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What My Grandmother Taught Me About Being a Mom

Ann Bergman, Virginia Bigelow and Sarah Bergman Lewis.

Erika Lee Bigelow


This Mother's Day message written by Sarah Bergman Lewis, the publisher Ann Bergman's daughter and Virginia Bigelow's granddaughter, was first published in the May 2014 issue of Seattle's Child.

My mom asked me if I wanted to write this month's Editor's Note, and I agreed. Since my grandma, her mom, died, we have been doing what we can to help each other out and remind each other that we do "know the recipe."

When I received the text from my mom, for which I'd been bracing for years, I felt completely unprepared. "You better come tonight," she wrote. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about helping my almost 4-year-old, Anya, make sense of the fading of her great grandmother and friend or anticipating how this would impact my mom, my siblings or my cousins. I felt nervous and sad. I'm not ready, I thought. There is more time to spend, more life pearls to glean.

Two months short of a century on this earth, on April 8, my mom's mom, my Nana, Virginia Bigelow, died. The task of trying to summarize Nana's wisdom or advice for mothers is too daunting. Nana would have known better than to tackle such a subject, especially with two toddlers, (one napping as I write). Yet I do find myself trying to capture, for myself, just what it was that made Nana so special, so as not to lose track. How did she manage to raise four amazing humans in a loving family while also maintaining not just her sanity, but also her sense of humor?

As I've reflected on what Nana taught me about mothering, it has very little to do with the actual tasks of parenting. "How are you?" she would ask during our visits. When I got married and again when I had kids, she would unromantically remind me of the importance of "having your own life." "Are you getting any rest or time away?" she would gently probe.

The day after Nana passed and we were muddling around doing what needed to be done in her apartment, my mom announced that we were going to have baked chicken and rice for dinner. A Nana classic, no questions were asked. A few hours later, I got a text from my 17-year-old sister, Annie, who had kindly gone to the grocery store. "How much chicken do I buy?" An experienced cook myself, I reflexively wrote back, "I don't know. Ask mom."

As parents we often look to others for answers. It's only when we care for ourselves that we can access the inner confidence and calm that illuminates "the answers" to the endless questions and insecurities of parenting, at least momentarily. Nana told us that "developing your own passions outside the home" might allow the pressing parenting questions of the hour to fade in importance, or even evaporate. By example she showed us what "creating a life" looked like with her walks, swimming, volunteer work to improve the world, reading books, her job and most importantly, so many good talks with family and friends in order to feel "connected." Feeling connected, Nana told me often, was the important thing in the world.

Of course, caring for ourselves and connecting meaningfully with others is far from easy, but few parts of parenting are. Nana showed me that establishing an identity beyond motherhood is not only good for me, but also gives kids space in which to thrive.

Driving along with my kids in the back seat, lost in my own thoughts, Anya shouts, "Roll down my window please, we need some fresh air in here!" I can't help but smile at the request for a Nana staple. It's deeply comforting to know that Nana is so much a part of us that she will never be far.

We never feel fully ready to face the challenges life presents, like sending my youngest son Noah to preschool next fall and my mom sending her youngest Annie to college, or saying goodbye to a loved one forever. Yet we are more prepared than we think. We take care of ourselves, we connect to each other and we just do the best we can.

Happiest of Mother's Days!


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