8 Lessons from the Ladies of My Family

By Katherine Rosa

I have some incredible women in my family tree. They are unique, brilliant, unassuming people and as I grow into a young adult I look to them for inspiration.

Here are some of the lessons that I want to take with me to college and beyond…

  1. Generosity is powerful and inspiring. It begets more generosity down the line.

I have had a lot of experience with being on the receiving end of generosity. It is a great feeling. In my experience, it puts someone in a great temper for being one’s best. When I think back in gratitude, I feel the sincere desire to honor the gifts I have been given. I myself wish to give, hoping that my acts of generosity land as powerfully with others as my experiences have landed with me.

This pattern of perpetuated generosity is common in my family history. In my last piece, The Wealth of Knowledge, I wrote about my Great Grandad’s family educational trust that has helped numerous family members (including myself) pay for college. I mentioned in this piece that Grandad’s inspiration for the educational trust came from his aunt, who had paid for his MIT education.

After graduating, Grandad made a more than modest income and tried to pay his aunt back. She refused his money, instead encouraging him to find a young student (as he himself had been) who needed help with tuition. He helped several young adults from his local church, before founding the family educational trust in the 1970s. This trust has paid for the education of several generations, as well as cementing the value of giving as part of the family culture.

  1. Throw your money and time toward the big things (Hint- they are not usually “things”!)

To me, my Great Aunt Harriet exemplifies this in both living and giving. She sends my brother and me Christmas checks every year. They are a very substantial amount for our family. My Great Aunt says she sends them in honor of my grandfather (her brother), who has passed away and can no longer fulfill the benevolent presence of a grandparent.

For the first few years, my Great Aunt would tell us what she intended her Christmas check to pay for (always experiential things like camp or singing lessons). With her initial guidance, reinforced by my parents, my brother and I learned how to spend our Christmas gifts meaningfully. We have, so to speak, worked out the parameters: the gift is not supposed to pay for boring, prudent things like car maintenance or new underwear or the eye doctor (we are lucky enough to be able to pay for these without dipping into the Christmas gift money). It is likewise not intended for more luxurious items such as fancy clothing or computer gadgetry (my brother’s weakness- not mine!). The opportunities afforded to us by Aunt Harriet’s gift are doubly special because without her support, they often get postponed in favor of more practical and immediate expenses.

Aunt Harriet’s gifts encourage and enable us to use our resources intentionally and live bountifully but not frivolously. Also, in giving us these experiences, Aunt Harriet has fulfilled perhaps the most elusive and yet most desired wish of any parent, grandparent or caregiver. She has given us the skills to develop groundedness, happiness and fulfillment, and the confidence and freedom to pursue our passions.

  1. Be a “Velvet Steamroller”

It was once said of my Great Aunt Ginger that “She could tell you to go to hell in a way that would make you almost excited for the trip”. She was known affectionately by her colleagues as “the velvet steamroller”.

It is so apt- she was warm and motherly, but with a core of sturdy assurance that was not to be trifled with. She was thin, and when I knew her, frail, and possessed a tremor that caused her hands to shake dangerously as she handled the fine crystal at Christmastime, and yet it was she who provided the magnetic force that drew the California family members back to the east coast for her annual Christmas party.

Professionally, my Great Aunt was a well respected doctor and the second female head of the state medical society. She had been interested in being a doctor since tagging along with her physician father when she was young. After college, though, she decided to marry my grandfather’s brother, a dashing young astrophysicist, and raise a family of five boys.

When she decided to once again pursue medicine, the medical school interviewer told her that they’d never accept somebody with five children. She recalled in a medical society interview that her first instinct was to burst into tears and her second was that she’d be darned if she’d let him see her have that reaction. She left dry-eyed, did some studying, and was accepted to Harvard Medical School a few years later.

Her time as a student was not destined to be easy, but still she persisted. She was not stopped by the demands of mothering her five teenage boys and keeping up with the travel and pressures of her husband’s high-powered astrophysics career. She was not stopped by a very severe systemic infection during which she was hospitalized for months. My mom remembers visiting the hospital as a child and being surprised to see medical school textbooks littering the room and bed. After her illness and her graduation, her career took off.

I look up to her ability to work through rejection and difficulty with such strength and levity. It gets you places and garners real respect along the way.

  1. Focus on living and doing. The rest will follow.

I’m guilty (as many of us are) of wanting to be liked. In moderation, this impulse is a good and useful one, however I sometimes find myself mired too deep. I’ll no longer be idly wondering about impressions I’ve made, I’ll instead find myself increasingly anxious about whether the whole arc of my life is both enviable and cool enough. I do think this is a somewhat teenage phenomenon that I’m growing out of, but if/ when I have to face it again in the future, I know how to talk myself down.

Probably one of my favorite methods is thinking about family members who I admire. I think how inspiring their lives have been and how “zen” they are about it.

The women, especially, seem to live unhampered. They do the unique things they do without the impression of deliberately flouting convention for the purpose of being contrary or getting attention. They follow their own inner guide faithfully and effortlessly.

They are, in my experience, perhaps even more understated than the men. Though far from reserved, they are not apt to speak expansively of their achievements and usually graciously demur when they are complimented. Despite their often impressive achievements, they are incredibly pragmatic. My Great Aunt Harriet, who worked in cancer research and later founded a successful vaccine development company, went deep sea fishing in Alaska and packed the fish in dry ice to send (as a surprise) to my parents’ wedding. Her spontaneity and willingness to get her hands dirty are charming. She is just as willing to be the aunt who catches and sends surprise fish to weddings as the serious academic who pushes boundaries in her field.

In my observation, this kind of self-focused living actually ends up creating the best kind of authentic, effortless impressions. (And on the best kind of people!)

It also helps you to focus on yourself and what you find important. It helps you focus on what you’re doing and on the things you truly love. These, to me, are the hallmarks of a meaningful life.

  1. A lived-in sense of positivity is a powerful thing.

What I mean by “lived-in positivity” is positivity that is not tinny and tiring and fails easily under strain. Lived-in positivity is quiet and authentic and is easy to maintain. It is useful in daily life and in disaster.

It is also comfortably realistic. Mom heard a Teddy Roosevelt quote on the radio the other morning and shared it with me because she thought it exemplified the family “can do” attitude. Roosevelt counseled: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. This is powerful because it encourages moving forward but without the paralyzing pressure of unreasonable expectations. My Aunt Harriet exemplified this by starting her own company at age 65.

I remember feeling the warming power of family positivity at a particularly rocky point in my own life. I came out of my sophomore year of highschool emotionally battered. One of my closest friends at the time was depressed and suicidal. I wanted so badly to ‘fix’ her. Seeing her so unhappy in her life made me pretty unhappy in mine. I was swamped with schoolwork, performed poorly in extracurriculars and felt lonely and miserable socially. I felt myself both the victim of and responsible for my woes. I resented everything and everyone, but also felt that if I could only somehow be a more productive student, get my friend happier, be more athletic and skillful and pretty I would be in control. That is a lot of pressure to put upon yourself and I was miserable. I was living with the opposite of positivity.

I spent the ensuing summer reckoning with myself. The culmination came when my mom and I left the east coast to visit our family in the Bay Area. I got to spend a great deal of time with my relatives, especially Aunt Harriet, and it really inspired me to take back control emotionally. The trip was a reminder that I was part of something: my wonderful and inspiring family. It boosted my self-esteem. I felt loved and supported. I also watched my relatives in their daily lives and saw that the only palpable difference between their ‘enviable’ lives and my own life which I so hated was that they themselves seemed quietly happy and calm. I had a conscious realization: I resolved to emulate my family members’ emotional state: anything they wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t do. I resolved to be at peace with the world around me (and this was a big one) to try and enjoy myself.

The next year was the happiest in my high school career. I gave myself some distance from my depressed friend, which, although somewhat painful, turned out for the best. She was finally getting help and I felt that I could support her from a distance. Even though I was still not a star, I had fun in my extracurriculars. I flourished academically and socially. I met my first boyfriend. I made the life-changing decision to go abroad. I tackled the college process, landing myself proudly at Middlebury College, where I will matriculate next month. Gradually, over time, the conscious effort to emulate the family positivity has lessened. It has become natural to me.

  1. Late is good. Late is not only “better than never”, it is good enough in its own right.

I have a family of successful late starters, with the most spectacular achievements often belonging to the latest beginners. This is not to say that they wasted their younger days away, rather that they built their skills, took time for their families, and later on, when they felt ready, chose to embark on some of their more outstanding endeavors.

My Great Aunt Harriet, for example, worked in cancer research for years before beginning her own vaccine development company at 65. My Aunt Ginger waited until her sons were teenaged before enrolling in medical school.

I think the family habit of undertaking things late is part of gracefully aging. It seems healthy to remember that you are not “used up” once you reach 35. It is inspiring to undertake interesting and impressive projects late in life.

I’m only 18, yet I feel comforted and influenced by this family culture. I feel less pressure as I choose my college majors and career path. I know that it is never too late to make an impact, and I feel free to follow my changing passions.

  1. Think outside the box! (You just might find yourself doing it again!)

I am particularly inspired by my Great Great Aunt Barbie who was a professional artist during the early and mid 20th century. During the 1920s she left the east coast to spend time as part of the Taos New Mexico art scene. There she met her soon-to-be husband. During the great depression, she and her husband were hired as traveling artists by the government. Their task was to document the experiences of Americans all over the country.

My mom remembers her Great Aunt Barbie telling stories from their American travels in the 30s. One of her favorites was as follows: Barbie and her husband Howard intended to act as flies on the wall, depicting the true character of Americans living out the daily struggle of the great depression. Instead, they found themselves received as honored guests at each farmhouse and presented with the family beauty, washed and dressed in their best, ready to be sketched. (This was, of course, not what Howard and Barbie wanted. They wanted to capture the genuine character of the weather beaten, elderly and homely). Quickly, Barbie devised a plan. She would undertake to draw whoever the family presented, leaving Howard free to draw whatever interesting faces and scenes he could find.

I love the creativity with which she tackled the problems of the job. I love that her normal was so unusual. So full of traveling and creating and meeting new people. It was a life full of imagination, so different from the life she would have lived had she stayed on the East Coast and never pursued art.

I feel that I followed Barbie’s footsteps, in a way, with my high school study abroad. During my junior year, I decided that I wanted to try something different, push my horizons and myself. So, my senior year, I went to Austria. It was life changing. I gained so much confidence. I learned a language and how to navigate a foreign public transportation system. I made new friendships with people from different countries and cultures. Now that I am home again, these things remain with me, making me larger, lighter, and readier to take on the next big thing.

I think that being daring builds upon itself. When I have to try something new, I draw upon the confidence I gained from my own past experiences. I draw inspiration from the experiences of people in my life. I feel empowered to seek excitement and fulfillment.

  1. Powerful L legacies take many forms.

Legacy is, in my family experience, as unique as the individual. For some women in my family tree, legacy meant quietly getting married and raising their children to be upright and to contribute to society. For others, it meant going in more unusual directions, such as my Aunt Harriet’s career in science, my Aunt Ginger’s medical career, and my Aunt Barbie’s life as an artist.

As someone who doesn’t necessarily want to have children of my own, I draw inspiration from two of the admirable childless women in my family tree. My Great Great Great Aunt Azuba and My Great Great Aunt Barbie made a point of being incredibly generous to the children in their lives. In addition to her art, Aunt Barbie left her estate to the family educational trust, doubling the principal at the time. Aunt Azuba, who inspired the family educational trust, taught in New York City. Just because they did not have children of their own did not mean that they were not involved in the lives of the next generation.

I think part of the family zen is being at peace with one’s contributions to the world.

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As I read over these lessons from the ladies of the family, I am struck by the impact of learning about your family story. Every family has these stories and when we learn about them, we feel grounded. We learn about our roots. We are able to move forward in accordance with the best things our families offer.

I have enjoyed learning about my own family. Ever since I was young, the stories of my relatives have inspired my own life and laid the groundwork for my development. This is thanks to yet another woman in my life: my wonderful mom, who was and is always ready to share stories over dinner, root through old boxes of photographs, call relatives and reminisce. In addition to the stories themselves, though, she gave me something else: a consciousness of their power and poignancy. She knows the value of these stories and she has transmitted that awareness to me. For this, I am forever grateful.

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