Reflections on the rituals of womanhood

Over the years, my sister Joy and I have held a discussion that we pick up after months, even years, have passed. Each time the talk reemerges and inserts itself into our conversation, it’s more evolved, contains more material, more examples from our lives. It is a conversation that examines the path to womanhood, considers the familial and societal influences on our own distinctive paths, observes the ways in which our particular set of circumstances has colored the people we are and are becoming.

When our childhood friend’s grandmother passed away, we naturally attended the wake and the funeral, as well. Having known Michelle since she was nine, Joy was ten, and I was fourteen, this passing occurred a number of years into our friendship.  Our father performed the funeral ceremony and afterwards we found ourselves performing some rituals of our own. Without ever being asked, without the topic ever having been overtly discussed in our presence, we gracefully moved into the place created for us by our mothers and grandmothers before us. These were Southern, Christian women, deeply committed to their families and to their churches. This particular set of lessons, while passed down without question, was never taught verbally. Yet we’d observed the tasks over the years as these women performed them for other grieving families. And so when we left the burial site, we drove to Michelle’s house. There we automatically walked into the kitchen and began preparing the gifted food for all the people who had come there. Without a script or request, we took over. Waiting on the elderly, asking the men to place chairs where people were filling up faster than the furniture could hold them, sending someone out for ice. Automatically recording the dishes that were brought so the family could later send thank-you cards, and making special notes so there would be no difficulty in identifying the serving pieces when it was time to return them to the owners. We were inexplicably women who knew our roles and performed them well.

It was a significant day for each of us, although we only truly realized it much later on. Our lives have continued to be peppered with such events that point us further along the path toward the women we have become, are still becoming.

105053-268303-thumbnail.jpgMy sister, now about to become a mother for the first time, is “the baby” of our family. I do not have children of my own. For many years I worked in a daycare center and church nurseries, babysat, was a professional nanny. If you had asked me in high school, the Melody of those days would have imagined the one of now as the mother of preadolescent children by 2006, surely. Those experiences with other people’s children have given me insight and knowledge, but only to a point. Our conversations of the past months have shifted as Joy learns from doctors, books, other mothers, DVD’s, television programs, just what is expected of her, and what she can expect. I watch from the sidelines, helping when I can, and ponder how the roles have neither exactly shifted nor remained the same, but how they’re rather continuing to intertwine much as they always have. At times I am still “big sister,” assisting her when needed, handling things she cannot manage at this stage. At other times, I am remarkably immature as she calmly explains new things to me I didn’t learn when friends experienced similar journeys to motherhood along the years.

Our grandmothers are no longer with us and I think we both miss them a little more right now, reflecting a lot over how they might participate in this phase of her journey. Our mother is beside herself with glee at becoming a grandmother, finally, calling from only a state away to check in and ensure she will know exactly what is needed and when. And our friends, other mothers, who have joined our sisterhood over the years, participate in their significant way as well.

Now we find ourselves in another ritual. Rather than comforting through a loss, we are preparing for a celebrated arrival. Gifts arrive, but whereas before I oohed and aahed over them, even picked some out, now I know that those mountains of baby clothes must be laundered before baby should wear them. I know now that there is a difference between this and that type of contraction. I’ve now sat in on my first prenatal doctor’s visit, noting the comfy chair in which she reclines as we watch the little graph stretch out before us, recording on it the dual activities occurring within her belly. The lessons I learn today are sometimes more scripted but every bit as intuitive as the ones from my high school and early college years.

How it came to be, then, that I finally decided to learn to knit in December, seems, too, a part of this105053-268305-thumbnail.jpg interwoven tapestry of womanhood. I ponder how millions of women the world over have been knitting since before anyone I’ve ever met was alive. And after Jan taught me to make confident stitches, I’ve carried this little gift to my sister and taught her the same. So when her husband returns home from work to find women sitting in his house, knitting blankets and baby hats and scarves, he laughs nervously and seems to be mildly alarmed at all the estrogen in the room, but even he has also made the leap of connection. Last week he brought a hat into the room that his own mother knitted for Joy and brought as a gift when she last visited. We examined her stitches and he remarked on similarities and differences. The connection between people, in this case women, expands and seems to create a bond of “knowing” that no amount of explanation to our teenaged ears would ever have been able to convey to us back then.

Last weekend, our closest local friends, those other sisters I mentioned before, gathered around Joy to celebrate her excitement. She opened more gifts, heard and told more stories, laughed wryly at the scary parts of what she is about to experience. And in the end, the knitting came out. Amber, who has been knitting for about two years now, is making an heirloom baby blanket for my nephew and we are amazed. The stitches and intricacies of the pattern are on another plane altogether. We don’t even know how to confidently follow a knitting pattern. And yet she delighted with us at the first hat Joy made for her new baby. Laughing as we all agree that we HOPE it doesn’t fit him for a long time to come, because that will be one enormous newborn baby head if it fits now!

Most of the time I feel unbelievably blessed to have so much. I am grateful for my place in the world, as a PERSON with talents and gifts and sensitivity and consideration. And at times, such as now, I am also glad to be a woman.