By Celia Coates
It’s been a while – in a 1997 magazine article Molly Giles asked, “Where are the old ladies now?” She described where they were when she was a child,
“They used to be everywhere. One sat on every front porch, park bench and bus stop of the town where I grew up. One watched from a front window of every house and apartment building; one talked to another over every backyard fence. They stood behind the counters of the dime stores, beauty shops and soda fountains. They taught every class in the grammar school, and in high school they oversaw algebra, Latin, Shakespeare and home economics. They wrote on the blackboards, paced the playgrounds with whistles. They were the principals. They were the crossing guards. The library belonged to them. So did the churches. They operated the telephones. You could not take a music lesson without going to one of them. You could not make a bank deposit. You could not buy a stamp. This was 50 years ago, when I was a child. I thought old ladies ruled the world. Then, at some point, they vanished.”
Sharon Mehdi is a writer, teacher, healer, mother and grandmother who has lived and worked in Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, France, and Canada – definitely not a grandmother you might find just sitting on a front porch. In 2004 she published a little book about the kind of small action that can result in great change. Its title isTHE GREAT SILENT GRANDMOTHER GATHERING: A Story for Anyone Who Thinks She Can’t Save the World.
Molly Giles’ old ladies have not disappeared. But they have changed. The predictably present ladies of her childhood had been limited, usually contained by the demands of their times, while today’s women are gaining power in a larger world. Mehdi raises a question about what might happen, “…if grandmothers started doing unpredictably curious things.” We don’t need to have our own grandchildren, or to be old, or even to be a woman to join in this kind of grandmother action – it’s an attitude. It’s comes from the great desire to do something when, as Mehdi says, the world is “askew and getting askewer every day.”
Mehdi had been on her way to writing what she called a Serious Non-Fiction Book, when writer’s block intervened. She decided to stop writing and, since she was a healer, she began to help people who needed healing,
“The more healing I did the happier I became.
The happier I became, the more people came to me for healing.”
One of the people she was healing suddenly said, “You need to write a children’s book for grown-ups.”
Mehdi had never considered writing such a book but one thing led to another and she met one woman after another who helped her to create that book. It begins with these words,
“On a buffety, blustery early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live.”
The strange thing was that two grandmothers who did not know each other went to the park and just stood there together, all day. Doing nothing else,
“Not speaking. Not looking at squirrels. Not munching on coconut candy. In actual point of fact, not anything at all.”
It caught people’s attention. They were puzzled. It was rumored that they were saving the world. One man said,
“The world doesn’t need saving. … And if it did, we have armies for that, and elected officials.”
Some officials thought the women could be shamed into going home. One said,
“’Well, that’s that… No woman will dare show her face in the park now.’
And at any other time, in any other place, when the news wasn’t bad and the world wasn’t askew, that might have been true. But not this time.”
The gathering grew and grew until there were 2,223 women in the park standing together quietly and resolutely, standing for peace.
In comments about that time that Mehdi wrote,
“The news was dreadful. Fighting in Iraq. Fighting in Afghanistan. Fighting in Uzbekistan, Sudan, Spain, Haiti, Colombia, Chechnya, the West Bank and Gaza. North Korea and Iran were making scary noises. India and Pakistan were at it again. It was five months before the crabbiest presidential election anyone could remember. The dollar was low. The stock market was low. And the term ’French fries’ had become an anathema.”
That was a time like ours but things are more askew now.
Before the inspiration for her book arrived Mehdi wrote that she “…I remembered something a Native American elder said to me a very long time ago: ‘Men have taken the world as far as they can. It’s up to the women to lead us the rest of the way.’”
I believe that is true – but it need not be about women rather than men, but a feminine rather than a masculine approach. It’s about solving problems through relationships and caring rather than weapons and fighting.
People who heard the story about the grandmothers were drawn to it. People began asking for copies for themselves and word spread. It was taken to peace conferences, even to a large conference at the United Nations. We also need to stand together quietly and resolutely working now to heal our world.
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THE GREAT SILENT GRANDMOTHER GATHERING: A Story for Anyone Who Thinks She Can’t Save the World, by Sharon Mehdi, Viking, The Penguin Group, 2004 and 2005.
Molly Giles is a prize-winning author of short stories and novels. Among her books are: CREEK WALK; IRON SHOES; ROUGH TRANSLATIONS; and ALL THE WRONG PLACES. Her magazine article appeared in LIVING FIT in September of 1997.