Our Grandmothers’ Gifts

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My grandmother, Clara, wanted to travel, sing on stage, and live in a big city.  But, she never did. 

She was 21 years old on Black Tuesday, and she spent the early years of the Great Depression, letting go of her dreams-- doing what needed to be done for her family. 

She worked as a sales clerk in an elegant department store in Boston. She was as beautiful as the co-star in a movie, and good at her job. But, life was difficult for a single, young woman.


She married my grandfather at the age of thirty, unheard of in the 1930’s. She stayed at home and raised three children. Simple things satisfied my grandfather: talk over family dinner, freshly harvested vegetables from his garden, or refinishing an old picture frame he found in the alley.  He never wandered far from home.  It grounded him, but frustrated Clara.

She was practical, formidable, and sharp-tongued. She occasionally splurged on chocolates, let me rummage through her dresser for Dentine, and loved to sing. She told me stories of her Uncle Jack, a Vaudeville star, and expressed regret for never having traveled. She lashed out when she felt misunderstood.

Clara loved my pumpkin pie and taught me to make a perfect stuffed artichoke. I spent many afternoons in her kitchen taking orders on how to cook and clean. I now have her pans in my kitchen.

She came to see me sing when I was twenty.  I performed ‘Steps Of The Palace,’ from Steven Sondheim’s musical, ‘Into The Woods.’  The song conveys Cinderella’s confusion and struggle against the lure of Prince Charming. 

Clara sat in the front row. She pressed her arthritic fingers hard together, in front of her heart, as if in prayer. 

The show finished; she remained seated and stared up at the stage. I helped her to her feet. She held my hand in hers and hugged me. She smelled like mothballs and powder.

“Don’t get married.” She whispered. “Be a showgirl.”

Work in the theater is exhilarating.  The first time I stood on a stage, a twenty-piece orchestra vibrated under my feet, and the voices of 60 performers rang throughout the hall. I cried.

The lows of a career in the theater are as extreme as the highs, but the lure of “making it” kept us looking forward.  Actors are conditioned to believe that this next show will be the one to set them on an easier path.

I was 34. I had a coffee with my friend, John Rubenstein. He is a stage actor, made famous in the lead role of Pippin. He told me that you never  “make it”; there is only the next job.

He held his hands up and laughed, “I am Pippin. I still have to audition.” He encouraged me to view each job, even each audition, as success.

I recognized an ironic pattern. Actresses display nubile qualities for the audience, often possess exceptional beauty and talent.  It is that “it” factor that keeps luring them back to their career and yet, in the end, they wake up and realize they have reached their forties, and for many, the chance to have a child has passed by. 

Christianne Tisdale explores her own experience with career and motherhood in her new play “Thinking Outside My Box”. She uncovers her deep disillusion with the passage of time and laments: “I didn’t know that I came with an expiration date.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made an appearance on Sesame Street last week.  She told our puppet heroine, Abby Cadabby, that being a princess was not an option. Girls could train for a career, “A job you prepare for and plan on doing for a long time.” 

She tells Abby that girls can be anything they dream: a teacher, lawyer, doctor or scientist. Nowhere in her list of exciting endeavors was Mother. Abby decides that Justice Sotomayor’s career sounds very important so she will also be a Judge. In the end, our impressionable puppet tosses her pink, polished tiara and conceals herself in a billowy, ebony robe.

Yoga teaches a concept of front body and back body. 

The front body is the way we present ourselves to the world. The back body is our connection to a higher power. It is where our Dharma, or highest calling, lies. 

At first, I couldn’t internalize this concept.  But, with practice, I understood subtle balance and strength comes through centeredness. The foundation for any action is the heart center. It helps us recognize when we are in the right place and anchors us in the present. The heart is where we reconcile our inner calling with our outward presence.

When the divine feminine is in balance it manifests nurturing, when it is out of balance-- is conveys vanity

PBS and Justice Sotomayor left out a key factor that young girls need to understand.  It is not one or the other.  Women can have it all, just not all at once.

What good are powerful, high paying careers if there is no balance in our life?

That same distinct feeling of resonance that moved me to tears on the stage years ago, hit me again when I first heard my son’s heartbeat, and to this day when I smell his hair, rub his toes and kiss him good night.

Careers do not define who we are, and extrinsic motivation whether it is as a princess or Supreme Court judge might never fulfill us. Though both of these experiences may inform who we can grow to be.

My grandmother Clara lived to be 96. She was shaped, as we all are, by historical context and social norms that left her longing for adventure and recognition. Now, we may have allowed the pendulum to swing too far to the other side.  Lets not place new constraints for our daughters that will be equal in magnitude and consequences, but opposite in direction.

The sacrifices of Clara, and women like her, give our daughters the gift of infinite choice. My Grandmother taught me the importance of family, freedom, and following my heart.

If we embrace where we are-- instead of longing for what has passed or could be, we may find that we have “made it” because we understand what is right for us in this moment. And the moment, though briefer than a season, is still finite.