Her Unseen Hand On My Back
This exquisite guest post by Alana Sheeren is the latest in Nest-Making, a series honoring women and Women’s History Month.
My grandmother was born Laura Lee Weisbrodt on July 16th, 1903 in Georgetown, Ohio. Her father abandoned the family while she was still young, leaving her to help her mother raise four younger siblings, the youngest, my great-aunt Sarah, ten years her junior. I don’t know much about her childhood. There are memories of stories held in my mind, like broken shards of glass I desperately want to piece together. She met my grandfather, Ora Smith, when they were both graduate students. He was immediately taken with the five-foot-nothing spitfire. They were married on June 13, 1927, right after she earned her Master of Science in Chemistry. She was a food chemist and the first woman to graduate with a PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley in 1930. The first time I drove up from Los Angeles to visit my brother and his wife there, themselves new PhD students, I made a wrong turn and drove past the house my grandparents had lived in 75 years prior.
She was a stubborn woman; opinionated, driven, some would even say hard. Both she and my grandfather had full careers as professors at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. A woman of integrity, she demanded excellence of her students. When asked once to boost the grades of a certain favorite football player who was failing her class, she refused. The story I remember is that he thanked her in the end, but that could be my childish memory romanticizing the details.
Though my older cousins had more difficult relationships with her, as a child I adored her. I remember waking as the light of summer mornings crept into my room, wanting to race downstairs and be with her while everyone else slept. We would feed the fish together, make breakfast, set the table. I don’t remember what we talked about but my mother tells me I thought of her as my “second mom.” Every so often a bird would fly into one of their picture windows and they would collect its body and put it in the freezer in the basement until they had enough to take to the Cornell Ornithology lab. When I was old enough to be sent for the ice cream sandwiches, I remember having to move their stiff bodies aside, not realizing this wasn’t something every local family did.
As I entered my teen years we skirmished over my desire to wear makeup and there were times when, with typical teenaged selfishness, I wished my family could go to Hawaii instead of making the triangular trek to visit both sets of grandparents every school holiday. She was 68 when I was born and her health was good well into her 80’s. By the time I was old enough to grasp her place in history, old enough to want to know the details and hear the stories, a stroke had hampered her speech. After my grandfather’s brilliant mind left him and care at home became too difficult, she lived the last two years of her life without him in the home they loved, with the Scottie dogs, the birds and the deer, and her beloved flower garden. He died in early February 1993. They waited to tell her, until her children could be at her side. She was devastated. A week later she went into the hospital, a week after that she slipped into a coma. Three weeks after his death, my mother told the doctors to take her off life support and let her go. With him gone, it seemed, and after 65 years of marriage, she no longer had a reason to live.
As I write this, tears are streaming down my face. It feels different from this vantage point, on the eve of my fortieth birthday. I understand her life in a new way and wish she were here to answer my questions. What was it like to be one of the few women in the sciences, one of the first to be getting advanced degrees in the 1920’s? What was it like to raise children in the 1940’s, and juggle a career when the Ivy League was very much an old boys’ club? What was it like to lose so many babies?
My connection to her has grown alongside my attempts to have children. She had several early miscarriages. Two? Three? I can’t seem to keep it straight in my head. I know that as she and my grandfather drove across the country from California to start their new lives, somewhere on the side of a road in Texas, my grandmother, who was 8 months pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn child. And I know that later, in Ithaca, there was Robert, who lived 24 hours and was buried in an unmarked grave. Eventually she gave birth to my uncle, and five years later at the age of 40, to my mother.
I know that my grandmother did not talk about these things – her dead babies, her lost father. I know that her life informs my grief, that in some way I am healing a wound in my lineage as I mourn the stillbirth of my own son. I believe that when others describe her as hard, or distant, it is her grief they are speaking to, for I knew her as love. It has been almost twenty years since her death and I often feel her presence. We are connected in a way I’m not sure I understand. I am proud to be her granddaughter and my heart – oh my heart – knows that the work I do now, helping people soften into their ache, is work that heals her spirit. And with her unseen hand on my back I know, without a doubt, that she is proud of me.
Alana Sheeren is a writer, speaker and emotional alchemist. When in doubt, she always chooses love. You can find her at LifeAfterBenjamin.com, on the beach in Ventura or in the mountains and coffee shops of Ojai, CA.