My paternal grandma passed away this past Sunday.  I went looking for her obituary online this morning and could only find a one-liner in The Daily News.  No listing in the Trib or the Post-Gazette at all.

Now this may be the fault of the funeral home, but I think my grandmother rates more than a one-line note in the local paper.  Patrick Swayze, god rest his soul, got an entire article and he’s not even from this area.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about She-Roes, women who are admirable, courageous, and strong.  I’d like to tell you a bit about my grandma, who is one of my She-Roes.

My grandma, born in 1919, was the daughter of Irish immigrants who spoke English as a second language.  She became pregnant at an early age and was, to hear family members tell it, basically party to a shotgun wedding.  This would have been in the midst of the 1930’s, while America was coping with the Great Depression.  Not an ideal time to start a family.

She proceeded to have 14 kids over the next 25 years, each pregnancy around 2 years apart.  One was a set of twins that were miscarried (or stillborn – not sure on my memory for that one), so she raised 12 kids total.  Obviously birth control wasn’t a common thing back then, and in Irish farming families, the more kids you had, the more free labor you had available to you.  My grandparents weren’t farmers – I’m simply pointing out that it was not unheard of to have that many kids.  If she were attempting this today, she would have probably been given a reality TV show.

As if having 12 children weren’t enough to bear, she had married a man with some anger management issues.  Back then, spousal abuse wasn’t discussed, unskilled women and mothers didn’t leave their husbands, and people didn’t have the wonderful nonprofit resources available like we do today.  From what I understand, she dealt with regular physical and mental abuse from my grandfather until he got heart disease and died in the early 1970s.

Who knows what my grandma might have done in this life if she hadn’t been in these circumstances?  Her entire life, to me, seems to be a series of unfortunate events with no real choices to be had.  What I admire about her is, I’ve never heard her complain or whine about her life.  Until she got dementia around 10 years ago and more recently, cancer, she seemed to be happy enough.  I remember that she used to love to go shopping and to church – loved trinkets, knickknacks, and small things like that.  She was not difficult to please in the least – she was grateful for the smallest item or kindness.

She was also tough, in her own way…a survivor and a fighter.  When she got cancer a year or so ago, she must have gone into the hospital three or four times for internal bleeding and other issues.  Each time, the family was called in and told that she was ready to go.  Each time, until this last, she bounced back and was released.  I recall one time, about a year ago, she was in the hospital and looked white as a sheet when I visited her – I thought for sure that was it.  Two days later, my dad called me to say he had to stop her from pulling the IV out of her arms, and that she was ready to go home.

She died this past Sunday at age 90.  I can only hope that, in my own life, I will have half the courage and strength that she had.  When I think about the way her life went, it makes me incredibly grateful for my own adversities (which seem minor compared to hers) and thankful that we have such a variety of nonprofits that educate people about birth control, provide abuse shelters, send single moms to college, and otherwise help people today who have it like my grandma did.

Rest in peace, grandma…you’ve earned it.

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I have been pondering women in nonprofits all my LONG professional life…I’m worked for them, worked beside them, worked with them and worked in spite of them.  74% of the workforce in nonprofits is female, but too few of these nonprofit goddesses get their due…in my opinion – and hey, this is my blog – so my opinion matters!

Sally Shipman was one of my first she-roes.  Sally taught my son to swim in her pool in Tarrytown in Austin, TX.  Sally was President of the first board I ever served on and she was a wonder.  She made the grouchy, mean-spirited Treasurer give the teachers a $.25 an hour raise (to $3.75 if memory serves). He who did not have a child at the school and never darkened the door to see the wonderfully creative & generous teachers and the sometimes terrible, sometimes delightful kids Sally made more respectful and generous.  I was the only one who was an active parent on the board, but I was young and so often didn’t trust my own voice to defend those she-roes…Sally led us firmly, but fairly – made the meetings come to something, respected the interests of the kids, the teachers, the parents, our church where the program lived…we had real discussion and made sound decisions.  I got good training.  Sally went on to serve on the Austin City Council and I felt good about living there partly because I knew Sally.

I have known a number of she-roes and I realize that one of things that elevates a woman to she-ro status for me is her effective, fair voice…I admire Joyce Rothermel here in Pittsburgh.  Joyce is a straight shooter.  She always tells me something important and painful and that I don’t know about the lives of the poor and yet is a peaceful, consistently kind presence anywhere.  She’s fierce, but loving.  I love that in a person!

We are also lucky to have Shirl Regan of the Women’s Center and Shelter among us.  Shirl told her story recently at a Bayer Center Open Space.  She tells a story of suffering and humilation turned to one of service and strength because of her courage and determination to live a life that matters.  Her honesty was exemplary…we’re all better off  because Shirl lives in Pittsburgh.

I think we are supposed to seek to admire others as one of our life tasks.  A few years ago, I was interviewing national nonprofit leaders and I was sad and more than a little disturbed when I would ask them about their heroes and sheroes and one after another said “I don’t have any”… That is poverty true and simple.  Our lives lift up when we see each other as admirable, noble and true!

So if you don’t have some heroes and sheroes – go get some!  And please tell me who they are so I can join in the song!


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