Women Carry the Weight of the World: Our Grandmothers

Joanna Madloch

2017 - Ongoing

The goal of my project is to create a collective portrait of Our Grandmothers as seen through their photographic portraits and the memories retold by their granddaughters.

For the last year, I have talked to the women who shaped and influenced my life—friends, coworkers, neighbors—asking them to share with me stories of their grandmothers while showing me their family pictures. Finally, I photographed these women with a chosen photographic portrait of their grandmother.

I conceived this project as a tribute to my grandmother, Janina. Not only was she the person who raised me and taught me how to love and be loved, but she was also my very first friend. Our friendship defied any generation or cultural gap that existed between us. When I became pregnant, my grandmother was beyond excited for her great granddaughter to be born. Sadly, she fell ill and died shortly after my daughter, Ala, was born and before she could meet her. In my grandmother’s final days, I was told that it was too risky for me to visit her in the hospital, as I could potentially carry infections home to my newborn, and we never said goodbye. Instead, years later, I started this project to honor her. Till today, I collected over forty interviews. My goal is to reach seventy-nine, one for each year of my grandmother’s life.

When I began talking about this idea to my friends they often reacted enthusiastically. It turned out many of them felt as strongly about their grandmothers as I did about mine. In addition, despite geographical and cultural differences, the stories we told were also very similar. They are tales of persistence and determination of women who not only survived great deprivations, but also, often against the odds, managed to support their loved ones, and lived fulfilling lives. However, despite these achievements, in the paradigm they lived, the voices of these women were muted. My project is intended to fill this gap.

During the time I dedicated to this project, I saw it evolving from a eulogy to my own grandmother into a tribute to all of Our Grandmothers. One of my greatest pleasures was sharing memories with other women and discovering our common experiences. Many of the women that I talked to said that this project made them reach out to family members and search for old photographs not seen for many years. At this point the work is not mine only, but it became a collective effort of all the women featured in it.

NOTE: the pictures are accompanied with short interviews I was not able to upload to this form. I am attaching an example here.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1908 and spent her entire life on Edisto Island in South Carolina. Her name was Lenora Washington, but everyone on the island knew her as Miss Nora. In this picture she is portrayed with my mother and other members of the family.

Grandma Nora had nine children. She lost two kids in their childhood, but she raised seven to become successful adults. It was certainly not an easy task. My grandfather died very young and grandma was forced to provide for the family herself. She was in such a difficult situation that many people suggested that she should separate the children and put some of them in orphanages or foster homes. She would never do something like that. Family was a sacred thing for her and she did everything possible to keep all her children together at home.

She did not work when my grandfather was alive, but after he passed, she became a midwife. Her job was to help the women on the island to deliver their babies. There were no easily accessible doctors there, and grandma Nora was the only assistance these women could count on. Sometimes she had to travel far from home and was gone for weeks. When this happened, she’d leave the oldest children in charge of both the house and their younger siblings.

I knew grandma very well. Even though my mother moved to New Jersey, we always traveled back to Edisto Island for Christmas, where the whole family met in grandma’s house. It stood down a dirt road and did not have plumbing. I was not thrilled about that part back then.

When the family gathered, grandma cooked and was besides herself with joy to have everyone was in her house. Her food was made from scratch. She kept chicken and sometimes there was also a big hog in her yard. Grandma also produced home-made wine, which the locals referred to as Miss Nora’s Juice and clearly appreciated a lot. If somebody complained about any sort of health problems or aches she would provide home-made medicine. Besides cooking, grandma loved crafts, especially quilting. She made a quilt for every one of her grandchildren when they got married. I cannot remember how many first cousins I have, but grandma knew all their names and paid individual attention to each one of their offspring.

Grandma was a religious person and no one who stayed in her house would ever dare to skip Sunday church. But she was also an easy-going funny lady who loved watching Starsky and Hutch on TV. I remember her laughing out loud and yelling “Get them! Get them!” when there was something exciting on the show.

Grandma Nora lived to be 103-years old. For her 100th birthday we covered an entire wall in her house with pictures of all her children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and great greatgrandchildren. We walked her along this wall and she was extremely pleased and proud. There are no doubts that she was a genuine matriarch of our family.

However, Grandma Nora’s importance and influence reach outside the family boundaries. During her funeral ceremonies the church was packed with people. I had never met most of them and many must have travelled long distances to attend. After the eulogy, the presiding minister said: may all the people who were born with the assistance of Miss Nora stand up. Suddenly, hundreds of men and women got to their feet. They were all different ages, from elderly people to men and women younger than I was at that time. They stood up and looked at one another—at that moment they were like one enormous family. The scene was unbelievable.

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