Her Unseen Hand On My Back
This exquisite guest post by Alana Sheeren is the latest in Nest-Making, a series honoring women and Women’s History Month.
My grandmother was born Laura Lee Weisbrodt on July 16th, 1903 in Georgetown, Ohio. Her father abandoned the family while she was still young, leaving her to help her mother raise four younger siblings, the youngest, my great-aunt Sarah, ten years her junior. I don’t know much about her childhood. There are memories of stories held in my mind, like broken shards of glass I desperately want to piece together. She met my grandfather, Ora Smith, when they were both graduate students. He was immediately taken with the five-foot-nothing spitfire. They were married on June 13, 1927, right after she earned her Master of Science in Chemistry. She was a food chemist and the first woman to graduate with a PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley in 1930. The first time I drove up from Los Angeles to visit my brother and his wife there, themselves new PhD students, I made a wrong turn and drove past the house my grandparents had lived in 75 years prior.
She was a stubborn woman; opinionated, driven, some would even say hard. Both she and my grandfather had full careers as professors at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. A woman of integrity, she demanded excellence of her students. When asked once to boost the grades of a certain favorite football player who was failing her class, she refused. The story I remember is that he thanked her in the end, but that could be my childish memory romanticizing the details.
Though my older cousins had more difficult relationships with her, as a child I adored her. I remember waking as the light of summer mornings crept into my room, wanting to race downstairs and be with her while everyone else slept. We would feed the fish together, make breakfast, set the table. I don’t remember what we talked about but my mother tells me I thought of her as my “second mom.” Every so often a bird would fly into one of their picture windows and they would collect its body and put it in the freezer in the basement until they had enough to take to the Cornell Ornithology lab. When I was old enough to be sent for the ice cream sandwiches, I remember having to move their stiff bodies aside, not realizing this wasn’t something every local family did.
As I entered my teen years we skirmished over my desire to wear makeup and there were times when, with typical teenaged selfishness, I wished my family could go to Hawaii instead of making the triangular trek to visit both sets of grandparents every school holiday. She was 68 when I was born and her health was good well into her 80’s. By the time I was old enough to grasp her place in history, old enough to want to know the details and hear the stories, a stroke had hampered her speech. After my grandfather’s brilliant mind left him and care at home became too difficult, she lived the last two years of her life without him in the home they loved, with the Scottie dogs, the birds and the deer, and her beloved flower garden. He died in early February 1993. They waited to tell her, until her children could be at her side. She was devastated. A week later she went into the hospital, a week after that she slipped into a coma. Three weeks after his death, my mother told the doctors to take her off life support and let her go. With him gone, it seemed, and after 65 years of marriage, she no longer had a reason to live.
As I write this, tears are streaming down my face. It feels different from this vantage point, on the eve of my fortieth birthday. I understand her life in a new way and wish she were here to answer my questions. What was it like to be one of the few women in the sciences, one of the first to be getting advanced degrees in the 1920’s? What was it like to raise children in the 1940’s, and juggle a career when the Ivy League was very much an old boys’ club? What was it like to lose so many babies?
My connection to her has grown alongside my attempts to have children. She had several early miscarriages. Two? Three? I can’t seem to keep it straight in my head. I know that as she and my grandfather drove across the country from California to start their new lives, somewhere on the side of a road in Texas, my grandmother, who was 8 months pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn child. And I know that later, in Ithaca, there was Robert, who lived 24 hours and was buried in an unmarked grave. Eventually she gave birth to my uncle, and five years later at the age of 40, to my mother.
I know that my grandmother did not talk about these things – her dead babies, her lost father. I know that her life informs my grief, that in some way I am healing a wound in my lineage as I mourn the stillbirth of my own son. I believe that when others describe her as hard, or distant, it is her grief they are speaking to, for I knew her as love. It has been almost twenty years since her death and I often feel her presence. We are connected in a way I’m not sure I understand. I am proud to be her granddaughter and my heart – oh my heart – knows that the work I do now, helping people soften into their ache, is work that heals her spirit. And with her unseen hand on my back I know, without a doubt, that she is proud of me.
Alana Sheeren is a writer, speaker and emotional alchemist. When in doubt, she always chooses love. You can find her at LifeAfterBenjamin.com, on the beach in Ventura or in the mountains and coffee shops of Ojai, CA.
You can find more Nest-Making posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
Alana – the paragraph before the one that began: “As I write this, tears are streaming down my face” tears were streaming down my face!
And by the end – ohmy! – more tears, and my heart feels about 6 sizes bigger! Thank you for this – and Angela, thank you so much for this series. Such beautiful, heart-touching writing! Such LOVE! Thank you both so much!!
and tears stream down my face as i read this, sugar. there is so much i want to comment on, but first, the personal historian that i am, you know i’m gonna ask: are you recording other people’s stories and memories of your grandmother? are you gathering the photos? even if all you do it toss it in a box right now, you’ll be comforted and who knows what you will weave together somewhere down the road.
funny (in that way that isn’t one bit funny) the women who get called “hard, opinionated, driven.” i love how you say you only knew her as love.
and the birds in the freezer? oh that’s the kind of thing that sticks with a granddaughter forever and ever, the kind of thing that says a lot about what kind of curious sponge your grandmother was.
her life does inform your life and yes, of course her hand is on your back – hugging you, supporting you, and nudging you when you need it. you’re so right: y’all are connected deeply.
question: have you done any research as to how grief was “dealt with” in your grandmother’s day? how did women handle sadness, loss of dear ones?
and last but not least, let me say that i adore what you do: help people soften their ache. nicely said, sugar. and such important work you do. and oh my goodness, how i do love you so.
and i must join the tears streaming down my face club…
what a powerful story about a wonderful woman. i think i can sense her there, beside you.
Alana, This is such a full and rich story and post, in so many ways. What an amazing woman. And, what a beautiful relationship you two had together. Such alignment between you two. I can feel the connection in ways unseen. Emotional alchemist so describes your work…so many are yet to be graced by your wizardry.
Thank you, beautiful strong women who are yourselves such inspirations to me. Thank you Angela for inviting us to be here this month, celebrating our her-stories. My heart is full.
Susan T. blake
Ah, how many times have I wished I could ask questions of my grandmothers, and my husband’s father and his aunt – especially when I was taking care of him and needed to know how they did it for their loved ones.
One of my grandmothers passed when I was barely in junior high school, but I still have wonderful memories – and recipe cards written in her handwriting. My other grandmother lived until I was out of college, and she was close enough to my high school that I was able to engineer my schedule to have lunch with her several times a week. What a treat!
My husband’s aunt, whom I also adored, was the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew your grandmother.
Thanks for a lovely post.