My grandmother will be ninety in November. She bought a John Deere tractor in the 80’s and uses it to this day to plow her West Tennessee field. Last week when the kids and I were visiting, she took each of my children for a ride on the land that her own mother bought with cash, money that she earned herself tending to a hatchery that helped sustain her family and others during the Great Depression. As I watched my elderly grandmother handle both her John Deere and my children at the same time and as I listen to my grandmother tell of the days of her childhood and the days of raising her five children, I am struck by the strength of the women in my family – my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mother. As mothers, they faced great trials. I have grown up hearing legends of my tough great grandmother, mama Ruby, how she was no-nonsense, how she took care of her family. My grandfather was more affectionate and yet more useless on account of his weakness for drink, I think. I wonder if his sensitive nature made him more vulnerable, less able to cope with the hardness of life. Makes me wonder about God’s doling out of our natures, how our circumstances interact with the self we were given.
Even though my grandmother stayed home for the first 15 years of rearing her children, she worked harder than I think of myself working as a stay-at-home mom. It was a very physical hardness. She gardened and canned and picked cotton in the fall. When her youngest started school she went to work. She survived an alcoholic husband who died when her fifth child was 10. My mother’s mothering life was harder too, I imagine. Her eleven-year-marriage to my biological father was wrought with loneliness and disappointment. She spent a month in the hospital, virtually alone, before my twin brother and I were born in order to keep us from being born two months early which in those days would have meant death. She had to work throughout my childhood, making barely enough for us to live on. Except for the outrageously low pay she earned in my early years as an English prof, I think she enjoyed her work and needed something outside of mothering to feel worthwhile.
But as I reflect on my own experiences as a mother and woman at this stage in the game, I realize how much I glorify the physical challenges my great grandmother and grandmother faced. Sometimes I feel this boredom of a too easy life. I want a garden that I must make sustainable, that I can’t leave to dry out or rot because I don’t care enough. I want cows to milk, eggs to gather or a job to dressed up for and people who are counting on me to show up. My physical trials include walking a stroller with my son in it up a hill that I’ve chosen to conquer, untangling Barbie’s hair from a backpack zipper at a security check point, or make three different breakfast items for my hungry son in the morning. And sometimes, like my mother, I want to have to work in order to feed my children. I want to feel that my work each day requires great strength like that of woman in a hot field or that my family’s very survival depends on me.
And yet, the whisper of God says, this is the life I’ve been given. I’ve been created to live it. I know it’s time to stop feeling guilty about what I don’t have to do. Stop imagining what other people might be whispering about me. (Oh her husband is a surgeon. She’s got it easy. She doesn’t have to work.) Stop demeaning my contribution to my family. I want to stop having this weird envy of other people’s trials and burdens but rather pray everyday that God uses mine to bring healing to someone else. (I imagine that God is waiting for me to get back in my yard.)
I want to stop telling stupid lies to myself. After all, there are people who are counting on me to show up. Everyday. My work does require great strength and presence…and a weakness at the very same time that demands my dependence on God. When I listen to my grandmother tell of her life I want to purely marvel at the wonder of her and engage in my fascination for history, rather than use it, in a dark, sleepless night, as another moment to nurture the shame of me I want my conversations with my mother not to lead me to compare her will and drive to my own.
I want to claim my life, my strength, the work I’ve been given and stop looking around me to see what other people are doing. There’s so much freedom in that. Work in and of itself.