“Just as young people absorb all kinds of messages from the media, young girls learn what it means to be a woman by watching the older women in their lives.” Carre Otis
“In the long run, we shape ourselves, and we shape our lives. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are…our responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt To this I would add, “…and our heritage and legacy.”
I have known many amazing older women, great women, whose lives and how they shaped them challenged me to become like them.
My first example was Miss Hassett. She was our housekeeper when I was growing up. I never thought of her as a nanny or babysitter, and certainly not as any kind of employee or servant. She was MISS Hassett, strong woman, force of nature, interested in the bits and pieces of nature I brought into the house, someone who treated me with respect even though I was a child.
Miss Hassett did not dole out hugs or kisses, although she regularly bandaged my skinned knees, made the best fudge in the entire world, and read to me while I leaned against her warm strong body. Everything was done efficiently with little “fuss and bother,” one of the phrases she would use with me when I was upset, as in “there’s no reason for such fuss and bother” and “Yes, Miss Hassett,” I would reply as she handed me a tissue to wipe my tears.” Then with a small smile, she would say, “It’ll be fine.” I believed her.
She was an Englishwoman, short, sturdily built, with a straight-cut shock of short, thick, salt and pepper hair that changed to white over the years she worked for us. She had been a teacher and had retired (mandatorily, I think) when she reached sixty-five. In those days, this did not provide enough to live on. Single and childless, Miss Hassett just stoically took a job with my family and “got on with it.” (Another quote and piece of her wise advice.)
Initially, she “lived in” during the week. Later, as my sister and I grew older, she arrived by bus at 8:00 (after my parents left at 7:00), to make us cinnamon toast and assure we got off to school. While we were gone she would vacuum and clean, iron and mend. When we got home, she’d have a snack for us, sometimes her creamy, buttery fudge.
Miss Hassett believed in “outdoor time” and would send us out to play. When we brought home clay from the creek, she taught us to make a pinch pot, and helped me paint mine. Once, deep in the woods behind our house, we discovered a long-abandoned farm that had over-run blackberry bushes filled with plump fruit. We ran back to tell her about them and she grabbed a bucket and came to help us pick them. We ate the blackberries with cream, nursing the scratches on our arms. I adored her. Miss Hassett taught me independence, self-sufficiency, and a love for exploration.
Later, Nan, my husband’s grandmother, would become my role-model of what a Nana should be like, as she enveloped me into my new family and told me stories about them and her husband, whom she sometimes called, “the boyfriend.” Then she would ask me about Doug, “Did the boyfriend call?” I felt like he was a legacy and she was passing a torch.
I have vivid recollections of her, the best were the times she held our children as babies. Her joy in them lit up her eyes and folded her rosy apple cheeks into fine lines as she smiled down and rocked them, holding them as if they were the greatest gift. “Oh, what a smart young lad you’ll be,” she said to our son. “My, you have the loveliest and biggest eyes I have ever seen,” she cooed to our daughter.
Nan helped me sew the dress I wore to our rehearsal dinner, all the while admiring “how clever” I was making it. Interestingly, she, too, was an Englishwoman, her mother an immigrant like my grandparents. The summer before we got married I lived with her. She made afternoon tea for me and Doug’s sister and baked us each “one chocolate chip cookie” the size of a small cake, like she did for Doug, who lived with her during the school year.
Since these ladies left my life, I have found other older women to learn from, many “great ladies of the church,” in addition to my own mother (about whose wisdom I have written many posts), and strong women leaders, old and young, at the agency where I worked in Syracuse. All of them had wise thoughts to share and have served as examples of strength, organization, kindness, faith, charity, and integrity. All have also been no-nonsense women whom I admire and strive to model myself upon.
I believe that part of walking in their footsteps is deepening the path for other women, creating a roadmap, I hope, for my daughter and granddaughters that they will pass on to generations yet to come. So here’s to Miss Hassett and Nan and Mom and all the women upon whose shoulders I stand. You live forever in my life and in my memory.