My good friend Brad came to me with a question a couple of weeks ago: Who was the most influential woman in your life?
He wasn’t looking for my answer so much as he was looking for what I thought people’s answers would be. So I countered with a question: Married or single? He asked what difference that made. “Well, if you’re married, the right answer is your wife, whether it’s your mother or not,” I said. “And if you’re single, the right answer is your mother. Now the true answer could be something totally different.”
Brad laughed. I think he might have said I’ll be good at staying out of trouble with a wife someday, but I’m sure I’ll be very good at getting in trouble, or at least getting lots of dirty looks. Guys live for that.
Brad was looking to shoot another video together, with that as the theme. The pieces just didn’t come together this year so we had to shelve the project. But his question lingers on.
Who was the most influential woman in my life?
Certainly I learned more from my mom than anyone else. She taught me weird ways to remember how to spell tough words. Do you ever have trouble remembering how to spell “Wednesday?” It’s the day the Neses got married. wed-Nes-day. Got it? And how to remember the capital of Norway. Well, I knew Oslo was the capital of some Northern European country, but I couldn’t remember which. So she wrote “nOrway” on a slip of paper. I never lost the Oslo/Norway connection after that. (That’s probably not very impressive to my European readers, but Americans are notoriously bad at geography. I don’t know how many Americans know Norway is in Europe. Some Americans may not know what Europe is, for that matter.)
And yes, mom taught me how to tie my shoes and how to blow my nose and how to brush my teeth and lots of stuff like that. And when I didn’t understand girls (which was often… Who am I kidding? It is often) she was always there to listen.
But the question was who wasn’t that. It was: Who was the most influential woman in my life?
Well, there was this girl that I met right after college. I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me, she changed my life, and set me off in an unexpected and (mostly) better direction and…
AND she couldn’t hold a candle to my grandmother, my mom’s mom, so even though I was devastated at the time, in retrospect I’m really glad we broke up.
What can I say about Granny? She grew up in southern rural Missouri, in the Depression, one of about a dozen kids (my grandparents came from families of 12 and 13, and I can never keep straight which came from which, especially since both had siblings who didn’t live to adulthood). Now, she got in some trouble growing up, but I think that experience, along with having lived through the Depression, helped her learn how to do the right thing even when resources seemed limited. She moved to Kansas City during World War II and got a job at Pratt & Whitney, working on an assembly line making airplane engines. She married a Kansas Citian. On a truck driver’s salary, they managed to raise four kids.
I remember a lot of things about her. She always had time for her family. She never wanted anyone to make a big deal about anything she did. She really knew how to cook. She made the best quilts in the world. And before anyone starts complaining about her falling into female stereotypes, I’ll tell you this. She absolutely loved working in her yard, and one of the things that pained her the most was her deterriorating ability to take care of her yard as she got older. Besides, she built airplane engines! Have I ever done anything that manly? I’m doing well to change the spark plugs in my car.
But if I had to sum Granny’s life up in a sentence, I’d say this: When it came to doing more with less, she was one of the very best.
What am I known for? A book and a series of magazine articles about doing more with less.
So, who was the most influential woman in my life? I think it was Granny.
Granny died a little over six years ago. I miss her.
I had a conversation with my mom a while back about my two grandmothers. Granny had nothing for most of her life. My other grandmother wasn’t like that. She was a successful doctor, a psychiatrist. She married a successful doctor. He was a general practitioner, and one of the best diagnosticians you’d ever see. I can say a lot about him, but I’ll say this and have my peace: His father spent a lot of time hanging out with tycoons, and must have learned a few things and passed them on to his son. The guy had money, but in a lot of ways he lived like my other grandmother, who had nothing. A good rule of thumb is that if you have money but live like you have none, you’ll end up with a lot more.
I’m talking a lot more about my dad’s father (he wasn’t a dad) than I am about his mother (she wasn’t a mom). Frankly I know more about him. I know she was brilliant. Yes, she was smarter than my mom’s mom. Granny didn’t always have all the answers. My other grandmother always had an answer. And it was usually right. It was also usually long. (I get that from somewhere.) I remember asking her once if Cooperstown, NY is close to New York City. It took her half an hour to answer that question.
But I never had much of a relationship with her. Neither did my dad. He’d talk about “my mother,” or “my father.” I heard him call his father “Dad” once. They were arguing. About me. As for her, well, I never heard him call her “Mom.”
I haven’t seen her or spoken with her since October 1990.
It’s hard for me to talk or write about this, because I don’t want to rag on my relatives. I always had a great deal of respect for them. I know what they were capable of, and I think that’s why I’m disappointed in them.
My dad grew up being told he’d be a failure all his life. He didn’t get good grades, and he was rebellious. I suspect a lot of that was because he had two absentee parents. But Dad was smart. It seems his biggest problem growing up was that he mostly used his great mind to figure out when he had to perform and when he could get by with slacking. He also couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do with his life. He had the same gifts his father had, but he wanted to be as different from his father as possible, and that posed a dilemma for him. He once told me his father didn’t know what to do with him. But that’s OK. Dad was only two years younger than I am now when he finally figured out what to do with himself.
The decision was made that my dad’s younger brother would carry my grandfather’s torch after he died. I don’t know what role she played in the decision, but she stood behind it. My dad watched as his brother made mistakes and both his brother and his mother paid for them. My dad tried to help. He didn’t want his help. She didn’t want his help. Finally my dad gave up. Dad had made himself a success; in his own mind, he’d proven them wrong. I don’t think he was interested in proving them wrong in their minds; he just didn’t want to see them struggle. Loyalty runs in the family.
I asked my mom which of my grandmothers really had more? Her mom thought she struggled all her life, but she was always able to provide for herself and others. Always. Had she been able to see that, I think she’d still be alive today.
When Granny died, she left enough for her four kids to fight over. But they didn’t fight over it. That wasn’t how she raised them.
I know one of my duties is to provide for my relatives, and in that regard, to be perfectly honest, I always let my dad’s mom down. But I guess I always assumed since she never wanted my dad’s help when he was alive, why would she want mine? To my knowledge, she never attempted to contact me after he died, so I had no way of knowing any different.
Dad’s mom died yesterday. All I have on her living conditions is hearsay, but I know poverty when I hear it described.
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