What better time than Valentine’s Day to pay homage to some of the remarkable women who helped shaped me?
My mother, Jane Conrad, provided me with a love for art, escorting me to my first art museum (Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art) at age 9.
I was awed by the marble columns and huge masterpieces in elaborate gold frames. Mother led me to a still life she admired, describing the colors and composition that endeared it to her. As we moved through the National Gallery, she asked me to choose a painting I liked and to tell her why it captured me.
My grandmother, Jane’s mother passed along to me her love of fashion. I have fond memories of lunches with Nana at Pomeroy’s department store in downtown Harrisburg, PA. Following our chicken salad sandwiches, Nana led me to the jewelry department where we brazenly tried on one necklace after another, rarely making a purchase to the annoyance of the sales staff. I still have a few of Nana’s sparkly clip-on earrings, which I wear on special occasions.
Aunt Esther was my Auntie Mame.
She lived in Greenwich Village where she managed to land small roles in Broadway productions, and even a lead in a very short run of “The Witch’s Sabbath.” As a teenager I visited Esther, mesmerized by her flamboyant theatrical friends. They introduced me to cocktails before I reached drinking age. I owe my joie de vivre to Esther.
When life became difficult during my divorce, I benefited from the wise counsel of Margaret, a warm yet direct therapist. She helped me develop a stronger backbone and provided guidance for steering my young sons through their parents’ nasty break-up.
Friends have been invaluable in modeling a path of courage.
My dear friend Zoe, who died from cancer six years ago, was a risk-taker. If she had a goal, nothing stopped her until she met it, like when she decided to lead a women’s retreat in Crete. She enlisted me as her assistant. From that experience I’ve learned to call upon my “inner Zoe” when faced with big challenges.
There’s a list of friends whose support hasn’t waivered over the years. I may not hear from them that often, but they surface when I’m in a crisis. Kokkie was there when my mother was dying. Four years ago when my ex-husband fell in the ice and drowned, old friends phoned with support, talking me through my dark times.
What would I do without friends whose laughter and camaraderie keep my heart singing? I can always count on Susan, Ily, Ruth and others to lighten my load and to remind me that while the world may be unraveling, women’s friendships are a constant.
My list wouldn’t be complete without the women who have offered spiritual substance, especially the women at Greenfire, a Maine spiritual retreat center I attended in the early 2000’s and is now closed. The Greenfire women guided me in deepening my spiritual practices.
Along the way other wise women surfaced just when I needed them. Sometimes they were therapists. Sometimes it was a brief encounter with a new acquaintance who offered an affirmation that made my day, like the young woman at this past weekend’s retreat who complimented me on my public speaking.
I’ve been shored up by brave women in the public eye: progressive activists, Amy Goodman and the women of the peace and justice group, CODEPINK. Thinkers like Rebecca Solnit, Joanna Macy, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis have sharpened my brain. Women fiction writers like Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout provide inspiration for my own modest writing.
Now that I’m an older woman I feel a responsibility to support young women who need love and guidance in charting our troubled times.
I like to imagine a circle of women, young and old, representing diverse ethnicities, where compassion and wisdom flow back and forth in an uninterrupted flow, showing the world that love is stronger than hate.