|Black Widow from The Avengers is an admirably strong woman|
I’m not a big fan of superhero movies, but, I’ve got to admit, I loved that opening scene in The Avengers when Black Widow, tied down to a chair, manages to break free, take out every man in the room, and coolly walk away in her skin-tight, black jumpsuit. Immediately, she won my respect, and I was anxious to see the next scene packed with her superpowers on display. After all, she was the only female super hero in the movie, and I wanted to know if she would be strong enough to keep up with The Big Boys.
Like good chocolate, strong women come packaged in assorted ways. On Mother’s Day particularly, we women consider our own mothers and wonder which of their strengths we carry forward. I’ve found it sometimes takes looking back a few generations to figure out who we really are and where we get our strengths.
|Athelia Sears Tanner (my mother)|
My mom's mother was a polygamist, the second wife of a man several years her senior who ruled the roost in typical English style. So, every night like clockwork, Grandma Sears faithfully and cheerfully served him a hot dinner on a freshly-pressed linen tablecloth. She was a strong woman. She had to be. After she had ten children, her husband and Aunt Aggie, the first wife who could never have children, were called to serve a three-year church mission in Samoa, leaving Grandma Sears and several daughters behind to manage the household. Fortunately, this grandma of mine could pull it off because she was not only strong but also extremely capable and, I think, secretly competitive. In those days, every Monday was “wash day,” and she would arise early to be the first in the neighborhood to hang her clean laundry on the line. Her energy and zest, though, did not seem to get in the way of her compassion. In addition to looking after her own children, she cared for all the widows she knew, faithfully baking homemade birthday cakes for them every year.
|Athelia Viola Sears Call Irvine (my grandmother)|
In spite of her heavy workload, Grandma Sears had a legendary sweet demeanor. Called “an angel” by those who knew her best, she sang from morning till night, encouraging her children to work out differences by hugging each other, and her family swears she never raised her own voice. As a mother and homemaker myself, I find such a pleasant disposition to be remarkable and almost unbelievable. In fact, such claims make it difficult to see much of myself in her.
|Mary Theresa Thompson Call (my great grandmother)|
|Pamela Elizabeth Barlow Thompson (my great great grandmother)|
Going back further are two more grandmas also full of kindness as well as fortitude and grit. Mary Theresa Thompson Call was exiled three times from her home in Mexico during the Revolution; however, in spite of the upheaval in her own life, she was always compassionate and never idle. With a keen sense of who was suffering, she would often slip from away from the dinner table to deliver a hot meal to a neighbor in need. Also an excellent seamstress, she would frequently sew through the night so the dead could be buried in proper funeral clothes within the 24-hour period allowed by law. Her mother, Pamela Elizabeth Thompson, was kidnapped by Indians at age six but, fortunately, rescued by her father, and later in life she gave birth to her ninth child just six weeks after her husband was killed. Neither grandmother was a stranger to tough times. These were strong women.
|Elizabeth Haven Barlow (my 3rd great grandmother)|
Reaching back just one more generation, though, is a woman I can really relate to. Just two summers ago I learned about Elizabeth Haven Barlow, my 3rd great grandmother. Talk about a strong woman! Described now in the 21st century, she may not sound very impressive, but in her time she was an independent thinker and a feisty feminist. Indeed, set in the context of the early 1800s, she emerges as a real fireball. Motherless at age nine, she sought comfort and learning in ancient books, old letters containing discussions about Puritanism, and the family Bible, which was her personal favorite. Thus armed early with a deep and keen understanding of Christian beliefs, she later boldly challenged her minister when he tried to convince her of false doctrine. On that very day, she left the church without compunction, taking her friends with her and never returning. This passion for truth stayed with her throughout her life. In fact, her intellectual curiosity motivated her to pursue a teaching degree from Amherst and Bradford Colleges at a time when most American women had very little education, thus “fulfilling one of her heart’s greatest desires,” as her daughter would later report.
When I “met” Elizabeth, I realized at last whose blood was in my veins. I felt I met part of myself and that I finally fit in with this group of strong women. Like Elizabeth, I love a lively intellectual discussion and am not the retiring, quiet type. In fact, truth be told, I openly challenge opinions, speak my mind freely, and have been known to question authority. Other kinds of strengths—patience, kindness, and compassion—don’t come so easily to me.
We commonly revere soft, compliant, gentle women—the peacemakers and bread bakers—and raise eyebrows at outspoken, nonconforming women. Especially on Mother’s Day, it’s good to remember that all kinds of women can be strong. I come from a long line of them.