As I reflect on my adventures lately and how the whole of it has been not at all what I hoped in some aspects, and yet beyond my wildest dreams in others, I have been hard-pressed to remember my bloodlines. To remember the women who came before me and are long gone. To honor the wild in each of them and measure how it was passed down to me.
My paternal great-grandmother, Sylvia. By the time I knew her, she was just a slip of a woman who spent most of her days in a chair with a homemade afghan over her legs. I was little when she died and I have only one photo of her, me dirty as always and hands full of some gooey pastry and her smiling indulgently over my dark unruly curls. Long after she died, I learned that she had lived through great loss: burying children in both infancy and young childhood, burying her husband, and burying two sons in adulthood, both from cancer and one of them my grandfather. I heard a story once that when a woman in town made fun of her many children (and them desperately poor), she chased after the woman with a sack of potatoes. She was tough. She had to be, raising so many boys and military men and burying her tribe one by one. My only memories of her, though, are her smiling her long, slow, peaceful smile.
My maternal great-aunts: Gladys, Lois, Nancy, and Chris. I had the privilege of keeping vigil with them the last week of my grandmother’s life. I have never laughed harder or cried more deeply wounded than I did that week. Shared grief will do that. I don’t know their stories well, but I know they all married young and were wild as horses and were sisters in blood and heart, each of them wearing their high Cherokee cheekbones proud. They laugh like my grandmother laughed, full-bodied and whole.
My paternal grandmother, Nora. In my often chaotic childhood, she was the one constant. We didn’t always get along, in fact almost never, but I realize in adulthood that we were both incredibly stubborn and stood our ground no matter what. She had built a reputation of standing her ground, that one. She hated guns. Hated them. I never knew why (and it was something on which we strongly disagreed) until just a few weeks ago when my father shared a story of her. My grandfather was a wild man from a family full of wild men. When he got in an argument with one of his brothers and said brother pulled a gun on him, my grandmother walked straight in between them, the gun barrel resting on her forehead, and demanded they stop. She hated alcohol, too, and my father, the last and unexpected of her four children, did not grow up with alcohol in the house. I knew that my grandfather had enjoyed a sip in his day, but I also knew my grandmother’s vehement opposition to drinking of any sort. My grandfather wrecked their only car one night driving drunk. She informed him in no uncertain terms that if he were to ever do such a thing again, she would leave and take the children. He never drank again. She could do that to a person, put someone in his place and make sure he knew the consequences of his choices. As harsh as she was, she was also the woman who taught me how to make bread and enjoy coffee and watch the sunrise and revel in the beauty of playing in the dirt. She was tough, but she was a classy lady. And she ended every conversation with “God loves you…and so do I.” I miss hearing her shaky alto calling me at unholy hours to sing me happy birthday. I miss the way she would fling her hands and mutter curse words if someone called during a ballgame when her beloved KC Royals were playing. I miss the way she could fill a room without saying a word.
My maternal grandmother, Ruth. She was a spitfire in a tiny package. I have never witnessed a woman work so hard and eat so hard and laugh so hard in my life. Whatever she did, she did it with everything she had. Life, love, and faith. There were no halves in her. She raised her cows like beloved dogs and I have many memories of laying my head on their warm, soft bellies while they basked in the sun. I was never afraid of her gentle giants and I had no reason to be. She loved them and they knew it. It was the same for people: she loved or hated you and you knew it. She didn’t bother with masks or pretenses and I loved her honesty, even when it was brutal. I worked as a farmhand for her one summer in college; it was the most difficult and blessed summer of my life. I learned so much and walked away with cherished memories of a five-foot-tall firecracker.
These are the women in my blood. I see bits of them in myself and I am thankful for that from which I come. Wild women. May we be them, know them, and raise them.