By Susan Hitchcock, Creator of The Age of SHEroes
It’s no secret that I’m an unabashed advocate for women’s leadership and advancement. Over 20 years ago, I created a project I call “The Age of SHEroes.” Since then, I’ve interviewed dozens of inspiring women from different careers and diverse backgrounds, all with very compelling experiences and stories to share. I’ve also been inspired by and learned from over 200 female leaders who were guest speakers at the Turknett Leadership Group’s monthly Women in Leadership (WIL) Signature Series which I founded in 2003.
Since January, 2021, I’ve gathered more SHEro stories, and this time, I included an extra special group of women - our grandmothers. So many successful women I’ve met and interviewed talk about their grandmothers and the impact they had on their lives.
To me, grandmothers are “unsung SHEroes.” Join me now as I share some warm and wonderful examples of grandmothers - their wisdom and impact on multiple generations. I just happen to have just such a SHEro in my own life. I’ll begin there.
Below is a collage of the grandmothers that I have had the pleasure to learn more about, please scroll on to read their stories.
One of the first things to be said about grandmothers is that they often are called by different and very interesting – often unique – names. (I’m Xanna to my 4 grands!) In my case, my maternal grandmother didn’t have a unique name, in fact, hers was very common. My Granny was born in the late 1800’s; lived most of her life in Simpson County KY; married and had one daughter, my mother. Granny suffered throughout her life from asthma and emphysema. What makes her particularly impressive as a woman of her generation is that she became an entrepreneur even though she didn’t know the term. After WW I she opened her own business in her home town. It was a used clothing and furniture store to help people who couldn’t afford anything new. Interestingly, her entrepreneurial initiative inspired my grandfather to open a “new” furniture store which became the family’s primary livelihood for many years.
My Granny was also smart and had the courage to go out of state to attend a women’s college at a time when few women were seeking higher education. When she and my grandfather married, they moved out west for a few years because of her health. They first lived in Pueblo, CO where my mother was born, and later moved to Phoenix, AZ. When they returned to KY, my grandmother encouraged my grandfather to buy a home and build a duplex next door as a rental property. She always handled their family finances. One of my beloved keepsakes is a ledger I found in which she tracked their income and expenses, purchases and investments. She inspired me to follow her example.
But the most important reason my grandmother earned SHEro status is what happened in our family. She lost her only child to cancer (mother was only 34; I was 4, my brothers were 6 & 7.) Afterwards, my father moved back to GA, his home state, and later realized that he needed help raising three young children while starting a new business and a new life. Sadly my brothers and I grew up separately after that. I lived with my dad and stepmother in south GA until my dad died suddenly when I was when I was 15. Staying with my stepmother wasn’t an option, so despite their ages, my grandparents stepped up to the challenge of raising another teenager. They provided a safe haven for me until I graduated high school and went off to college.
Sometimes Granny could be very strict and inflexible, but she taught me many valuable life lessons including discipline, sacrifice, work ethic and the importance of a woman understanding personal finances. Overall, I owe Granny a huge debt of gratitude because without her and my grandfather, my life would have been completely different –and not in a good way.
At a very early age before she started to school, Carolyn lived part of the week with her maternal grandmother, Mama Carrie. Her mother was going to business school and her father was away in the Army AirCorp. Times were tough, it was during World War II, and Mama Carrie lived on a farm in Fayette County, Georgia. Even as young as Carolyn was, she learned what farm life and a strong work ethic looked like by watching Mama Carrie. “She worked hard,” Carolyn said, “canning, gardening, cooking, and sewing. She also taught music to students who came to her home, played the piano at church, and helped her neighbors as needs arose.”
Clearly, Mama Carrie played a significant role in Carolyn’s formative years, and she has very fond memories. “She fixed the best country breakfast with biscuits and syrup. Then she’d let me sit in her lap on the porch or I’d go play outside. What I remember best is the loving feeling she gave me, the feeling of just being safe and secure despite whatever else might be going on.”
One time Carolyn and her sister were supposed to be taking a nap on the big feather bed. Mama Carrie had to repeatedly tell them to quit giggling and go to sleep. Finally she came in and said, “OK girls, cut it out!” To which feisty Carolyn said, “We can’t cut it out Mama Carrie, We don’t have any scissors!” Mama Carrie couldn’t help herself, her sense of humor kicked in, and she laughed right along with the girls.
Mama Carrie could also be very determined and protective. “Once she got a rifle, went outside, and shot a snake that was literally hanging from a tree!” Carolyn said.
Perhaps one of the most salient pieces of advice Mama Carrie ever passed along came from her upbringing as one of 12 children. She told Carolyn and others, “You should not have more than 2 children because you need some time for yourself too.” Guess how many children Carolyn and her husband, Bill, had? TWO!
Vicki was a “first grandchild” and was very close to her Mimi from the very beginning. Mimi was a woman of faith, strength and commitment and always held true to her values. “Supportive, encouraging and consoling,” Vicki said, “Mimi was fiercely protective of her family and loved us intensely.”
While Mimi didn’t work outside her home, she taught private speech and drama lessons. “I was one of her students in the 3rd and 4th grades,” Vicki said. “Mimi was also a strong woman but her strength didn’t come from her physical size because she was a tiny woman.” However, Vicki describes her as a ‘Steel Magnolia’ who held to her beliefs and was a great listener when she and her siblings asked for her insight and advice.
During the 70’s, Mimi was recognized as the Mother of the Year. This wasn’t a surprise to Vicki because she knew her grandmother was a role model for many people in the community, and she taught Sunday School for over 60 years.
Vicki learned many invaluable life lessons from Mimi based on their shared Southern heritage. Those lessons included what Vicki calls “Southern lady” manners, how to entertain, set the table, what to wear before and after Easter and Labor Day, etc.
“But most of all,” Vicki added, “she taught me resilience and holding to your truth and values. Mimi was not only a giving person, she had high expectations. It would literally make me sick if I thought I had disappointed her.”
Leaving a true legacy, not only does Mimi qualify as a SHEro to Vicki, she was and still is held in high esteem by the entire Louisiana community she lived in – both for her generous spirit and her strong character.
Anne was the first grandchild and thus extra special to her paternal grandmother. Born to very young parents, Anne felt that Mama Blakely was almost a mother figure in her early life. And while Anne believed she was her favorite, she found out later that her siblings felt exactly the same!
Mama Blakely was an “all-in” grandmother. She wasn’t above sitting in the creek and catching crawdads with Anne; playing dress up and sharing her costume jewelry or her silk scarf collection; or letting Anne sleep with her in her tall four-poster bed as they talked well into the night. Among Anne’s other cherished memories are her grandmother’s beautiful auburn hair that never turned grey in all her 92 years. And then there were those warm, big-bosomed hugs she gave! With an easy laugh, Mama Blakely was clearly a jolly soul.
She also loved all things beautiful and she cultivated beauty in her home, garden and in her art. Everyone loved her because she took a genuine interest in them and had a gift of making everyone she encountered feel special.
Recalling other impactful lessons, Anne said her grandmother taught her about faith and the importance of maintaining her own identity, especially in those impressionable teen years. “Annie,” Mama Blakely would say, “remember who you are and whose you are.”
For Anne, Mama Blakely was a role model of how a woman could be courageous and fiercely independent. At a very early age, her husband died but she successfully raised four children. “She also showed me how women can be leaders as she was one of the first women ordained as an Elder in the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina,” Anne said.
With additional wisdom and strength, Mama Blakely showed Anne that life can be full of both heartache and joy. In one very difficult time in Anne’s young life, her boyfriend was killed in a tragic car accident. It was her grandmother who helped her through the pain and taught her how to grieve. “She said I needed to sit with my pain as long as it takes, but - as she always was - she was there with me.”
A librarian at the local elementary school, a community volunteer, and first lady of her church, Jasmine’s Grandmother was all this and much more. “She helped raise me,” Jasmine said, “and always had a progressive mindset about women, even though she was born in 1918. When I finished my master’s degree, she wanted to know what other degrees I wanted to get before I got married. I loved her for that and for how she helped center my independence and self-sufficiency as a woman, and as a way of life. We’re also both Virgos and a lot of my personality came from her, both nature and nurture.”
Another significant influence on Jasmine was her Grandmother’s style. “Her purse always matched her hat which also matched her shoes! Her outfits were coordinated to a ‘T.’ She took pride in looking pristine and well put together. Her standards were high in everything, and she held the whole family to that. If she entertained guests in her home, there was a formal spread fit for a queen.”
Smart and with an “impeccable memory” – from who wore what to a party 50 years ago to what happened on the Kardashians’s TV show last week – Jasmine’s Grandmother was on it. She also shared some salient advice, e.g., “You are not average and never will be; you don’t need to keep up with the Jones’s, you are the Jones’s. Save your money, live below your means and from there you’ll be able to enjoy life even more.”
If there was one award she’d like to give her Grandmother, Jasmine would give her this – “Always On top of It All.”
A Missouri woman who lived much of her later life in the farmhouse where she was born, Samantha’s maternal grandmother always made her feel important. Grand loaned Samantha the money for her first car, which she repaid in full with interest. However, Samantha said, “She didn’t do that for other grandchildren but she knew she could count on me.”
“To know Grand,” Samantha said, “was to know that she was a gardener, a lover of all things in nature, a great cook and baker and someone who could sew anything.” But perhaps Samantha’s most impactful memories of Grand were the gift of her time, her undivided attention and her many acts of kindness.
One particular example and a clear illustration of Grand’s character and love of God’s creatures involved an “orphaned” baby blue jay that fell out of the nest. Samantha said, “Grand saved it, cared for it until it could care for itself and even named it GiGi. This reminds me that I’m a lot like her. She taught me to try to be loving towards people and to admire and appreciate nature.”
If she received an award, Grand should get the “Most Adventurous and Fun Loving Grandmother” trophy, according to Samantha. Honoring her SHEro, Samantha concluded, “I never knew how much I would miss her and now I often think of her and the things she did for me.”
What makes this relationship so special starts with the fact that Ashley and her maternal grandmother share the same birthday! But it goes much further than that. It includes all the love and support that she’s received while growing up. “I knew in high school that I wanted to be a nurse and Grana has always been a source of encouragement and inspiration for me,” Ashley said. “She’s also the glue for our family – preparing and hosting family dinners, celebrations and gatherings. She’s shown me that with hard work and dedication, I can do anything I set my mind to.” (Note: In April 2021, Ashley received her Doctorate as a Nurse Practitioner!)
Among the many things that stand out about Ashley’s Grana are her beautiful smile, contagious laughter and her sense of fashion – along with being professional, polite and empathetic.
“And while she’s certainly a role model as a grandmother (as well as a wife and mother),” Ashley points out, “Grana had a very successful career. She began in banking as a teller in GA while raising two children. After moving back to her hometown of Clarksville, TN with her family, her career really took off and she became a highly respected bank president. During her professional journey, Grana also served on 15+ civic and nonprofit boards and received numerous leadership awards and honors.”
“One of the most important life lessons I learned from her,” Ashley continued, “is that of first impressions. Being kind, compassionate, and professional go a long way especially upon meeting someone for the first time. You truly never know what that person is going through that day. Grana taught me that holding myself to a high standard and showing respect to those I encounter is a very important part of life. This allows kindness to be spread to others and infuses positivity into a perceived negative world.”
For Ashley, her Grana earned true SHEro status by showing up for all the important events and making her feel loved. Whether it was birthdays, ballet recitals, three graduations, or her wedding, Grana was there for her. ”She never fails to uphold her promises and commitment which reflects her character. I think she deserves an award for "Leading by Example” not just for me but for our entire family. We all look up to Grana as the most kind, gentle, humble woman who also shows strength, independence and love in every action she takes in life.”
Nana was Avary’s maternal grandmother – “a soft and cuddly woman who whistled quietly under her breath while she did her chores.” Add to this picture a woman who taught Sunday School and led the Dorcas Society (a women’s sewing circle) in the Darien United Methodist Church.
Among the many endearing reflections Avary has about her Nana is the fact that she never recalls hearing her say a harsh word about anyone.
“Nana also was a prolific writer and from the time we could hold a pencil, Nana encouraged each of her grandchildren to write letters. While I was a student at Agnes Scott College, she wrote to me every day!”
Nana also loved to entertain including hosting New Year’s Day family dinners. “One year she paired us with our dinner partners by placing numbers inside balloons. You’d pop the balloon to find your matching number. Often on such occasions, she’d serve shrimp from Archie’s Restaurant – although she didn’t even like seafood.”
While Nana seemed to enjoy simplicity in her later life, she had a rather adventurous early life. “Nana didn’t marry until she was 28 and before that, she attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College. She also traveled twice to Europe in 1903 and 1904 at a time when few women of any age were doing so. According to family legend,” Avary explained, “her travels were a gift from her father, intended to mollify her for his remarriage, after the death of her mother.”
To Avary, one special way that Nana stands out as a SHEro is the legacy she left to her, i.e., her love of education. And if a lifetime award were given in Nana’s name, Avary thinks it should say “For Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself.”
Avary knows she’s fortunate to have not one, but two inspiring grandmothers in her life. “My paternal Grandmother was another strong woman. At the age of 18 she married a country doctor in Walthourville, GA and had two sons and a daughter. Before WWII she was widowed and while her sons were mostly grown by then, she needed to support herself and her daughter. For more than a generation,” Avary said, “Grandmother led her family with a firm hand, mostly out of necessity.”
Necessity and taking care of your family are prime motivators for hard work and Avary’s Grandmother was up to the challenge. She worked for the Red Cross during the war and also took in boarders at her home.
“Perhaps it was serendipitous that two young professionals who sometimes ate at Grandmother’s home met there and ultimately got married. That couple were my mother and father.”
Avary thinks of her Grandmother as “rather stern and erect.” But to be fair, she says that was probably as much about the corset she wore as her personality. Warmer memories revolve around Christmas time. “Grandmother had a gift for selecting the perfect presents for Christmas and birthdays. One Christmas when she came to visit us at Hilton Head Island, she brought a stocking for my mother and we filled it with items she brought, like Jergen’s lotion, notepaper, etc. Mother always looked after everyone else and was sometimes shortchanged at Christmas. Because of what Grandmother did, we filled her stocking every Christmas thereafter.”
Remembered fondly in other ways, Avary’s Grandmother was also a Christian woman and member of the Flemington Presbyterian Church. “She was the one who first allowed me to participate in the Lord’s Supper one Sunday when I was alone.”
In her final reflections, Avary believes that “duty, loyalty to family and determination” are some of the qualities that make her Grandmother a SHEro. Another special honor Avary would like to add is a “Good Citizenship Award.”
“When I was 5 years old, my grandmother helped my mom and me escape from my father’s abuse. My entire extended family moved from Chicago to Atlanta in 1979 to protect me from him. Gran made it all happen and left everything behind to make a new life for all of us.”
“We spent many a morning sharing Nescafe and watching Donahue talking about social issues. Gran was a homemaker in the most productive sense of the word. She grew a garden; sewed most of my (and my family’s) clothes; cut, colored and permed my hair; cooked and baked; raised kids (her own and others); created art; did her own yard work; and she painted her own house. During a crisis, she was always the go-to person among her friends and neighbors.”
In addition to her Gran’s work ethic, Erica added other descriptors as well: “Strong, resilient, dignified, stoic, compassionate, tough love and a person with great intellectual curiosity – despite the fact that she hadn’t graduated from high school.”
Although Erica said her grandmother would never have wanted an award of any kind, if she could give her anything, “It would be more time to herself to pursue her dreams. I am who I am today because of Mary Alice Crain (MAC) Arivett."
This Granny is an Oklahoma native and still resides there today. She also just celebrated her 99th birthday! As an almost centenarian, Alison’s grandmother has been through a lot. Early in her life, she married a man who was going to medical school. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis during that time and passed away. But making matters even worse, the disease had also been passed to his wife. For over two years, she was hospitalized while being treated for TB. During that difficult time, Alison’s mother had to live with other relatives.
The positive part of this story is that Granny survived and even thrived. Despite some long term health effects from her bout with TB, she’s had a good life. She remarried and her second husband adopted Alison’s mother - the only grandfather Alison has ever known.
Another amazing accomplishment later in her life came when, in her 60’s, Granny received her PhD. For over 18 years, she taught and practiced as a career counselor. Alison said, “She’s always wanted to help people to bring out the best in their careers and in life.”
A lifelong learner and an inspiration to others, Alison’s Granny sees herself as “indestructible” and her favorite word is “Joy.” Two or three years ago, she moved into an assisted living facility where she’s still a force of nature. “She definitely has all her marbles in place,” says Alison, “and she started dating online at age 96! There’s only one problem. Granny and her dating partners can’t dance anymore.”
Not surprisingly, Granny has no problem standing up for herself and doesn’t let anyone tell her what she can or can’t do. Having suffered and fully recovered from three broken hips, she wants people to know that each person is different and deserves respect. And you can believe, Granny gets it.
Of all the lessons Alison has learned from and about her Granny, perhaps she most loves her fearlessness, her resilience and her wit. If she had an award to give to her Granny today, it would be “Most Tenacious.” That seems very fitting.
Ayesha is a very successful, innovative and highly respected leader in Atlanta. A major influence in her early life came from her family. She’s especially proud to be a first generation American who grew up outside Philadelphia, but her heritage includes two other countries, India and Ireland. Her two grandmothers - one Indian, one Irish - are Ayesha’s personal “SHEroes.”
Even though her grandmothers lived in India, Ayesha was very close to them and their impact on her is undeniable. She explained, “They were strong and courageous women who had none of the privileges and advantages that I have had. My Irish grandmother’s family disowned her when she fell in love with my Indian grandfather, and my Indian grandmother was held at gunpoint when her family was forced to leave Pakistan for India as part of the British Partition. Today, as a constant reminder of each of them, I wear two rings on my fingers. My wedding ring was my Irish grandmother’s and the other ring, a gift from my Indian grandmother. In this way, they’re always with me as constant reminders of their courage and character.”