Cultural Grandmothers

cultural-grandmothers

This year, I lost both my grandmothers, and like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you. I have been thinking a lot about grandmotherness. Grandmothers are almost exclusively a human anomaly. Only elephants, pilot whales, and rhesus monkeys have living, post-menopausal, female ancestors. Rachel Caspari’s research at Central Michigan University suggests the Neanderthals didn’t survive because they didn’t have grandmothers, as such things are useful as a sort of feretory of knowledge about where good grazing land is during that once-in-a-thirty-year drought. Biologist George C. Williams posits some evolutionary advantage to having someone in your life who stops having babies and starts taking care of everyone else. The whole Grandmother Hypothesis is debatable, but the idea of “grandmother” is a useful cultural archetype that helps me understand my origins and history. We tend to think about grandmothers as keepers of the past. This year, I learned more about my present-day family by losing my grandmothers than I did thrashing in anguish the last ten years. Grandmothers are formed by completely different times, but they exist in the contemporary moment. Their ability, by their mere existence, to reconcile the past and the present teaches volumes about who we are and where we came from.

I started thinking about metaphorical grandmothers: women of today, shaped by history, who shape the present. I thought about the poet Louise Glück and how the sublimity of her imagery tempered the moral brutality of her poems, how reading The Wild Iris used to break the 21-year-old boy I was, and how now her writing is a source of fortitude. I thought about the fire-engine-red haired Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon and how her organizational abilities and devoted affection helped make Christo the artist he is; and how lucky I am to have a partner in my own work. I thought about Betty White, who we laugh at now because she is an older woman who says dirty things, but really has been a fiercely talented comic for seven decades who always worked a little blue. I thought of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois and how much strength and resilience it must have taken to strong arm her way into New York’s art world with scrap metal and driftwood sculptures; how she blended childhood familial angst into her mature artistic voice; how her work was unabashedly feminist and treated maleness with compassion, love, and affection; and how gracefully she opened her home each Sunday to artists and then proceeded to treat people exactly as she thought they should be treated, for better or for worse.

And then I thought about Yoko Ono.

What came next…go here.

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This essay is part of the project, Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono.