The photo collage above shows various pictures of the strong women in my immediate family – my mother, and both my grandmothers. I do not have to look very far from these three women to find strength, courage and determination.
Although from different backgrounds, both of my grandmothers were refugees, and both lived in exile for at least part of their lives.
My paternal grandmother, a Baltic German; together with my paternal grandfather, my two aunts and one uncle, were forced to leave their estate in Kurland (now known as Latvia) during the Latvian War of Independence. They fled to Germany where my father was born and where they lived for the next few years until poverty and a government reluctant to look after refugees, drove them to return to Latvia. Despite their homecoming, they were never to live at their estate again, indeed my father never set foot in it. My grandmother coped with chronic illness all her life and died of asthma at a relatively young age.
My maternal grandmother, together with my maternal grandfather, escaped from Russia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. They fled to France where my mother was born. From the grandeur of Russian aristocracy they sank into poverty but, with determination and grit, managed to make a new life for themselves. When my mother was still young, they immigrated to America where my grandmother became a successful teacher of the Russian language and where she wrote her book Upheaval.
My mother was fortunate. She was never forced to leave her home through war or disturbance. But she did move home plenty of times. From what I can gather she lived in at least three places in France and, when the family moved to America, it appears they also relocated several times. Marrying my father did nothing to settle our family. Before I was born my parents lived in several apartments in New York and then moved to Colorado Springs for a year. I remember living in three different towns in America and then, once we immigrated to Australia, we moved home three more times. But my mother made the most out of life, giving one hundred percent to everything she did. She was an artist, a writer and a teacher.
I like to think I have inherited a little bit of the strength, courage and determination these women of my family had. International Women’s Day means different things to different people but for me, this is a day I can look proudly into my family tree and think about the strong women who came before me. Learning about their lives has helped me understand my own. They might not have been feminists, but they jumped the hurdles that were put in their way and they never gave up. When I think of my mother and my grandmothers, I am reminded of the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”