My husband has been in the hospital for the past several days for a barrage of tests. I mention this because in my last post I asked, “What now, oldest daughter?” How are we to use the leadership and/or nurturing that is such a part of us? How are we to honor what makes us feel most alive? Especially when when uninvited interrupters shred our plans? That was the situation facing Judy, a professional musician, wife, mother and grandmother, who shares her story of “what now” in the following guest blog.
My husband, Leroy, and I had five children. Thirty years ago Sarah, our 15-year-old daughter was abducted walking home. They found her body five days later, but her killer has never been found. What happened affected us as parents, her younger sister and older brothers, all our friends, and even the people we tell now 30 years later.
After Sarah’s death, I became a leader with my husband in talking to young people and to parents and a nurturer in hopefully providing some comfort to those who are grieving the loss of a child or by grandchild by sharing our own loss with them and then helping them plan a meaningful memorial/funeral service to celebrate the life of the one they lost.
Our message to young people is three-fold:
1. Sometimes your parents do know what they are talking about. They have your best interests at heart, so think before you do something you are told not to. Our daughter went somewhere she was specifically told not to go and got herself into a situation she couldn’t handle. Had she listened, she might be here today. Instead she was abducted and murdered.
2. You won’t get through this life without faith. Even if life doesn’t deal you the hand we have been dealt, if you do have major events you sure will need faith.
3. You may have seen us in church or me at the piano and had no idea this had happened in our life. So if you see someone having a bad day, cut them a little slack, you never know what is going on in their life.
If we get one young person to listen it is worth telling our story.
I keep saying some day I am going to write a list of things NOT TO SAY when you offer condolences to someone who has lost a child. I have a few doozies like “God didn’t give you more than you can handle.” (God didn’t give me this!) or “At least you have other children.” (We didn’t have spares. They’re not interchangeable.) People mean well, but the best thing is to say simply, “I’m sorry.”
What kept us going initially was the fact that we had four other children. We had to function – they needed us!
Now what motivates me – what makes me feel most alive – is doing things with my grandchildren. Plus panning services for the families makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
I am a lineswoman. For those of you who know me personally, no worries. I’m not talking sports. I’m referring to quotes.
Lines I have read or heard often come to me when I’m out walking early in the morning.
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
The question repeats itself as I walk. I’d read it a few days before in Anthony Doerr’s gripping new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It’s asked by an older woman who is challenging her friends to take potentially dangerous actions against the Nazis occupying their small coastal town. We don’t know very much about the woman, except that she’s in charge of a bakery. We witness the courage and leadership required to take the action she proposes and then the impact on her friends, the community and the novel’s young protagonist.
Though thankfully no comparable dilemma confronts me, the French woman’s question takes on talons and sticks in my brain. I find myself asking, “What does it mean to be, to feel “alive”?
Maybe it means taking a look at my bucket list. Maybe it means evaluating if I need to become involved in issues affecting my life. For sure, it means cutting any coasting and recognizing that what I do with my time matters.
“Are you having any fun?”
Ironic question to pop into my head as I hit the hardest, mostly uphill part of my morning walk. This quote comes compliments of the movie Quartet, which my husband and I had watched again a few nights ago. It replays, complete with melody, as I head up the first semi-steep incline that lies between me and home. Am I having any fun? Such an important question. Even now as I do my self-imposed exercise, begin to pant and at the same time hear the chirps of the nearby prairie dogs, I recognize that “fun” includes things which give me satisfaction, make me feel good about myself and what I’m doing.
That’s when as I round the last uphill curve, the final quote comes to mind, one penned more than a century ago by American philosopher and psychologist William James. A copy of it was push-pinned into the corner of my office cork board for years: “Seek out that which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive…the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real you.’”
Countless words are being written this week about Maya Angelou by those whose lives she touched with her words. Count me among them.
A paperback copy of Dr. Angelou’s book of poems, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” has been plucked regularly from my bookshelf, and I was thrilled to be in the audience when the author read her poem by the same name at our local college. But it was only by chance that I realized her poetry has impacted me on more than just a conscious level.
The sad news of Dr. Angelou’s passing came across the Internet a few days ago as I was updating my website. That’s when I saw it. My unconscious, unintended, but unmistakable connection to the poet and her most famous metaphor.
Years ago when I was developing the oldestdaughter.com website, I had wanted an image on the home page that conveyed the site’s objective of “encouraging oldest daughters to find and foster our own possibilities, free of any limitations that might be left over from childhood expectations.”
I chose a drawing of a stick-figure female at the moment she flies through the wide-opened door of a birdcage. Nothing holding her back – she’s being carried by the wind into an open blue yonder, complete with friendly, puffy white clouds. Uncaged. Free. In complete contrast to that of the caged bird who “sings of freedom” denied at the time by a racially locked society.
Before this week I had never thought of my website’s image in connection with Maya Angelou’s poem. So for the first time, I looked closely at the rest of the drawing to see what else I might have missed.
The opened birdcage sits atop a colorless base covered in lines of grayed words that I can’t quite make out — sort of like a message in a half-remembered dream. Do they form the “sentence” that once kept the red-shirted stick figure “en-caged”?
I was thrust into my own metaphoric journey. What underlying words are written in the psyches of oldest daughters? If/when we push open whatever cage confines us, what songs could we sing?
The poet’s passing caused me to look anew at something familiar. To catch a glimpse of something I hadn’t “seen” before. To consider possibilities.
That’s what poets do — it’s what Maya Angelou did for me even as she left us.
“What’s in a name?” — a familiar query and an underlying question in All Our Names by Ethiopian-American author, Dinaw Mengestu.
The title refers to the primary given names of the book’s two narrators and also to the titles used to describe them at different times: the Professor, the poet, the writer…student, case worker, revolutionary, friend, lover, outsider, daughter…
As you might imagine, reading this novel led me to consider “oldest daughter” and the labels or tags often associated with what is actually, when taken at face value, simply a description of birth order. “O.D.” is not an honorary title, like the doctorates given to keynote speakers at college graduations. Nor is it a title earned for some accomplishment. Nope, “oldest daughter” just comes with being the first-born female in a family. No choice here.
But as we grow up, lots of options exist for how we describe ourselves or are depicted as a result of our birth-order position. Among them are the M words: (little) Mother, Model, Mentor, Matriarch. And of course the B word (not the rhyming one): Bossy.
We may be thought of or called any of these names, depending on the particular period and circumstances we find ourselves in. But unlike “oldest daughter,” the label we voluntarily put on ourselves reflects what is most important to us.
As an adult, do I want to be for my siblings a substitute mom, a controller, a model, a leader, a mentor? Or would I be more comfortable as a peer, a first-born among equals? What’s my personal preference? While we don’t control how others regard us, we do have a say in how we see ourselves.
So, what’s YOUR name? As a song in Sound of Music puts it, what’s the name you call yourself?
Oh, and about that B word. The Girl Scouts of the USA and CEO Anna Maria Chavez have joined Facebook COO and oldest daughter (!) Sheryl Sandberg along with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to launch a “Ban Bossy” campaign. Learn more about it at www.girlscouts.usa .
Last week Noreen, a long-time friend who is also an oldest daughter, told me about an incident that happened while she was volunteering at a local hospice center.
She had walked into a patient’s room and was about to touch the woman’s arm to indicate caring and compassion. But that’s when it occurred to her that the frail woman might not be comfortable with such a personal gesture. So instead of doing what comes naturally to her, my friend asked, “Would it be all right with you if I hold your hand?” The patient nodded and seemed to appreciate the question. A little later Noreen, who is also a former nurse, decided she’d try again. “Does anything on your lunch tray look good? Would you like some help eating?” The woman responded affirmatively to both. Later, the patient was overheard telling the nurse in charge she hoped “that volunteer” would come back again.
As I listened to this story, I realized my friend had given this person who is in the last stages of life a gift not usually thought of: the gift of control. Over how/if she would allow someone to touch her. Over whether/what she wanted to eat. Control. It’s something obviously important to us from the time we protest at age two, “I do it myself.” But a sense of control becomes even more important — and often scarce — for those among us who are emotionally, physically, or financially vulnerable.
We, as our families’ first-born females, are certainly familiar with the concept. Growing up we were often charged with being in control of younger siblings. As adults, we’ve often found ourselves being asked to take — or simply taking– control as caregivers or leaders in various activities. Sometimes (horrors!) we’ve even heard ourselves or oldest daughters, in general, described by colleagues and spouses as controllers. Another word for bossy.
So what my friend did struck me as something we might take a lesson from. Suppose we thoughtfully and voluntarily gave more control to those with whom we share our lives — instead of automatically assuming we know what’s best for them or the best way to do whatever. Might there be both unexpected benefits and beneficiaries?
If I ever thought I was the only oldest daughter out there trying to get a handle on who my true self really is, Fannie Flagg has let me know I’m anything but that. In her latest novel, The All Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion, issues of self- and family-identity are front and center–interlaced with humor.
Flagg never comes right out and calls her principal characters “oldest daughters,” but as readers learn, each of them is the oldest child and first-born female in her family.
- The primary protagonist, Sookie (Mrs. Earle) Poole, has one younger brother. The expectations of Sookie were set early and often–to be a leader in society. A traumatic revelation leads Sookie to challenge herself and what she’s always considered her fate: the obligation to live up to family expectations.
- Fritzi Jurdabralinski, the heroine of Flagg’s story within a story, is the oldest of five children. From early on, there’s no question that the leadership trait exists full-blown in her, as do the nurturing, protecting genes.
- Lenore, the matriarch of the family is the oldest of the first-born females in this novel. The mother of Sookie, she personifies the traits that many consider stereotypical of oldest daughters: take charge/bossy.
I find it difficult to believe that a masterful writer like Flagg would create characters without carefully considering what attributes and personalities she’s giving them. So why did she make each of three leading characters the oldest child/first-born female??? I googled Fannie Flagg to see if perhaps she, herself, is an oldest daughter. No such information.
So I’m left to wonder: Was it just happenstance that these characters in Flagg’s latest novel are oldest daughters?
Or did Flagg know that readers would find her characters believable as leaders and risk-takers because they are oldest daughters?
Whatever — Have you read anything else in which the main character (heroine or villain) acts as she does because she’s an oldest daughter?
A recent comment by the star of AMC’s Breaking Bad struck me as being significant for oldest daughters.
Bryan Cranston told CBS’ Lee Cowan that before this current hit series, he had been offered many opportunities to play another role like Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. But he had declined all of them, explaining he didn’t want to just do the “safe” thing.
The safe thing…
This past spring my husband I made the decision that since our children had grown and left the nest and our parents had passed on, it was time to sell our home of 32 years, significantly downsize, and move from the midwest where we had both grown up to head West. The move also included leaving life-long friends, siblings and colleagues. While it felt so right to us from the get-go, our decision from others’ perspectives obviously did not fall under the heading of “safe”:
“You are so brave. I could never do what you’re doing.”
“I knew you’d always talked about doing something like this. I just never
thought you’d actually do it.”
“How can you leave family and friends behind?”
The comments were all made by long-time, caring and supportive friends. What was unexpected was the sense of awe that came through. What was more surprising was that each comment was made by an oldest daughter. Surprising because studies and stats repeatedly describe oldest daughters — especially if oldest children — as trailblazers, leaders, and risk-takers.
It had never occurred to me that there might be a time limit on those traits.
However, it has often occurred to me that nurturing, the other recognized characteristic of oldest daughters, does not expire either. And as we oldest daughters go further into adulthood, those two attributes can find themselves in a tug of war. I’ve felt them and spent months weighing and wrestling with them.
Which brings me back to Bryan Cranston’s comment. Comes a point when each of us, even oldest daughters, has to decide what is most important at whatever juncture of life we find ourselves. Leaving behind a safe, comfortable life is not for everyone. But for my husband and me now, the choice lay between what was known and safe and what was unknown, adventuresome and — just possibly — the opportunity to discover/re-discover self.
Two months into this new life, I find myself repeating the lines poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned more than a century ago in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”
What I do is me; for that I came.