I was raised in a tribe of women. From the time I was born, I lived with only women; early on with just my mother and later with my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and my aunt. In spite of our actual defined relationships, to me my family resembled a traditional one. Grammy was the mother. Gram was the father in our family. My mother was young when I was born, and for most of my childhood, she was more like a big sister. My aunt is my age and we grew up as sisters.
Grammy was my great-grandmother. Although she was sixty-six when she died, I always thought of her as old. She usually left her gray hair up in pin curls unless she was going out. Her wardrobe of housecoats had pockets where she could put the bobby pins, crayons and other miscellaneous pieces she picked up over the course of a day. She often had safety pins pinned to the front of her housecoat, handy if she needed one. Mostly, Grammy wore slippers, always with her stockings rolled down around her ankles.
Grammy cooked for us, cleaned for us and made sure we had clothes to wear. She didn’t buy our clothes, though, because she didn’t have her own money. She got us off to school and was the one who was home to make our lunch or give us a hug and clean our scraped knees when we fell.
Gram was my grandmother. She was strong and tall, nearly six feet. Gram was the one who hammered in the nails to hang the pictures each time we moved. She had the last word on decisions to be made. She drove the car. At mealtimes, she sat at the head of the table, while Grammy and my mother served the food. Gram had her place on the couch near the end table and if I was sitting there when she came in, I was expected to move.
My mother was exciting and beautiful. She was much younger than all my friends’ mothers and she was single. She had pretty dresses that she wore on dates with handsome men. She sang to me and made me feel special. She was like a favorite big sister. Although we were all a family, I always felt like my mother belonged just to me. When I was very young, she and I had our own apartment and I always wished it was still that way after we moved in with everyone else. I liked it best when it was just the two of us.
My aunt and I are five months apart in age and our family liked to dress us alike. We had play clothes, bathing suits, Easter outfits and Christmas dresses. Whatever it was, hers was red or pink and mine was blue. I always wanted to have the pink.
In school, I was a grade ahead of my aunt. Each time we moved to a new apartment and started at a new school, the teachers and the other kids struggled to understand our relationship. Sometimes the kids made fun of us. It was hard to be the new kids, but it was even harder because our family was different. We were lucky to have each other.
For about fifteen years now, we’ve had a tradition of a “Girl’s Night Out” to celebrate each of our birthdays. Our tribe has expanded to include my daughter, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. The men in our family understand this is our special time.
In difficult times, our tribe bands together to face our challenges. Recently, when my grandmother needed hospice care, my mother, my aunt and I met with the various organizations to select the best provider for her. When she passed away, we worked together to make the final arrangements. The men in our lives lent support and encouragement, but they realized this was something we needed to do with one another.