Happy International Women's Day

This International Women’s Day I remember with love and gratitude two great women - my grandmothers. One inspired me with her stoicism, fortitude and sharp mind. The other nourished my soul with unconditional love and an unquenchable joie de vivre.

If you’ve been reading my writing for a while, you’ll already know that Dot, one of my beloved grandmothers (the one on the right) died a few years ago. I’ve missed her everyday since, and written about her a lot.

Last year Nana - my other grandmother also shuffled off this mortal coil.

Nana was an accountant. Intelligent, practical, pragmatic and emotionally constant. Growing up I’d always thought life flowed along easily for Nana; nothing seemed to ruffle her feathers. She never forgot birthdays, always cooked a table full of yummy things at Christmas and even did my tax. It seemed life for Nana was effortless… Homemaker, mother, and career woman; a poster girl for feminism.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Nana, and discovered that life had been anything but effortless. The illusion of ease she constructed was built on deep reserves of fortitude and resilience. Nana’s life had been more like a turbulent ocean than a gentle stream. And although the high seas had taught her how to sail over even the most challenging waves, it had hardened her to the softness of her heart.

When nana was very young her father fell ill with tuberculosis. Without his income the family lost their house and her mother’s small seamstress income did not cover the cost of looking after two children. As a result seven-year-old Nana was sent away from her mother and younger brother to live with relatives in distant city. Nana described this to me as the saddest time in her life. I imagine that these early experiences were big contributors to Nana’s capacity for stoicism.

The more I asked and the more she told, the more I understood that there’d been nothing easy about her professional accomplishments either. Her career was build on constant setbacks, patience and persistence; in stark contrast to the educational opportunities that were freely available to me, and which I’d taken for granted as an entitlement.

At 14, despite being dux of her class Nana’s mother told her she had to leave school and start earning income to contribute to the family. At 18 she joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) as a typist in the cypher division during WWII. (Many years later it was revealed that they’d been working for the codebreakers at Bletchley Park who played a big role in ending the war. The movie The Imitation Game is based on this.

Nana at 18 in her WRANS uniform. Nana at 18 in her WRANS uniform.

After discharge from the WRANS, the government offered all returned service men and women access to free education, but once again the family needed her income, partially to pay for her brother’s university education. Such was life for a working class girl of her generation.

It was not until much later in life, after her own children were well into their educations that she was able to go back and finish high school (at the same time as her youngest daughter). She enjoyed it so much she qualified for tertiary entrance. Six years later, she graduated with an accounting degree and started the professional career I’d thought was simply something that had happened easily and smoothly for her.

On the surface Nana didn’t appear to be a radical, anti-establishment sort of a woman, but at her memorial service I learned that she had a well read copy of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and had long railed against the expectations that the tradition of the time placed on her. She didn’t burn her bra in the street, instead her brand of feminism was a quiet persistence towards her goals. I admire her life of peaceful protest.

A few years ago Nana had a severe health scare and we all thought she might die. I flew down to be with her and was overcome with sadness at the prospect of her dying. It felt too soon and I realised I’d never told her I loved her. My sisters and I grew up being told by both our parents that we were loved, and we all say it freely and often to each other, but it was never something that was said in Nana’s world. Thankfully she pulled through, and from that day on, each time I said goodbye to her I always told her I loved her. And was always surprised at the depth of feeling when she said it back to me.

The last time I saw Nana before she died, we embraced goodbye and she held my shoulders, looked into my eyes and said “I love you dear.” I cherish that last memory of her.

Meanwhile Dot, who was dubbed by the doctors at birth as The Most Wanted Child in the Wimmera, enjoyed a childhood brimming with love and middle class privilege. She was educated at a top private school and had held hopes of becoming a nurse. An untimely kidney infection at the time of entrance postponed those wishes and by the time the next year’s intake came around she had married a handsome farmer and embarked on an entirely different life as a farmwife.

dot Dot never did make it back to study. Instead she raised five children and became the beloved matriarch of our family and a cornerstone of an entire community. She had a big heart and a rare ability to connect with anyone. She always had visitors dropping in unannounced because she had a knack for making you feel like the most important thing in her day. And not least of all she made me feel loved and accepted unconditionally.

This International Women’s Day I remember two great women: Nana who showed me that patience and persistence are the path to achieving dreams, that strength doesn’t have to be loud and angry, and also that we shouldn’t grow so strong that we lose connection with our hearts.

And Dot who gave me an example of wholehearted hospitality to aspire to, and nourished me with limitless love and acceptance. But despite the high regard the world held for Dot, she’d sometimes tell me she didn’t feel like she’d done much with her life because she’d never studied, had a career or travelled as much as she’d wanted to. She was the centre of my universe so I’d always thought it was crazy talk, but her self doubt also taught me that we should celebrate our own unique qualities instead of comparing ourselves to others.

The world is full of amazing women, and though we are strong beyond words, we are also sensitive and vulnerable too, and that is it’s own brand of strength.

Happy International Women’s Day to you! Who are you grateful for today?