March 8, 2022. It’s International Women’s Day and there is war in Ukraine.
The reason why we do things can run deep.
The day Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, I called my mom, worried about how her and dad were feeling. At 83 and 89, having grown up in Italy during the Second World War, I could only imagine their anxiety. My mother is triggered watching the news and seeing women and children running with fear. Her sisters in Italy are riddled with anxiety hearing the increased air traffic in recent weeks.
I listened as she recalled her experience running into my grandfather’s bunker in the yard, where they hid during German air strikes. She was only about 5 years old. That story is not new to me, but today as I reflect on how my mother’s life has shaped my own, I feel immense pain for her and all the women of Ukraine who are fleeing, seeking shelter for their children and kissing their loved ones goodbye.
March 8, 2022. International Women’s Day. Celebrate women’s achievements. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality. I see only despair in the faces of the powerless women running with children, pushing baby carriages, standing in long lines. It seems kind of irrelevant to talk about women, power and equity at a time like this. It is a fact that this war, like so many others, will have a profound effect on the lives of girls and women and everyone.
A few weeks ago, before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and we were just coming out of the third wave of lockdowns, I had tea with some new friends. One of the ladies who has been following my progress with MentorSHE asked, “What actually is it? What is the thing inside that made you want to do this?”
On that day, my inclination was to recite this story I have about myself that goes something like this:
English was not my first language at home. I was born and raised a first generation Italian girl in Ottawa. I would end up living a completely different life than my mother. A life, not fraught with poverty or war. I was educated in Canada and grew up in the ’70s, amid the roar of the women’s rights movement led by Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy and watching Mary Tyler Moore, a show about an independent career woman living alone in her own apartment. I sang every verse of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in the bathroom mirror and I watched Carol Burnett on Sunday night. I felt empowered. I wanted all of that. My brother teased and nicknamed me “Hollywood”. Did I want to be a star? Maybe. But all I really wanted was to be free and independent.
Instead, on that afternoon discussing MentorSHE, I shared another story.
I remember myself as a young freckled girl of about 4 or 5. The house I grew up in had a backdoor entry that opened to our kitchen. The hallway was big enough to hang a few coats on one side, and for my mom to tuck in a sewing machine. Beside the door to the kitchen was a wall that had a built-in radiator with a shelf and cabinet above. I often tucked myself between the wall and radiator, usually because there were no more chairs while the adults talked around the table, or because it was warm. Most often, though, I squeezed in there because it was closest to where my mother sewed in the evenings.
Like a slow train, back and forth, I listened to the sewing machine, watching her pull threads, tuck pins on her bosom, cursing and mumbling — and then triumphant — when she got a piece exactly the way she wanted. My mother was so talented. She sewed for many friends and neighbours, and soon she had a clientele that included some of the nuns working at the school, and wealthier ladies in nearby neighbourhoods. She made her own patterns, could manage any fabric, and outfitted entire wedding parties. She ran a whole industry in our cold back room.
One day, one of my mother’s regular clients who often praised her talent offered to help open a ladies clothing boutique for her, convinced it would be a great success. Excited by the prospect of working outside the home, my mother “shared” (asked) my father about it. He said no.
At this point in the story, my friend looked at me and said, “She had no power.” I slumped back in my chair and replied, “She did not.” She was silenced.
Whenever we are silenced, unseen or unheard, we suffer. My mother suffered the impacts of a world war and the trauma that followed. She was subordinate to her father and then my father. I heard her stories. I watched her. I saw her talent. She worked so hard. She learned to speak and write English. She cared for us and her grandchildren with wonderful meals and continued to mend and sew our clothes. When we moved, she gave up her sewing work and took a part-time job as a lunch room monitor. She stood by my dad when he started a business and learned to run a payroll for his company.
Now, at nearly 84 years of age, she still has the little red book with all her clients’ names and measurements. She showed it to me the other day. Even with all her accomplishments, she still wonders what if? I wonder too. I admire her and have felt so much empathy for her all my life. Along with her great love for me, she gave me a thirst for independence, justice, and equity. Laugh out Loud. It wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore.
So today, I celebrate my mom, the business she ran in the back room of our old house. I celebrate that she educated herself, that she ran a business behind the scenes for my dad. I celebrate that despite being a child of war and with all the residual trauma , she survived, she took a chance and gave us a life filled with opportunity.
The reason for why we do things can run deep.
I want to end with a message of hope to the women and girls of Ukraine. We are here. We got you. We are not overlooking you or this war. We are thinking of you today and everyday.
Edited by: Shauna McGinn
Originally published at https://mentorsheblog.carrd.co.