“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
—Helen Keller, author
Strength is not solely determined by physical abilities or superhuman powers, nor is it defined by the need for assistance in opening a mayonnaise jar. In my opinion, strength, character, and resilience are deeply interconnected. We all start life with a blank slate of resilience and strength but with a dash of character, with time and experience, they evolve and transform. Some major determining factors like our upbringing and environment growing up can shape our early stages of resilience.
In a world where women are mostly in charge of raising children, I like to think that much of our strength comes from the women around us. Many of us have been lucky enough to be raised by strong women and even luckier if it’s been a troupe of women. That could be a mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, or even a friend. We all know the incredible impact women have in our personal lives. How much of your own views were shaped based on women?
In honor of today March 8th, 2023 International Women’s Day, I wanted to write about how resilience has been a powerful trait passed along in my family.
Sarah McCurdy Morris McFarland, my grandmother on my mother’s side was born in 1908 in Georgia. I must say, she was not your typical girl. She enjoyed playing the violin and the piano as much as she loved sports. Something very unusual for young girls of the time. Women’s fashion was shorter and less voluminous skirts and no corsets were just taking off. Competing in sports was not a very feminine trait, it was believed that women would reproduce less (side eye).
Her family, however, loved playing all kinds of sports. They were also well-educate and the times were changing. This allowed her to take a different path from the norm. Her sister was a musician and her older brother a genius of sorts. She was part of the first few generations of women to be admitted into the University of Georgia. From some of the research I have done, they first admitted women in 1918. Ironically, the first program to admit women was called Division of Home Economics, which seemed that be the only thing women could learn, right? However, Grandma did graduate with a degree in Physical Education in 1929. She may have not been the first, but it sure was an accomplishment in my book. She did think that if she had to make a living teaching it might be in physical education since she always wanted to stay fit and healthy. It seemed appropriate in the long run. Stay beautiful forever.
Fast forward, she had a very busy time during her college years. Traveling around the Northeast as a camp counselor. She taught horseback riding and amazingly also archery; she apparently was pretty good at it. Just seems like my dream character in movies, the kind of woman I look up to as a little girl. Some form of real-life Merida from the Pixar movie Brave. Free-spirited, fearless, and just a remarkable young woman, following her dreams of adventure. Each summer, she would work at the camps, and her journeys would take her to Long Island, North Carolina, Maine, and New York. Traveling by boat or train, attending houseboat parties, and eating at fancy restaurants in New York City.
In 1931, Grandma married Albert Mobley. He worked as a bank teller earning a great amount of $90 per month which today would be around $1800. It was the Depression, so I hope rents were not as bad as they are now. Grandma Sarah and Albert went on to have three boys, Fred (Uncle Foster), Coleman, and Richard. The young family moved a few times, always in search of better opportunities, something that seems that modern families still seek. He opened his own auto finance business, but it didn’t go as he hoped mostly because of the looming threat of war. Sadly, in 1941, he committed suicide.
My grandmother was left a widow with three young boys under 10 years old. Luckily, Albert had life insurance and she also had help from the newly created Social Security Administration, thanks to Roosevelt, to make ends meet. She was also a teacher at nearby schools and even taught ballroom dancing in her living room, wonder what she would think of modern dance styles like twerking. Shortly after, they moved to Athens, Georgia and she started working as a secretary for the Signal Corps which was an Army base.
I now come to understand how back in the day women would think that a man meant security. Not only financially but also socially, being married was somewhat of a duty, but with three children and in a world dominated by men, it was survival. Grandma Sarah sure believed that. She and her office friends would look up the files of the new recruits, scouting for the good-looking ones, single, of course, preferably with no children and HAD to be well-mannered and educated.
Of course, these generous women, with their Southern charm, and Grandma had plenty of that, would throw little parties for these unfortunate young soldiers. In one of the files was a man named Lewis McFarland from Des Moines, he was 38 years old, same age as her. Tall, black wavy hair and piercing dark brown eyes. She fell madly in love with him. He could provide everything she needed. Protection, love, and a future for her and her boys. Most importantly, he was more than willing to be that for her. In my opinion, and personal experience, a man that takes a woman with children is high ranking in my imaginary “people with good hearts” list. They married in Boston in 1943 but shortly after he was off to the war.
In 1945, Grandpa Lewis returned home. Seems quite peculiar that my mother was not born until 1948, yet grandma was already 37 years old, something today doctors would call a geriatric pregnancy. Great way to make us feel old as if media and marketing doesn’t do enough. They moved to DeKalb, Illinois where my aunts Janet and Nancy were born, 1951 and 1954 respectively.
But a new tragedy upended Grandma´s perfect life, Grandpa died in his sleep on December 26th, 1954; a day after Christmas, he was only 46. Even though I never met him, I can feel the pain his death left in the family. Uncle Foster describes how much he loved him and was happy with the family life he provided for them. Lewis brought stability and smiles to grandma Sarah.
I did not know grandpa Lewis died on such a special season, until a few years ago when I started asking my mom questions. I wish I would’ve asked sooner, maybe I would have been more compassionate growing up. I was a horrible rebellious teen. I think we have to normalize telling our children about our past, so they do not feel so disconnected from us. Back to the story, mom recalls running into their bedroom early to wake up grandma and grandpa. Of course, children during these days are extra excited and happy, its Christmas season after all.
She remembers jumping in his bed, and him not waking up. When my mom told me that, felt my heart sink and my eyes water. I did not ask more. I didn’t need to understand more. Mom was 6 years old, Janet was 3 and Nancy was barely 4 months old.
Again, life would not be so unfair after all but she had to figure out how to survive with three small children and a teenage boy at home. She could have gone to work as a secretary, but she realized she needed time to be them so she attended the Northern Illinois College to get a Master’s Degree in Business Education (which again means how to be a secretary and do bookkeeping) to teach in a high school. She thought she was too old by then to teach P.E. Her father helped a bit, and she had grandpa’s paltry life insurance. Later, Grandma Sarah received inheritances from her aunt and uncle, but very little from Social Security or VA.
I cannot imagine what went through her head. How could this happen twice? Something like this would make anyone feel weak and hopeless. However, Grandma Sarah never showed it. She stayed strong for her kids.
At moments, she was not always like the fancy ladies we imagine from the 1920s. She loved being in the outdoors and wanted her girls to appreciate it too. Maybe the reality was that there wasn’t enough money for fancy hotels or guest houses, but she managed to always find adventures. They first had a tent and then she bought a camper-trailer and took the girls on numerous camping trips. By then, Uncle Foster was married and with kids and they would also tag along on these camping trips. As well as other family members from the Morris side.
I think in a way she remained that adventurous 20-something girl but now in the body of a 50-year-old woman even if time had passed and her heart endured pain and loss like no other. Her life was happy, grandbabies, three talented and smart daughters. Unique and determined sons. Life was getting better. Her hard work was paying off.
However, life is never static, and often happiness only appears fleetingly. Tragedy would strike again when she would lose both her younger boys only 10 years apart. Coleman was also an adventurous world traveler with his own amazing stories abroad, he passed away from AIDS in 1989, leaving behind two sons David and Gregory. Uncle Richard, passed of lung cancer in 1996. He had three kids, Chris, Sasha and Elizabeth who's only a day younger than me. My dad and Uncle Richard would bet who would be born first. I guess we won. I wonder where my cut is?
I only have few memories of Grandma Sarah. I always remember her birthday cards, writing my name as Sara without and h, even after my mom told her numerous times it was spelled the same as hers. I like to think she didn’t want to confuse me with her other granddaughter Sara, which she would write her name with an h. I was still very young but I understood not to question. I appreciated receiving mail all the way in central Mexico and US birthday cards were always glittery and fun to open.
I remember visiting her in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. A very tall building with a central courtyard that raise high into the sky. At least that’s what I felt. I would look out and see balcony after balcony, it seemed to never end. Her apartment was warm and cozy. As an interior designer now, I can understand why these memories exist in my mind.
I remember her bright red lipstick, always perfect. I never saw anyone wear such a color. It was the 90s so people wouldn't wear red as much. My mom was the opposite, she never wore makeup. She didn’t need it, but grandma would disagree. At that age, I didn’t have my ears pierced so I loved playing with her clip-on earrings and looking through her jewelry box with pearl necklaces, the sound of the beads clashing together is still fresh in my memory. It felt like her home was full of hidden treasures that I could never get tired of exploring.
I remember her teaching us Bridge, the card game. I do not remember if she got frustrated but I had no idea how to play it. I would always say “can we play Go Fish instead”. Thinking of it now, I don’t think that made her very proud of her Mexican grandkids, but she always accepted. I guess anything that involved cards was good for her. I think that her passion for Bridge kept her sharp.
Now that I am older, I cherish these memories so much more. I wish I could go back in time and ask so many questions. Grandma Sarah was a lifelong Democrat and a very liberal-minded person. She felt for the poor, and she believed in equality; she would talk to her kids about racism and how it was horrible. She said that the South losing the Civil War was a blessing. Grandma Sarah teaching Critical Race Theory in the 40s and 50s is just amazing to me. Makes me even prouder to be named after her.
I think part of her motivation in life was not dwelling so much on the past and always having something to look forward to. She had many grandbabies and Bridge friends. She was always smiling and loved talking to strangers. I remember a family reunion in San Diego in 2003, we took a whale watching trip and she was a trooper, people would come up to her and congratulate her on just being there. She was 95 years old and, on a boat, to see whales! She was more of the attraction than the whales that never showed up! She still possessed the essence of that adventurous 20 something girl even at 95.
I am always curious about how women felt back in those years. I wish I could’ve been old enough and mature enough to ask the questions I have now. To learn from her, where did she get her strength? What moved her to never give up? How did she not lose hope? Maybe one day I’ll have a long chat with her.
Mom recalls that when Grandma was in hospice, she would wake up from a nap and say “I’m still here?”, everyone thought it was hilarious. Grandma Sarah always so witty. Always that Southern charm until the end. Grandma Sarah passed on March 13, 2006. She died in her sleep.
Women have always been a driving force in shaping the world around us. During art school, I remember a teacher telling us that many famous art pieces marked as “Anonymous” were usually women. Or many women would have to use their father’s or husbands’ names in their art pieces. But we do have some rebels in the mix. Women that broke the norm. Whether women have been recognized or not, they have shaped politics, science, education, and history in general. Anonymous or not.
I do know I don't need famous women or artists to inspire me. I carry that inspiration in my blood and in my heart. I can only hope to carry on that resilience to my children and to the children they have.
Thank you, Grandma Sarah.
your Granddaughter Sara
(with an h at the end)
This story is a recount of my own memories, my mom's stories and a biography Uncle Foster wrote about Grandma Sarah.