“You look just like my mother.” I’m sure this statement is pronounced on a regular basis to daughters throughout the world. It was a phrase I never heard until recently. My aunts and my mom started to tell me I looked like their mother, Ruth. Ruth and I never had the pleasure of meeting, she died three years before I was born. I was told she wanted to be called Nana. All my other grandmothers were called Grammy. So Nana doesn’t fall from my tongue, nor does it have any emotional connection. It is a name I use, in respect, when referring to Ruth. I may say Nana to indicated my relationship to her, but I prefer to refer to her as Ruth.
“Rebecca, I looked at your picture and saw Ruth looking at me.” Those words started me on a journey to find out more about my Nana.
The woman I remembered from photos in family albums didn’t look anything like me. I didn’t know what my aunts and mother were talking about, but the fact that they said it made me pause.
My mom has often compared me to her mother, but never about my appearance, more so on my intellect. She said my love of going to school and passion for learning matched Nana’s outlook on life. However, I followed the humanities track while Nana enjoyed mathematics and sciences. I attribute my uncanny comprehension of calculus to her. It was one of the classes in high school that I just understood without studying. My classmates would ask me how I knew the answer and my reply was, “I don’t know. I just do.” Otherwise I’m horrible at math; therefore, I can only attribute my excelling in calculus to genes.
I looked at a photo of Ruth and still did not see myself. The only similarity I could see was the glasses. I wear retro 60’s cat-eye shaped glasses like the ones Nana wore. Yet, I inhaled the shock when I placed our photos side-by-side. She was staring back at me through my own eyes. I gathered more photos of Ruth and placed them next to my own. I could not believe it. How was it possible that I had gone this long without seeing it? Why now?
It gave me a place and a space to see – literally – see how I was connected to this family. Family friends often said that I didn’t look like my siblings. I was the outsider not really linked to anyone.
My understanding of myself started to shift when I realized I was connected to this woman named Ruth. This woman whom I heard so much about – no scratch that – it is not true. I only had bits and pieces about her. I remember her picture being on our living room wall when I was growing up. I knew that she was a seamstress and made the quilt on my parents’ bed when she was something crazy like eight years old. I knew she went to college and I knew she was a teacher. I knew that she had once served two large platters of corn to the family on one of the occasions when my father dined with the Gottshalls. I had her desk and her chair that she received from her parents for her high school graduation, and my mother gave it to me on my undergraduate graduation. That was about all I knew about this woman who shared my smile.
A question continued to swirl around me– “Why did a girl who grew up on a farm decide to go to college in the 1930s?” I peppered my mom and her sisters with questions about their mother. I wanted to know everything. If I was so like Ruth and even looked like her, maybe just maybe I could learn more about myself as I discovered her.
I found out that Ruth went to Ursinus College and Marion, her sister, went to West Chester. They both went to college. Two girls in the mid-1930’s went to college?
Why? What was their home life like that would make college an option?
I grew up in Pennsylvania just like Ruth; however, attending college was not the norm. It was the 1990s – 56 years after Ruth graduated from High School. Yes, many of my classmates went to college, but it wasn’t expected. Where I was brought up the main goal of a young Mennonite girl was to find a man, get married and have babies – maybe lead a Bible study – well, a women’s Bible study, because there was no way a woman, like myself, could teach men.
At the age of nineteen, I was living in Scotland and on the hunt for a husband. Someone said to me – but you are so young, why are you thinking about marriage? My answer was – what else am I supposed to do?
So how did Ruth in 1935 know she was going to college and not have the same mindset I did at that age? I was raised by one of her daughters; so why would I think my mom was raised any differently.
I received an email from my aunt around this time in response to some of my questions. She wrote:
I think the one reason that mom, Ruth, went to Ursinus was location. She was the only day student in her class. This was permitted because the family farm butted up to the campus. Ruth majored in Biology, Math and German at Ursinus, but could not get a high school teaching job when she graduated in 1939, because she was female. She worked at Curtis Publishing in Philadelphia as a statistician.
My aunt’s statement about Ruth not being able to get a job in her field after she graduated once again brought up the question of why did she not get the job. That was easy: she was a woman trying to take on a man’s job in the 1930’s. I know all about trying to navigate a man’s world; I have sought a career in academia – I know. But the why that came up was why in 1935 did Ruth decide to go against all the norms and go into the science field. Let that sink in a moment. In 2016 we are desperately trying to get girls interested in the sciences, because society has repeatedly told them they at not good at it – yet my Nana in 1935 followed her passion and went into math and biology with a vision of teaching high school – again, high school. Women rarely taught science and math in high school. As Ruth found out when she went looking for work. So why – why did she do it? Not that I begrudged her of those decisions more so because I admired her for them and wanted to know more about her – this woman who took on a male dominated field in a time when women were barely graduating from high school. As my aunt informed me: “I was aware that she could not get a teaching job she wanted when she graduated from college because she was female. And that she graduated from college in 1939 when many of my friends’ parents had not even graduated from high school. She was the only working mother in our neighborhood.” Ruth transformed before my eyes into a feminist icon. The only working mother in the neighborhood.
Yet I grew up believing feminism was a bad word.
Holy shit, I had a badass Nana – and I didn’t even know it.
I was raised so differently to her and she was born 56 years before me. I didn’t come to my feminist senses until I was in college – as a non-traditional student in my late-20s. I was already married by this time. I remember sitting in one of my college classes and my professor asked for a show of hands of who thought of themselves as feminists and only one woman raised her hand. (It wasn’t me). She looked around at the rest of us and said: “Come on!” Oh, I believed in equal rights, and women having a voice. Yet, there was something about the term feminist that still haunted me from my childhood; enough that I didn’t know if I was allowed (yes, allowed) to raise my hand. After that class, I came to terms with my feminist self and started the road of my separation from how I was raised.
Still on my quest to learn more about Ruth, I sent an email to Mom and Aunt Pat. I wanted the link to be stronger and to confirm that I belonged to her. The response I got from my aunt was not what I was expecting:
Mom died 44 years ago. . . I have clearer childhood memories than I have memories from my teen years.
I have always held my mom up on a pedestal due to her accomplishments. As a skilled seamstress: Lydia [my Aunt’s grand-daughter] has the tulip quilt on her bed. So this week I talked to her about this quilt that my mom made 80 some years ago! I have wonderful memories of standing at the piano singing with my sisters as my mom played "I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus."
The pedestal was very high and still is!
This realization that my aunt remembered Ruth mainly from her childhood years and not her teenage years made me think about my aunt’s earlier comment: “Rebecca, I looked at your picture and saw Ruth looking at me!” Her emailed linked to that comment made me get out the calculator. When Nana was my age Aunt Pat was eight years old and my mom was fifteen. When Ruth died Aunt Barbara was 28, mom was 26, and Aunt Pat was 19.
So I am at the age when Mom and Aunt Pat hold the fondest memories of their mother. It is no wonder that they see her in me now. I have become the catalyst to recall memories about their mother. I’m not sure how to deal with this revelation. Yet, I’m kind of proud that I’m associated with her. I don’t have children and so it seems strange to be linked to someone else’s childhood/mother memories.
This link to their mother from their childhood also brings on fear. Ruth died from cancer when she was 52. I asked my mom about Nana’s cancer. Her reply, “They didn't know where it started and they never really told us what kind she had until they found it. It was already in her liver. She had her surgery the day after Thanksgiving and she only lived six weeks. The surgery was to remove her gall bladder but when they went in they found so much cancer they just closed her up.”
Cancer stole Ruth from me, and I can’t help but feel angry about that. In my quest to learn more about her the loss sinks deeper. What I wouldn’t give to talk to her, to hear her voice, to listen to her ideas on life. I wonder what she thinks of me, and what I have done with my life. Is she proud to call me grand-daughter? I would like to think so. I just can’t help but wonder if my life would have been different had she lived. Alas, we don’t get to determine our place in the spiral, but in order to grow we must look toward the past for understanding and clarity. I’m thankful that Ruth is part of the past that defines me. Now that I know her, I will continue to seek her for wisdom and guidance.