What my grandmothers left me

My biological paternal grandmother, Maydell Davis Miller—a Kansas-born daughter of the American Revolution, a Southern California school teacher, a mother who worked outside of the home when it was unpopular for mothers to do so—died on the morning of January 1, 1959 when her children were around the ages that my kids are now. She was struck by a drunk driver.

I’ve long been in awe of this tragedy that shaped my father and his sister, but even more so now as I cling fiercely to my life and my children.

Two loving aunts stepped up to nurture and care for my father and his sister during their time of need. Before long, their father remarried a woman who stepped fully into the role of their mother: Margaret Rowbottom Miller, a British immigrant who came to California with her family to escape World War II.

Grandma Margaret killed rattlesnakes with shovels, led the feminist movement in California before it was mainstream, and taught physical education. She was a college professor, a lifelong Girl Scout, and a talented artist. She passed in 1994 when she was 67 and I was 9. I loved her so much in those 9 years.

Grandma Margaret kept an art studio in her house where she painted and sculpted and sketched. One of my favorite things to do was draw with her. She loved Great Blue Herons, and she taught me how to draw what she called “weird birds.” She gave my sister and I toys that were traditionally male. And when I started showing interest in makeup at a young age, she was horrified.

Grandma Margaret went with us to Disneyland when I was 4 years old. I would remember only two rides: It’s A Small World, which may as well have been a psychedelic trip, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which terrified me. I spent the entire ride with my head in my grandma’s lap. She had a comforting steadfast presence. She made me feel safe.

Grandma Margaret never raised her voice or got angry with me. She made my sister and I feel special when she “kidnapped” us in the early hours and took us out for breakfast before our parents were awake. In the midst of her chemo treatment, we flew down to surprise her and caught her bare-headed. She lunged for her wig, shouting something like, “I forgot my hair!” She made us laugh instead of cry.

Grandma Margaret lost her only biological child, a girl named Susan who went by Suzanne, five years before I was born. Only as an adult could I understand that perhaps it was grief and not leukemia that killed Grandma Margaret.

Now that I’m a mother and a stepmother, I pray to both of my father’s mothers for strength and wisdom.

Intellectually, I don’t know how to raise humans. I make mistakes often. I feel lost. My kids challenge me more than I ever thought possible. We are messy, emotional, and loud.

I pray to Maydell, my grandmother who lost her life when she was 40, leaving behind two children ages 4 and 7. I ask her for help in living each day to the fullest and seeing even the hardest parenting moments as the greatest privileges.

I pray to Margaret, my grandmother whose name I carry as my middle, who adopted her husband’s children as her own, who lost her daughter to an accident. I ask for her help to be the most loving mother to my son and my daughters. I pray to her that I do not lose sight of the preciousness of every minute, that I do not forget my children are my children no matter what.

My grandmothers did not grow old peacefully. But the grace came after their deaths, in the beautiful path they laid for us to walk upon.

This post is dedicated to my dad in honor of his 67th birthday today. 

Maydell Davis Miller

Margaret & Harry Miller

Little me and my loving grandparents … look at their intertwined hands

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