Awakening the Wisdom of Grandmothering

Awakening the Wisdom of Grandmothering

"She never set foot in a school and could neither read nor write. She sat with people as they entered the world and as they left it. As I am writing about her to you, she becomes alive again."

The coauthor of the words you are reading is a ghost. My grandmother was a midwife and healer. Whether you are an old soul in a millennial body or an elder yourself, I am writing this to pass the blessing of wisdom from her hands through mine into yours.

She never set foot in a school and could neither read nor write. She sat with people as they entered the world and as they left it. As I am writing about her to you, she becomes alive again: a tiny woman with a fierce will who had one foot planted on the spiritual side and the other on the pragmatic. In the late 1800s, she ran across Russian potato fields to escape Cossack soldiers. They killed her first two children and brother during a pogrom, an attack on Jewish villages. Driven by that indomitable will to foster life, she gave birth to eight more children in a two-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of an old brick tenement in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.

My grandmother didn’t pass away from me, she passed into me. She saw things in people that they didn’t recognize in themselves. When I was born, she looked at the palms of my tiny hands and realized that I was the one of all her grandchildren to whom she would pass on what she had learned. She told my father to bring me to her every Friday so she could teach me to birth possibility in people. He must have rolled his sky-blue eyes and shaken his head, as all of her children did at her “old country superstitions,” but her will was stronger than his. For the first 14 years of my life, he drove me to Hell’s Kitchen every Friday morning to be with her.

As far as I know there is not one other living person on this planet now who has felt her warm dry lips place kisses at the end of each fingertip. There is no one who remembers her faded yellow apron with tiny red roses or tasted the end slice of the golden bread she baked every Friday. There’s also no one else alive who sat next to her on the rusty fire escape outside her living room, listening to the whispery wisdom that emerged from her lips. It has nourished me in the leanest of moments. It has been sliced and served to friends, family, students, and every person with whom I have worked. They have licked the butter off their chin and said, “I wish I had a grandmother like yours.” Now I too am an old lady. If I don’t serve her wisdom to you on this clean white page, it will be lost forever. I once asked her why she kept teaching me each week. She replied simply, “So I can share my zava’ah with you,” as if that should explain everything. The word stored itself in the dark recesses of my unconscious mind until recently when it emerged in a dream. I leapt out of bed the next morning and looked up its meaning: “An ethical will describing the moral and spiritual understandings accumulated within a life. It is meant to be passed on to one’s descendants in order to impart wisdom and inspiration from one generation to the next.”

I am a midwife as my grandmother was, but of possibilities within and between people. I’ve lived many incarnations in the past seven decades: as a teacher, psychotherapist, researcher, and organizational fairy godmother. When I have to fill out a form that asks for my occupation, I write “professional thinking partner.” The Latin root of the word professional is profere, meaning to profess faith. I profess my faith by being present with others in such a way that what was broken can be made whole again. I am constantly wondering how to make connections within and between the best of a person and the challenges he or she is facing. Stories then rise in my mind, stories that synthesize, connect, and widen the horizon each is facing. It feels like a great melting, as if Life is saying “Yes!” to and through me.

My grandmother gave me one of the greatest gifts one person can give to another: She helped me to discover how my life matters. She told me that the moment I was born Life made a promise to the world that only I could fulfill. She inspired my search for what this could be by telling me stories of her own experiences and by asking me wide-open question. When people don’t believe their lives really matter, they shrug, feel impotent, and disconnect from one another, slowly declining into becoming what they most despise. Grandma used to kiss the unique marks at the very ends of my fingertips, calling them “promise prints.” She said they prove that never before and never again will there be another such as me.

On the day I am writing these words, the whole world seems to be teetering on a knife edge between right/wrong, either/or, them/us. Grandma taught me that there is both perspective and wisdom hidden in our greatest difficulties. It can help us realize how we matter as well as what really matters to us. I learned from her that certain unanswerable questions can encourage one’s mind to open and wander, like a kite in a wind. Wisdom is born when you notice what emerges rather than struggling helplessly to find a single answer on which to land in certainty. Wisdom awakens with certain open questions, the wonder with which you explore them, and the stories those questions evoke about the life you are living.

My coauthor says that if you never knew your grandparents or didn’t like them it’s not a problem. Each of us can be involved in the dance of grandmothering, a mysterious spiraling of generations in which the old empower the young with their wisdom and the young empower the old with the energy of new possibility.

Keep reading: Being with Flowers

We reach out to you with a few wide-open questions in hope they will yeast the Promise inside you. The inspiration they offer is not in the questions or stories themselves, but rather in your encounter with them:

  • What’s unfinished for you to give?
  • What’s unfinished for you to learn?
  • What’s unfinished for you to experience?
  • What are you waiting for?

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