I was taught by the best.
As a young boy, my grandmother was my hero. She is still my hero as an adult, but as a kid it was different. As a kid, her house was a place where there was always a fresh, ice cold, juice box waiting for me. A place where Christmas cookies were baking, and Peter Pan or The Little Mermaid were played on VHS. Where a blue blanket draped over my head could make me believe I was Batman. I would dream about going to grandma’s house for the weekend to stay over, just to experience what it was like to be there, and to be with the person who made it all possible.
My early childhood gave me good reason to long for this type of safe-haven. My father died when I was only 3, and my mother wasn’t ready to be a single parent. After my father died, my grandmother stepped in and provided the opportunity for me to stay with her on the weekends, which led to her taking full custody of me when I was 9. It was because of her that I can consider myself a feminist today, though she may deny being one herself.
Living at my grandma’s house was the best possible life I could have hoped for. Breakfast was always on the table when I woke up, and dinner was ready when I got home from school or practice. My grandma would take me to my hockey games at 5:00 in the morning - sometimes (often times) through brutal Buffalo snow. She sent me to private Catholic school, drove me to my first date, helped me buy my first car, and listened to me any time I had my heart broken about anything. When I didn’t want to talk, she would let me be. I did my best to merely be grateful at my good fortune, and resolved to educate myself so that I could use the gift I had been given to serve others.
During all the years that I lived with my grandma we would watch the news when we ate dinner. I would ask my grandma’s opinion about current affairs, society, and politics. Through those conversations I learned that my grandma’s opinions were varied and nuanced, with a hint of Irish-Catholic guilt, and healthy amount of good old-fashioned American idealism. It was one night during our discussion over dinner that I first found out what feminism was.
“Women’s Libbers,” my grandma said to the TV as a reporter spoke about affirmative action in local fire departments, which were aiming to recruit more women.
“What?” I asked my Grandma, not having heard the term before.
“Women’s libbers, from the 70’s. They’re taking away the jobs from men. Feminists. They think a woman has every right to do the same job a man can do, but can that woman pull a two hundred pound person out of a burning building? If they can’t do the job, they shouldn’t be hired, regardless of what is ‘fair’ or not.”
I could sense this was a sensitive topic for my grandmother, so I asked her to explain more of her position on feminism, and she told me the story of how she first was introduced to the idea in the 70’s:
“Some ladies I had known for a number of years came over to my house one day. They said they had something they wanted to talk with me about. So, I made lunch and got coffee ready and had them over. When we all sat down they said:
‘Pat, we want to talk with you about Women’s Lib,’
I said, ‘oh?’
They said, ‘Yes, so many women today are getting out of the house and getting jobs, earning their own money and feeling very fulfilled doing it! It’s a revolution! Isn’t it exciting?’
I said, ‘Well that’s wonderful for them but I’m very happy doing what I do at home for my family. I worked for a number of years and put the down payment on my house, I earned what I have. ‘
They continued, however, saying ‘Oh, but Pat you could be doing so much more with your life! Are you really happy being only a housewife?’
To which I replied, ‘What do you mean only a housewife? Are you honestly going to come into my home, eat a meal which I’ve prepared, then insult me by telling me that I could do more?’
‘Well Pat,’ they said, ‘you could be doing so much better,’
‘So, what I choose to do with my life isn’t somehow good enough in your eyes? Just what exactly gives you or those other women the right to pass judgement as to what is ‘better’? What the hell is wrong with how I live my life?.’
Then I asked them to leave. I was so hurt.”
Here was the bringer of juice boxes, the maker of christmas cookies, the shoulder I could cry on, telling me that some women had decided, based on their own personal ambition and agenda, that her home was not good enough and that the work she did in life was not special or exceptional. She was somehow lesser to them and their cause because she wasted her life filling a traditional “woman’s role”.
As a young man, I recognize the importance of what my grandmother did for me and for my family. A caregiver is a critical link that binds the fabric of society together, and that contribution must never be discredited in the name of progress. I realize that my grandmother came up against what is one of the central debates between feminists, and one that is critically important. Namely, the right to be the master of one’s own destiny - to choose to live as one wishes and to pursue happiness in an autonomous manner. Career-oriented individuals derive happiness from the pursuit of a promotion; family-oriented people derive happiness from a good report card coming home. Freedom from oppression and freedom to live in accordance to what is in your heart is what America is about.
Ultimately, I have been blessed to have witnessed the example my grandmother set. I witnessed the skills necessary to do all that she made seem effortless. She made a home that life, dreams, and imagination could flourish in - a home that was safe, and filled with love. I want my children to grow up in the kind of home environment my grandmother created, even if that means I have to make it happen myself. Thankfully, I was taught by the best.