This past week I’ve been buried in the Bible, wallowing in questionable behavior.
I was preparing for a virtual “Women in the Scriptures” lecture series for a women’s church group. Because my lecture would be the first in the series, I’d been given the freedom to choose whoever I wanted to talk about. After weighing a few options, I settled on Sarah–the first matriarch of Genesis and a legendary beauty.
It wasn’t until I’d conveyed my choice, digital flyers were distributed and I dug into my research that I remembered there’s a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do with Sarah’s story, given that it includes incest, prostitution, polygamy, race relations, infertility, and child abuse.
But as a writer I know that all good stories involve conflict and raise questions. I pressed on.
Along with recounting Sarah’s story and sharing insights, I mused on my own matriarchs, pictured above. My mother Portia wears a stylish brooch on her Mad Men-worthy sheath dress, my grandmother Katie wears a classy black suit she likely sewed herself—that’s me she’s holding—and my great-grandmother Hattie is in her floral Sunday Best. If my early memories hold up, she was probably wearing sturdy leather shoes that supported her as she took care of her family and community until she died at age 90.
Grandma Hattie’s was the first funeral I ever attended. I remember the strangeness of her body in the coffin. I remember being spooked by the idea of death.
Hattie is one of the characters in my novel, The Casket Maker’s Other Wife. She shows up near the end, the daughter-in-law to my protagonist Anna. Married to Anna’s son Dimond, she becomes a farm wife, part of the generation that follows the hardscrabble pioneers who homesteaded Idaho’s Upper Snake River Valley.
Her life was no picnic, but written accounts from family and community members paint a picture of a generous, wise matriarch. Orphaned as a young woman, she raised her six younger siblings. She bore nine children of her own. Several—including my grandfather—struggled with mental illness. Called to be the leader of the local Relief Society, the church women’s group in this small Mormon community, she ministered to many through both World Wars and the Great Depression.
A favorite anecdote involves Hattie learning to drive a car when she turned fifty because she realized there would be many times when the men could not take her where she needed to go. She loved her green 1949 DeSoto which she drove to take neighbors and friends to church meetings, shopping and something called “women’s camp.”
When Hattie’s twelve-year-old daughter Adrienne was learning to sew, she was given permission to cut up one of her mother’s old blue dresses. After Hattie returned from an errand, she discovered that Adrienne had unknowingly cut up her mother’s best blue dress. Hattie didn’t say a word, recalling later that had she done so, it may have been the end of her daughter sewing.
Besides her funeral, the one clear memory I have of Hattie is her standing in her little kitchen, wearing those sturdy leather shoes, cutting out homemade noodles.
To me, she was a hardworking, loving grandma—a doer, not a looker. So, I’ve been surprised the past few years when I’ve returned home to Idaho and heard testimonies to her beauty. My father’s old friend John sees me in the church corridor and stops to tell me his unsolicited memories of Dimond and Hattie. “They were so striking,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Such a handsome couple. Beautiful.”
Which brings me back to Sarah; a woman desired by kings, sought out by angels. Her story involves not only conflict, but devotion, hope, laughter and, yes, beauty.
So, what is beauty? Is it a perfectly symmetrical face and a youthful, taut body—I’d be lying if I didn’t say yes.
But when I think of my great-grandmother Hattie, it’s also well-worn hands that fed generations, feet that stood strong in the face of life’s challenges, lips that encouraged dreams, and a heart willing to do what it took to go where she needed to go.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.