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"Be a Leader!"

My grandmother Anna was a formidable woman. She was born in the Midwest in 1896, the oldest of eight children. She was not beautiful as much as she was handsome, her features strong, her smile confident. She was a gifted musician, a renowned piano teacher, bright and devout. But, to be honest, as much as I respected her, I didn’t really like her.

I’m not sure what it took to run a successful solo business in the Great Depression, but Anna did it. She was smart, talented and good with money. What she didn’t have was tenderness or understanding, at least not for me, her youngest grandchild. She gave me a piano lesson once, I still remember it, because I felt so tense and inadequate. Nothing I played pleased her; her disapproval hung over me like a wet rag.

My mother seemed to be a warmer, more relaxed woman on the outside. She certainly wanted to be. But inside, she also had a vein of iciness that ran deep. She was not a giving, maternal soul. She knew how to have fun, but she didn’t know how to nurture, and my brother and I paid a terrible price for it.

When my daughters were born, I had a singular mission: to end the pattern of cold mothering in my family, and to be fully emotionally present. This goal has driven me for 22 years now. And once, I got a most unexpected message about it from my dead grandmother.

I visited a medium. I hoped to hear from my brother or my father. I would have been thrilled to hear from my dad’s parents. But, who “came through”? Anna. To be honest, I was disappointed. She was the last person I expected to hear from. We were never close. I didn’t really think she liked


Grandmother Anna, Julia, the author (pregnant with her younger daughter), and her mother, Kathryn

Anna was persistent. Through the medium, she established her credentials right away. She said her name was Anna, mentioned the piano and the phrase, “musical genius.” She said that I hadn’t received the support I needed and that my family had “hindered” me. Then, having established her bonafides,

Anna issued a clear instruction: “Be a leader!”

“What?” I said to the medium. “Be a leader? What does she mean?”

“Well, are you a leader? Do you lead in any way?”

“No. I’m a psychologist. I don’t lead. I’m not a leader at all.”

“Well, your grandmother says that you need to.”

“OK,” I mumbled. “All right. Whatever.”

I exited the gathering confused and annoyed. Why did my grandmother want me to be a leader, what was I supposed to lead, and why did she, of all people, speak to me?

Then, it made sense. Anna had acknowledged the painful history of mothering in our family, and how that had affected me. Her message to me was: fix that! Be a different mother for my girls, her great granddaughters, and lead our family line in a new direction.

No one is a perfect mother, including me. But I did change the mother history for my daughters, gradually, over time, year after year. I know they feel safe, treasured, and deeply loved. I know they will be warm, loving, and supportive mothers someday. So, I guess I have finally pleased my grandmother.

My piano playing never pleased you, but, Grandma, thanks for this lesson. You were right. I am a leader now, or at least I am doing my best. Thank you. #womenshistorymonth #internationalwomensDay

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.


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