Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Victoria Livingstone’s Exhaustion and Rest: Motherhood and Creativity and Linda Collins’s Write of Passage: Telling a Daughter’s Story. We asked, “Has motherhood impacted your creativity in unexpected ways? Has observing your children’s approach to life or listening to their comments about it changed your focus?” Below is Laurie Phillip’s response.
For My Grandchildren: Linking Past and Present
I’ve been reading the works of Zona Gale (1874-1938), the first female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize. She received that honor in 1921 and has unfortunately been largely forgotten by today’s audiences and readers. I treasure Gale for her themes of small town family life in Wisconsin as well as her commitment to early struggles for women’s rights. She also wrote poetry, and her poems come to mind as I think about my three young grandchildren and what I want them to know about their families and the lives of the loved ones who came before them. This comes as a sudden revelation to me, that each young child has only a limited view of their family members, unless we fill in the gaps with shared stories and memories.
In her poignant poem, “Last Night I Dreamed I Saw My Mother Young,” Gale dreams about her mother as a young woman. She realizes that she never knew that version of her mother and shares her vision:
Last night I dreamed I saw my mother young.
I never knew her till her hair was grey;
Last night I saw the shadows lit away
And pearls about her shoulders strung.
Out from our haunts of home among
She came as if she knew them not…
The poem envisions a woman so young that she is not yet living in the family home. Yet the daughter knows only her “grey” haired mother. Gale concludes, “But yet the pretty hand that lay in mine / Was not the one I love upon my hair.” This is a beautiful tribute to her mother, but also an example of the inevitably narrow child’s view of parents and grandparents.
With this poem in mind, I vow to give my grandchildren a broader view of the family members who precede them. I reflect on this within the luxury of unhurried moments that I certainly didn’t have as a young mother, when demands of career and family were most pressing and exhausting. I will use this gift of time and space to transmit the family stories. This will be a long and intimate process, which will evolve through my writings and conversations, as my grandchildren grow and develop in their ability to understand.
In the meantime, on a simpler level, we read The Story of Ferdinand, my son’s favorite childhood book. We sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” from an old tattered music book that my daughter scribbled over. We look at a long-forgotten photo of my father as a very young man, earnest and well-dressed, with a little smiling girl (me) posed on his lap. We laugh at the outdated clothes and hairstyles. We enjoy the watercolor art that lines our walls, painted by a beloved uncle. We set the table with embroidered linens, almost a century old, hand-stitched by a great-great aunt. We sit down to dinner influenced by the recipes and flavors that came from our grandmothers’ kitchens.
Like Zona Gale, I dream of a past that was not fully known to me, but passed down in bits and pieces of memories and stories. I will continue to share these visions and tales with my grandchildren. I believe this might be my most important and rewarding work.
Laurie Paravati Phillips is an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute instructor and former attorney who graduated from Cornell University and Penn Law School. She enjoys teaching Law and Literature classes and volunteers for several organizations dedicated to families and literacy. She lives with her husband in Northern California and has two wonderful adult children. Her three little grandchildren bring joy and inspiration.