was fun and full of life.

    She took refuge in the company of and the friendships with other farm women, her sister, and female relatives. From her I learned how much fun and how nurturing female friendships could be.

    She loved me wholeheartedly and unconditionally. She always told me I was smart and that I should make sure I had my own career. She also told me I should never marry (I can understand why she felt that way). Although I did marry, it didn’t last and I have been single for many years. I later had an important relationship with a man until his death. However, we never married and did not live together. I do not think I am missing anything by being alone now. I feel my life is very full.

    When I look around now, I see I have her life–only without Grandpa! I have my own little farm and a wealth of female friends. Now how did that happen?!

  7. My maternal grandmother, Emily Mary nee Watson was the only person who loved me for all of the 21 years I had until she died and her love was unconditional despite the fact that giving birth to me meant the death of my mother, her daughter aged only 32, some hours later through a catastrophic post-partum haemorrhage which obstetricians are now more prepared for although it is still one of the most serious obstetric emergencies. This love felt miraculous to me although it was quiet and unspectacular. She loved her daughter dearly but she managed to make a huge and complete space of welcome for me and constant but very understated affirmation of me and I have drawn on the memory of it all my life since especially when I have been hurt or bereaved again. She was the one who, when I was a very small child, explained what happened to my mother and there was no blame or overt grief just quiet explanation and a big cuddle. I’m sure she missed her daughter terribly but she never ‘took it out’ on me. Not that I was to blame but I felt that I was. A very unassuming woman who had actually lost her husband, adult son and daughter all within 18 months and never made excessive self-pitying demandsfrom other people. How she contained her grief, I’ll never know because I wasn’t old or experienced enough to ask her when she was alive. I honour and bless her and I’m pleased to tell you about her!

    • amy, your comment about this miraculous love being quiet and unspectacular speaks volumes. I sometimes wonder how people cope with the sort of loss you describe all within 18 months. I’m so glad you told her story here.

  8. My mother’s mother disliked her and my mother disliked me. My mother’s mother’s mother probably disliked her. Thank goodness I had a son.

  9. Firstly, I would just like to say how deeply moved I am by reading of your grandmothers’ stories, thank you Tess for giving us this opportunity.
    I don’t remember my paternal grandmother and when I expressed to my father that I would have liked to have known her, he said “She would have bullied you.” As a young woman she worked for a company in Liverpool who made sailors’ uniforms. Her job was to sit in a tower of their building with a spy glass to watch the horizon and inform her supervisor which ships were sailing into port, in order for them to have the correct uniforms and buttons ready on their arrival.My father says she had to wear long pants with string tied around her knees to prevent the rats from running up her legs. She was small and stout and known as Dolly. She married a very tall handsome man who was full of ideas. A clerk by profession he had many money making plans and Nana and the boys traveled wherever Grandad’s work took him. They eventually settled in a large Victorian house and had a gardener and a maid. My parents and I lived there not long after I was born but my mother refused to stay for long.
    My maternal grandmother also had 3 boys and my mother. Her husband was killed in a motor bike accident when my mother, the youngest child, was 2. As a consequence, all the children were sent, as boarders, to The Bluecoat Hospital School and my grandmother was given ‘delicates’ to wash as she had a weak heart. She lived in a rented terrace house with her mother who had been married to a coach driver but was tired of traveling around the country and when they finally made it back to Liverpool, informed him that she was staying put! He left and I don’t know how she managed afterwards. She was known in her later years for reading out the obituaries of people she knew, in the Liverpool Echo, chuckling and saying ” I knew she’d go before me”!
    Granny’s brother’s wife left him with 3 boys to mind and he paid my grandmother to look after them. As a child my mother always wondered why her cousins were at her mother’s house whenever she came home from school. How strange not to be able to afford to have your own children at home but to be paid to mind someone else’s?
    I remember my grandmother as being a kind and loving woman with a lovely sense of humour and lots of time and patience for her little granddaughter.. Her house was a two up two down with a privy in the yard and a scullery at the back. The front room had a piano and was only used for visitors. She attended the spiritualist church all her life in the hope of speaking again with her husband.
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  10. heather, thank you for this portrait of your grandmothers and of the times they lived in. You’ve planted a picture in my head of small stout Dolly and her tall handsome husband.
    And your maternal grandmother with her humour and patience sounds grand. I wonder if she ever managed to speak with her husband at that church.

  11. I mentioned the hugely tall heritage bookshelf in my grandmother’s home when I was a small child. The books in the case were too knowledgeable to do anything with. My reading was not that far advanced yet. But in the cabinet there were albums of classical music some with very interesting paintings or other pictures on the covers. I would set the albums out in an array on the floor, as if they playing cards and wander into them in fantasy. I remember looking up one time and my grandmother standing there quietly watching me. The loveliest smile for a moment, and then she left me free to continue on my own.

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