She didn’t know she had grown up poor. How could she? In her neighborhood, everyone was the same. Sometimes the land was generous and allowed you to make a little extra money, which was meant to be hidden in the house, not trusted to the banks that had harmed so many so recently. She worked her husband’s farm, and when land and animal were generous, they were able to sell what little excess they had to buy what they could not grow. She had not been married long before she came across the plight of two young boys. They were in grade school. One was her cousin. Neither child’s family had the means to care for yet another child, so she and her husband decided to take the boys in for a short while. They stayed for more than a half a year.
I won’t pretend to know her full story or even more than a small fraction of it. She’s just a few years away from making it to a century on this earth, and though her body is slowing, subject to a thousand tiny mutinies, she still lives in her own house, though years have passed since she has become a widow. To me, she is the woman who hosted nearly every holiday, including the Thanksgiving I passed out behind a sofa and no one could find me. She is the woman who once irritated my grandfather when he discovered that she was still hiding money around her house, stashed in books and other clever spaces. She is the woman who refuses to let a conversation pass without offering to feed you, even though you’ve just arrived from lunch and no, please, chicken isn’t vegetarian, yes, it is meat. Today is my great-grandmother Pauline’s birthday, and she is 96.
I find it significant that today is International Women’s Day because we so often get caught up in the big stories, the headlines, the impersonal. Sometimes we forget that women can do extraordinary things by just surviving in this world. Heroism can be waving a flag, working toward a cure, refusing to be denied services for your gender, but it can also be taking care of two little boys because they don’t have a home. I interviewed my great-grandmother when I worked for The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register. It was the beginning of our economic downturn, so the idea was for me to speak with people who lived through The Great Depression to get their views on what was happening. She was reticent to talk, not because her life was immune to the impacts of the Depression but because you made the sacrifices necessary for survival. People helped one another. “Everyone was the same,” she said. A simple sentence, but it stuck with me.
So on this day when we honor the struggle of women around the world, think about the women in your own life and the sacrifices they will never boast. And give someone a hug, because you have no idea how long they’ll be in your life.