Gladys was my paternal grandmother. She grew up on the plains of Texas in the early 1900s. She was only four years old when her father died in a flu epidemic, leaving her widowed mother to care for her and her three siblings. Life on a farm is never easy and everyone in the family was expected to contribute to the success of the farm for the family’s survival. My grandmother told stories about working fields as a young girl using a mule-drawn plow. After her mother remarried a few years later, the entire family followed the harvest cycle across Texas, moving from one area to the next following the flow of field work, with everyone spending time working in the fields.
In many ways my grandmother was stereotypical of her time and place. She married and had two boys. She was a stay-at-home wife and mother, primarily focused on tending to her home. In other ways she showed a clear tendency to make her own decisions and do things as she saw fit. She married against her step-father’s wishes. She and my grandfather eloped across the state line into New Mexico when she was 16. After she and my grandfather became Christ followers, they moved to Los Angeles to attend a ministerial training college. When they returned to Texas to begin pastoring, on many occasions she was the one who took to the pulpit and delivered the sermon, not a common sight in West Texas in the 40s and 50s.
For their entire married life, she and my grandfather managed the family finances together. They made decisions together. They were visibly and consistently concerned for the well-being of each other. They were for each other and partnered together. They had a deep love for one another that was the foundation of their respect for one another. Neither of them left the house without kissing the other goodbye, even if they would only be separated for a few hours.
By the time I came along, my grandmother had begun to experience significant health problems and spent much of her time resting. She had battled rheumatic fever as a child, prior to the availability of antibiotics, and her internal organs were weakened as a result. Bleeding ulcers further weakened her body and sapped her strength. My earliest memories of her include the frequent rest breaks she was forced to take, lying on the sofa on good days, staying in bed on the not-so-good days. Yet she continued to teach her class of young adults every week. She continued to fulfill her pastoral role, making herself available to people, caring for them in the midst of the crises and celebrations of their lives, a fully-fledged ministry partner with my grandfather.
A visit to my grandparents’s home almost always included a shopping trip with my grandmother. My grandmother enjoyed shopping, even if several hours rest would be required for her to recover afterward, and she seemed to take especial pleasure in shopping for clothes for her granddaughters. After having spent her entire adult life as the only female in her home, she was blessed with five granddaughters and we all benefited from her desire to share her love of beautiful clothes. As a little girl, I would watch with wonder as she entered a store, like a ship under full sail, head held high, handbag over her forearm, walking with purpose. Growing up with little money for shopping, I was entranced to see the sales people hurrying to help her, even in stores where she didn’t regularly shop. Something about the way she carried herself, this woman who’d done fieldwork as a child to help support the family, communicated to everyone who saw her that here was a woman who knew what she wanted and had the ability to get it.
I learned many things from my grandmother. I learned that women are strong, capable, decisive beings who can do whatever they set their minds to. I learned that physical weakness may be inevitable, but it doesn’t have to keep you from participating in life. I learned to place a priority on caring for the people around me. I learned that a wise woman keeps her own counsel, but also shares freely from the wisdom she has gained when she’s asked.
My grandparents had been married for 62 years when my grandfather died. I had the opportunity, privilege and (admittedly) hard physical work of living with my grandmother for a time after my grandfather died. She was mostly confined to her bed by then, and required full-time assistance, but she continued to care for those around her, spending time talking with and praying for her caregivers. The example my grandmother left me speaks to both the value of women functioning in ministry as well as the value of men and women partnering together in all aspects of life. She’s been gone some time now, but I’m still learning from the lessons she provided.
As Women’s History Month ends this week, I’m looking at the lives of several women who have influenced who I am and how I live my life, a series I’m calling “These Women.” The other posts in the series will tell you more about why I’m focusing on these women, about the woman who taught me what it means to be a survivor, about the woman who inspired my sense of purpose, and about the woman who challenges me to live a well-examined life. I’m writing about a different woman each day this week and hope these stories inspire you to look for the influential women in your own life and celebrate the gifts they’ve given you.