Lately I’ve been having to compose one particular kind of prose that shreds my heart – obituaries and eulogies for the people I’ve loved and admired most. And now I’ve hit send, to the Oregonian, on the obituary I’ve been dreading longest. My grandmother Nellie Fox Edwards died late Friday night.
It starts with the words “Oregon lost a working woman’s hero this week” because its true and that’s how she’d want it to read. But obits are mechanical, the cataloging of dates and names, and overwhelming, just trying to list her accomplishments, causes, husbands, boards, wins and losses. Not to mention uncomfortably judgmental, picking which parts to leave out. This time I actually had to rely on a funeral home checklist just to avoid forgetting the ordinary details among the publically significant.
The thing is there’s no box to check for why she made the choices she did. The part where her rich uncle refused to pay her college tuition because women just have babies. Or the part when she was a teenage widow and mother of an infant girl also taking care of her own aging mother. That slogan — if you like weekends, thank a union – doesn’t take it far enough. Without women like my grandmother fighting from inside the union movement, women who choose or have to work would face the same stigmas she did.
So it haunted her when women didn’t see their own strength, when they made choices out of fear and circumstances she couldn’t fix. In one of her speeches she spoke of “until” workers – women who couldn’t imagine careers but only working “until” the furniture was paid off, “until” the hospital bills got paid, “until” their husbands found work.
She dragged her three children to union rallies, not piano recitals. She wore heels with her pantsuits and had her hair set every week by two men who will sob when they open the paper and see she’s gone. When husbands got jealous of her career success she left them, not her causes. When her son developed mental illness, she didn’t ask him if he wanted her to take up the cause but took charge anyway, fighting for public awareness, funding and legal changes.
When her first granddaughter came along she didn’t come to my gymnastics meets, she brought me with her to the state capitol to meet a woman senator she admired. When I went away to college and flirted with becoming a Republican she sent me “care packages” of newspaper clippings proving Reagan was no friend to workers or women. She flew to China to expose slave labor conditions at Oregon’s NIKE plant there, but she also flew to South Carolina to watch me anchor the TV news. When she thought I’d outgrown that job, she bought me a plane ticket to DC to “drop in” on the Creative Director at Ogilvy. She tried setting me up with a few of her political “sons” over the years but treasured the choice I made on my own. Still, she handed Gary her business card when I introduced my future husband.
Until him, I had no champion as utterly confident in me as my Granny. No matter what decision I made I knew that she would understand and, if needed, back me up. She never judged my choice to not have children. She knew that I will always celebrate Labor Day in her honor and never take progress for granted. If I ever vote for a Republican she will haunt me until I join her and beg forgiveness.
I had another, softer, cookie-baking kind of granny in South Africa and loved her dearly too. She never wanted a career beyond her family, but was bitterly unhappy in her final years when she realized she had no financial autonomy. “Modern” granny got to make her own choices, knowing full well the consequences, and regretted none of them. Her brain deserted before her body, leaving me these last three years to learn what she must have been like as a child.
My tough, inspirational feminist granny was also a hand-holding, sweet tooth whose face lit up with every knock at the door. She was flirtatious and friendly, bossy and grateful. Under her name the words beloved and admired will be carved into her headstone, and my heart, forever.
The hard part will be toughening up and carrying on the fight when I feel so adrift and suddenly alone. I am the writer. She will expect me, more than anyone, to remember her victories and tell her story far and wide. She will expect me to take as much credit in my own successes as a man would; they’re a reflection of hers. Of all women’s. She will also nudge my conscience when I give myself too much credit, reminding me of the women before me who made such accomplishments possible.