Model Grandmas

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Ralph Waldo Emerson said “What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.” Have you ever thought about what your actions are teaching your grandchildren? Rumour has it that my maternal grandmother was the first woman in Winnipeg, Manitoba to drive a car. My mother worked full-time starting in the 1960s, long before this was the norm. I didn’t run into the idea that women were second class citizens until I went to university. These amazing role models definitely shaped the woman I have become. Mrs. McLeod, my Grade 3 teacher, Sister Catherine Cecilia who taught me Grade 9 Math, and Anne of Green Gables were also role models who shaped my character, but none quite as powerfully as family members.

As a teacher and a high school principal without children of my own, I loved the role that I played for my students, modelling choices that were different from some of the others in their lives. In helping hundreds of young people figure out what kind of adults they hoped to become, I came to believe that a diversity of role models was one of the most wonderful influences a young person could have in determining their adult personas. Recognizing a wide array of options absolutely affects the decision-making process, both consciously and unconsciously.

Since moving to Victoria two years ago, I have been cycling with an incredible group of women from Victoria Grandmothers For Africa (VG4A). We train for one of two cycle tours held annually as the main fundraiser for this group, supporting the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. From September 7 to 9, about 30 women over 55 will cycle 275 km, from Campbell River to Victoria. On the final day, another group of about 30 women will do a 50 km ride in Saanich. The two groups will meet up for lunch and ride together to the Victoria Legislature for their 12th annual celebration.

The dozens of women I have met in this cycling group are nothing short of inspirational. Rose Mary, Christine, Kay and Lisbie are all in their 70s, Jocelyn and Kathe in their 60s. Rose Mary is one of the fastest and strongest going uphill, passing me and almost everyone else in the group regularly on hills. Christine has done the 275 km ride 10 out of the past 11 years. Kay wears shorts almost all the time except for a couple of months in the winter! Lisbie rushes home from cycle training to work with a refugee family and participate in the local theatre scene. Jocelyn has helped me understand how important our solidarity is with the African grandmothers in what we do. And Kathe is the strongest cyclist of us all, thoroughly and definitely “back” after having a serious accident alone on her bike last fall.

We encourage each other to embrace the hills, and support each other through illness and injury, of selves and family members. We also support our African sisters. Victoria Grandmothers For Africa have raised over $1 million since they began in 2007.

I think often about the example these Vancouver Island women are setting for their daughters and granddaughters. Life should be lived fully, actively, and generously, with lots of fresh air and warm relationships. Women are strong and able to tackle difficult challenges throughout their lives.

This aspect of grandmothering might be the saving grace for the African grandmothers who motivate us to continue cycling and being strong. These women are raising their grandchildren orphaned by HIV/AIDS, grieving their children’s deaths, growing gardens, maintaining homes, supporting one another, and finding income-generating activities so they can feed their grandchildren and send them to school. But they worry about what will happen when they die, many of them before their grandchildren are adults. Margaret, a woman in Kenya, lost her husband and five of her children to AIDS. She was so devastated by grief and by the stigma associated with this disease that she wished for her own death. Her grandchildren begged for help for her, and helped nurse her back to mental and emotional health. She found a support group through the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, and today she is empowered, consulting with other grandmothers, and advocating for their rights with local politicians.

What are you modelling for your grandchildren? Is it something you could make more intentional, or transparent? Is it something you’re proud of?

Thank you to my beautiful mom who is still active and feisty and full of ideas and advice. I also feel the presence and the influence of my grandmothers, though they are not here with us, and more faintly, their mothers and grandmothers, with gratitude and awe.

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