As you know, grandmothers have been on my mind.

They pop up in the most surprising places.

At the recent march in Washington, DC,

In my own memory of my peacemaker grandma.

And in the class I am teaching to 22-year-olds.

Great great great grandmother at age 102.

Here, for example is a still photo from the TED talk I encouraged my students to watch. I wanted them to see how research on aging and health might help them to establish, in youth, their own worldview, or reason for being. The Japanese have a name for why they get up in the morning.

They call it ikigai.

This woman lives in Okinawa, Japan, one of the four places across the globe studied by National Geographic writer and explorer, Dan Buettner. Like most people who live in Okinawa, she knows her purpose in life. It is her great great great granddaughter. When Buettner asked her what it feels like to hold a great great great granddaughter, she put her head back and said,

“It feels like leaping into heaven.”

We as a species developed our capacity for longer life and greater empathy because grandmothers of the past stayed alive long enough to help their children care for their children.

This “grandmother effect” can be seen in this diagram:

From “The Evolutionary Importance of Grandmothers,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2012

Anthropologist  Kristen Hawkes studied Hadza hunter-gatherers and noticed that when grandmothers helped with childrearing, the life expectancy of their offspring increased. She developed the chart above to illustrate the remarkable impact grandmothers have had on longevity.

The grandmothers’ style of upbringing, with its emphasis on social dependence, gave rise to “a whole array of social capacities that are then the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”

Grandmothers, Hawkes says, are what make us human.

Grandpas who nurture must have a similar impact, don’t you think?

Today a Facebook friend Roxanne, put up these words quoting Mr. Rogers:

The presence of a grandparent confirms that parents were, indeed, little once, too, and that people who are little can grow to be big, can become parents, and one day even have grandchildren of their own. So often we think of grandparents as belonging to the past; but in this important way, grandparents, for young children, belong to the future.”

Belonging to the future.

Yesterday I got a picture of the future in the mail. It’s hanging on my refrigerator.

Baby Stoltzfus at 20 weeks

Baby Stoltzfus at 20 weeks

In the midst of turmoil in the outer world,

I focus on this image, praying not only for this new life but for all the little children of the world.

My brother sent me this image from his latest visit to Mother:

Four generations of mothers and grandmothers and baby Barbara Ann Hess.

Four generations of mothers and grandmothers. L-R Barbara Hershey Brubaker Herr, Mary Ann Bowers Hershey Brubaker and baby Barbara Ann Hess, Anna Mary Herr Hess, 1927.

In just 27 days Mother will turn 90.

In a few months, we hope to take another picture of four generations — four women all with the middle name of Ann.

Whenever a new great grandchildren enters her life, Mother smiles just as broadly as the great great great grandmother from Okinawa above.

Grandmothers make us human, they extend our lives, and they help children imagine what they themselves can become.

Sound like a job description?

Better than that! It sounds like an ikigai!

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Do you have a grandmother memory to share?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on January 31, 2017 at 11:01 pm

    I only ever had one grandmother. My paternal grandparents both died before their own children were grown, because of the Russian revolution and its subsequent aftermath of disease and starvation. My maternal grandfather was shipped off to Siberia. My great grandmother and her whole family went to Canada in the 1920s, and we didn’t see them again until 1952. But this one grandmother was so strong because she had survived so much. Her faith in God was so strong I could literally feel it when she prayed. She loved to read and write and kept me supplied with German books so I would not forget my heritage. And when she told us stories from the Bible, they were real! I miss her and am so glad she was a survivor!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 7:44 am

      So much suffering in the stories of your ancestors, Elfrieda. It sounds like the one grandmother who survived taught you more than a full set of grandparents, especially when it comes to faith and resilience.

      I love the fact that you felt her faith as she prayed. My guess is that your own grandchildren have heard stories about your grandmother and even have seen some of the German books and heard Bible stories told as much as possible like the way she told them to you.

      I too am glad she was a survivor. What a touchstone she is for you and now for others who read about her through you.

  2. Lisa Enqvist on February 1, 2017 at 12:18 am

    Shirley, there you are again shooting arrows both to the past and to the future. My maternal grandmother was everything to me long before we met. My mother’s many letters reveal the longing I already had as a 3-year-old in China wanting to go home to Grandma. All letters back and forth over seven years, as we traveled around the world, show that Grandma and Grandpa were constantly part of our life. I was eight before I experienced Grandma’s warm hug the first time. Sadly, I never met Grandpa. He had died one year before we arrived home in Finland.
    Later I’ve discovered stories of several strong grandmothers and great- grandmothers in my genealogy.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 7:50 am

      Lisa, you and Elfrieda, above, have much in common. I can’t imagine how hard it would be not to have a grandmother in the flesh, although my maternal grandmother died before I was three, so I have no memories of her. Just stories.

      Even harder, I think now, would be to have a grandchild far away and having to wait eight years to hug and hold her.

      I’m glad you are finding strong grandmothers in your history. It’s never too late to feel connected to the long train of matriarchs!

      • Lisa Enqvist on February 1, 2017 at 12:02 pm

        My mother grew up with her maternal grandparents. It just happened, it was unplanned. Political unrest in the Helsinki due to the rising revolution in Russia, and a disabled sibling born soon after were probable reasons for her being left behind, as I found out on scraps of paper much later. Her grandfather was crippled by polio at age 32 and needed help with everything. That grandmother was strong in her faith and gave my mother an excellent example of loyalty.
        My mother’s paternal grandmother lived nearby. She was widowed when she was 35, with four children aged one and a half to nine years.
        She took care of six other (auction) children along with her own. Those children grew up as family members together with my grandpa and his siblings. I have proof that they remained friends all their lives. These grandmothers passed on a legacy of faith to several generations.

        • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 3:51 pm

          Wow, Lisa. No wonder you want to write memoir. Amazing faith — and grit — and love.

  3. Marian Beaman on February 1, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Using Lisa’s metaphor here, I’ll say you hit the target. As you know from my blog I had a grandma less than a mile away in my childhood, giving me the power of two homes. I always knew it was a very good thing. Now, thanks to your post this morning, I see the research supporting this. (You can think of me as an online student in your class, but I don’t expect to turn in homework.) 🙂

    Through grandma’s on both sides of my heritage I beheld the feminine face of God. Feeling blessed this morning!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Marian, what a gift of love it was for you to have extended family surrounding you, especially your grandmother and Aunt Ruthie. Their loving care for you has made you a grandma to be reckoned with and loved in your own right, extending the feminine face of God. Thanks for reminding me as I enter my morning meditation.

      No homework required, either for my actual class or online. If you were in the class on campus, you would need to interview two people you admire. One for achievement and one for resilience. And you would also have to present a Last Lecture. I’ll bet you would be great at all of the above.

  4. Melodie Davis on February 1, 2017 at 9:56 am

    I have enjoyed helping my two older grandsons understand that their mommies were once in my tummy and were little babies and then children just like them. Since both older boys have recently seen their mothers pregnant and then have been joined by brothers, they seem to ponder these points. So I love the line “Grandmothers … help children imagine what they themselves can become.” Yes! What I wonder about is the fact that I may be lucky to ever have a great grandchild, (but that’s ok). Having 3 and 4 generations living at the same time requires teens having babies–which of course did not used to be a big deal. My sister is a great grandmother, and my 36 year old niece became a grandmother(at 36), about 2 years before I became one at the age of 62. 🙂

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 10:40 am

      Your grandsons are just at an age to accept this idea with wonder, Melodie. Isn’t it a privilege to experience the amazing design of the human journey on this earth with little ones?

      As for great grandchildren, I, like you, was 62 when my first grandchild was born. It’s only because I was also the first born (of a mother just turned 21) that I can hope for a four generation picture with my mother and my daughter. My sister, seven years younger, is much more likely than I to become a great grandmother. So we get to experience the benefits of having children in youth by staying connected to each other. And perhaps the same is true in the other direction. 🙂

  5. June on February 1, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Shirley, Congratulations on the future new addition to your family. I as yet have not experienced having a grandma memory, as I am not a grandma. I do have memories of my grandmas, too many to list here. What gets me up in the morning, my alarm clock on some days, or just the gentle rhythm of the day.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Ah June, the alarm clock. I only use one when I have to go to the airport these days.

      I much prefer the “gentle rhythm of the day.” Probably you do too.

      Thank you for your kind wishes.

      I’m so glad you have fond memories of your own grandmas. And that you had two of them. May they sustain you with “gentle rhythm” under the surface of your life.

  6. Audrey Denecke on February 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    I will always hold dear my time with my paternal Grandmother, Gertrude Edith (forever Nana to me). Although she too had a difficult life (some terrible secrets were learned as I pursued our family history and found a heartbreaking letter), she showed all her grandchildren, such love. My sister Terry persevered in getting all of us old enough to have memories of our paternal grandparents to write down our stories. She wrote of many things including the memory of cuddling in her soft, big breasts as a wee one.
    She must have passed on grandmother love in her DNA because I witness fierce grandparent love in all my siblings so far blessed with the gift of grandchildren. And, I see the grandparent effect in the joy of their grandchildren for them.
    I sadly didn’t know my maternal grandmother. She died when my mother was very young. Sadly, my mother’s step-mother showed very preferential treatment of her children from a first marriage and their children. However, my maternal grandfather’s love was also very strong and deep.
    Poignantly, my youngest siblings have few or no memories of their grandparents because they were gone before the youngest were born.
    What a valuable reflection to bring to your students.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:09 pm

      Audrey, you have explored the stories of your family, found secrets, and observed the interactions of your siblings with insight and sensitivity. I’m so glad you have fond Nana memories.

      The poignant point you make about not knowing grandparents applies to our family. Daughter Kate, who is now pregnant, never knew her grandfather. But since she saw him on video recently (I’ll be writing a future blog post about the wedding movie we children found), she feels closer to him.

      • Audrey Denecke on February 1, 2017 at 5:19 pm

        Was the sonogram recent news? If so, forgive me for not extending my congratulations! Now that’s JOYFUL news.
        So happy for you!

  7. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on February 1, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Grandmothers are on my mind too, as I have been typing up the letters my grandmother Esther wrote to me, between 1972-1984. They begin when I am at Hesston College and end 2 years after I got married. She is the only grandmother I knew in person, as my mother’s grandmother, Irene, died before I was born. I have a packet of letters my mother saved of Irene’s letters to her. I especially enjoy the handwriting. But it’s easier to read typed.

    Here is a paragraph from Esther in 1972 (in Morrison, IL) at age 86: “We have not had any company so far this week. I was at church last Sunday, first time since Jan 9. I have been working on answering those questions you asked. I’m afraid it will not be historical enough but we were the “quiet in the land” at that time. Busy with our family. Always afraid the Gov’t might ask more than we could do. Hoof and Mouth disease had interfered with our plans. (cattle disease), so we did not always know what to look for next. Claiming God’s promises helped us over trials which we met. Do you want me to send the answers to you or wait until you come home?”

    Here is a paragraph from Irene, age 55, written from Denbigh, VA, to my mother, Mary, who was in Harrisonburg at Eastern Mennonite School. Irene had 7 daughters and 3 sons, and Mary is in the middle of the birth order: “Dear Mary,
    I am sending you some money for a covering and what else you need. How did you get back. We haven’t been over to see Nina since she was sick, when I thought of going the car was gone. Saturday Elva had an attack. I heard the Nices all had an attack including Lulu. She was pretty bad. Lulu’s mother is here now. The doctors think that will help her. I do not know what her name is but she has been married since she was here before and her husband died quite recently last summer when Lulu visited her mother her stepfather was living. Frances washed yesterday and Pauline is ironing today. Frances washed for Rowena today in the P.M. and I had thought of going to see Nina but now we see Lauren’s car over there and Pauline wants to see Osie and then they will go to the store as Ethel needs sugar as she is canning apples. We found a dozen eggs in the granary above the milking shed and Ethel wants to make pumpkin pies.”

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      What strikes me in these letters, Dolores, is something I also experienced. Love expressed through the daily interactions and work. Gathering eggs, making pies, washing, ironing, and writing letters. Just seeing the handwriting and imagining these women taking time at the kitchen table to send signs of life to daughters or granddaughters at school is a touching thought. I’m so glad you have these letters. Thanks for sharing them here.

  8. Dora Dueck on February 1, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I love the way you keep introducing us to new words and concepts. Ikigai! My childhood was somewhat bereft of grandmothers, as we lived in different provinces, and one died when I was nine and the other did not speak English (and I was afraid to try German). So I treasure the opportunity to be in that role with nine grandchildren now. The love children give continues to startle and amaze me!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:21 pm

      Ikigai is a lovely concept, isn’t it? Raison d’être is evidently a near equivalent. If you haven’t watched the Dan Buettner TED Talk (hot link above), I think you would enjoy it.

      I am so glad you have nine grandchildren to dote upon! I like to think that we get second and third chances in life. What you didn’t receive yourself, you now give. That’s just as powerful as passing along what you did receive. And you get a special dollop of love from knowing what your grandchildren don’t know: the absence of grandmothering.

  9. Merril Smith on February 1, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Another lovely, thoughtful post, Shirley. How exciting about “Baby Stoltzfus” and what a great photo of four generations!
    Both of my grandmothers died when I was young. I did have grandfathers, but neither lived nearby until I was in my teens. My daughters have valued the time they’ve spent with both their grandmothers though.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks, Merril, we are excited as we anticipate another birth in our family.

      I’m glad your daughters have had more contact with their grandmothers. My maternal grandmother died when I was young, also, and my mother often referred not only to her loss (she was the only daughter of an only daughter) but also to my loss. “How I wish you could have known her. She had a great personality!”

      We don’t get to choose who is close to us in childhood, but we can choose to help the generations connect as an adult no matter how we do it.

  10. Joan on February 1, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    She is adorable, Shirley! I admire your grandmother skills and devotion to your grandchildren. I have no sweet grandmother memories, but have tried to be a good grandmother to my two, now 13 and 16. Our roles changes when they get this close to being grownups but it’s still fun, only different.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:41 pm

      Thanks, Joan. I am very aware of how different infancy and pre-school stages are from the later stages of childhood. We are fortunate to be able to devote a lot of attention to grandchildren now and hope that we’ll still connect as they move into teenage years. “Still fun, but different.” Yes.

  11. Tina Barbour on February 1, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Blessings to your daughter and son-in-law as they prepare to become parents. And how exciting to welcome a new little one into the family. My paternal grandmother died when I was 4. I have only “picture” memories of her, no memories of what she was like. I was never close to my mother’s mother. But when I was a child, my father’s Aunt Ida would often take care of me at her house when someone in the family was in the hospital (which was often)or otherwise occupied. I felt safe with her and she made over me a bit. I have good memories of her, and I realize now that she was the closest thing to a grandmother I had. I am thankful for her. She was my maternal grandmother’s sister, so perhaps I experienced what my grandmother was like. What gets me up in the morning? A 4 a.m. alarm to get up and feed the kitties. 🙂

    • Tina Barbour on February 1, 2017 at 2:49 pm

      I meant Aunt Ida was my **paternal** grandmother’s sister–big difference! 🙂

      • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:44 pm

        You get up at 4 a.m. to feed kitties. Now THAT is an ikigai. 🙂

        How wonderful that you had Aunt Ida. We can be grandmothered by lots of people, and we can also grandmother in ways other than biological ones. I love this description: “I felt safe with her and she made over me a bit.”

  12. Susan scott on February 1, 2017 at 4:05 pm

    What a lovely post Shirley! I yearn to be a grandma but I have no idea when that will be. My sister is a grandma to two small boys and I know they bring her great joy and they love her so –

    I have only a sketch memory of my maternal grandmother, a Scotswoman and paternal grandmother was Norwegian. Each lived with us in my early years – I don’t remember either all that well-granny Eva rather formidable though I believe her to be a strong woman bringing 4 children up on her own as her husband, my father’s father was killed in WW1. My Scots gran – I remember her clear blue eyes, like wild flowers –

    All good wishes for baby Stoltfuz’s entry into this world. May he find it loving and warm in his parents’ and grand and great grandparents embrace –

    • Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:51 pm

      “I remember her clear blue eyes, like wildflowers” — such a vivid description. I can see her.

      Scots and Norwegian ancestry sounds like two formidable lines. Our grandmothers are not always soft and cuddly. But they always teach us something. Sounds like you have an inheritance from both even without vivid memories.

      Our new grandchild is a girl, so they say. How they can tell from images like the above, I don’t know! Thank you so much for your good wishes as we anticipate the last third of the birth journey.

  13. Shirley Showalter on February 1, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks to Kathleen Foster Friesen for alerting me to this article in the New York Times today:

  14. Donna Heatwole on February 2, 2017 at 11:16 am

    How wonderful! I spent the first three years of my life in my maternal grandmother’s home because my dad was serving in WWII. Little did I know, then, that she wasn’t my “real” grandmother. My “real” grandmother had died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child, my Aunt Glenna. Grandma Mary married my grandpa and took on raising those five children. I didn’t appreciate what that meant for a long time, of course. Not once did she treat me as if I was “not her grandchild.” Ihink if her often – with love.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 2, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      What a touching story, Donna. No wonder you shower love on your own grandchildren. I hope you have written down memories both about your childhood and about your “awakening” in adulthood to what had really happened. Thanks for sharing. I am impressed with the varieties of our beautiful stories as I read all the comments.

  15. Elaine Mansfield on February 2, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    A beautiful image and a wonderful post, Shirley. Thank you. I confess to a little longing as a woman without grandchildren. I have sweet granddogs and potential grandchildren from one of my sons, but right now I do without grandchildren. I watch the joy both male and female friends feel when a grandchild enters their life–and I rejoice with them, but the babies learn their preferred lap right away. I loved learning about the grandmother effect some years ago. It feels like I’ve known that longer than 5 years, but maybe not. Along with the other things we do so well, women extend the lives of our family members–the old ones and the babies.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 2, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Dear Elaine,

      One risk a person always takes when rejoicing in any role is causing pain to others who don’t yet have the same honor. I hope the longing was not too painful. I am glad that you see yourself as a person who is grand-mothering the world, although you didn’t say it in so many words. I can say it! 🙂

      Yes to this statement! “Women extend the lives of our family members–the old ones and the babies.” You are working at the old-age end with your mother-in-law right now. Grace to you. Your work touches many babies also, whether you know it or not.

  16. Delmer B. Martin on February 3, 2017 at 12:55 am

    My Grandma’s face and stature was eerily similar to your photo of Mary Ann Bowers Hershey Brubaker. In some ways we actually live in a very small world really. My memory of my Grandma Lucinda M. (Martin) Martin reminds me of very my first taste of “political correctness” Back in about 1975 I asked her to tell my all about my Dads Brother’s (my uncles) youth… as I heard a rumor from a non-family member that my uncle was for a few years in his early youth “a bit fierce” and a Mennonite Rebel. My grandma replied with only one statement; “your FATHER was ALWAYS a very good boy” What a lady grandma was…the ONLY time she was NEVER politically correct was when anything BIBLICAL came up. My grandpa died from hard work before I was born however my Grandma lived for another 35 years and never remarried. Ironically my Dear father passed away in 2002 but my Uncle described above is one of the pillars in the local Mennonite Church and yup he is still alive today. I tip my hat to my Grandma!!! Thank you for the reminder Shirley;
    Best Regards;
    Delmer B. Martin

    • Shirley Showalter on February 3, 2017 at 9:54 am

      We do live in a very small world, Delmar. Your uncle had an advocate in your grandma who saw his strengths and loved him through his youth. Good for her. Good for him. And good for you for recognizing the power of love through the generations. May you continue to experience it and pass it on!

  17. Tracy Lee Karner on February 4, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    My grandmothers were essential influences in shaping me, and my inspiration for making sure I am here for my granddaughters.

    I’ve come back to my blog, Shirley. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me find my focus for what I’ll be sharing there–inspired by your “Jubilacón.” I credit you with starting a new literary movement!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 4, 2017 at 3:52 pm

      Tracy, it’s good to see you here, to know that your grandmothers were vital to the person you are and are becoming, and to know you have returned to blogging. Can’t wait to see what you are up to!

  18. Gloria Horst Rosenberger on February 4, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Shirley, You have chosen a subject that is so powerful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. My recent Grandmother experience was one of sadness for its meaning and wonder for its depth. When eating dinner together with my husband, son, daughter-in-law, and precious, sweet 5 year old grandson, he said to me, “MoMo, will I be safe with this new president?” Sadness that such a young child knows what the future could hold and wonder that a 5 year old is that involved with the state of our country. A few days later on a play date, he asked, “MoMo, when you go to bed at night, will you pray for me?” I responded with hugs and kisses and words of assurance that yes, indeed, “I will pray for you to be safe and to be healthy.” I will pray for my other grandchild as well and for a the innocent children who want to grow up to be safe in this town, this country, in this world. May our Holy mothering Spirit bless these little ones as Jesus did telling the adults, “Let the little children come unto me”.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 4, 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Dear Gloria, I too am pierced by your grandson’s questions. I know he can count on your prayers and that the Holy mothering Spirit you find comforting will also comfort your little ones. I have a list of names, my students, my children and grandchildren, and the children of my mentees, that I pray over daily, knowing the invitation Jesus gave to let the little children come unto me.

      Thanks for sharing these stories. They touched me deeply.

  19. Laurie Buchanan on February 7, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Oh my gosh — I just finished writing about “ikigai” in The Business of Being. I used a graphic with concentric circles to “show” it.

    I love the picture of the future (Baby Stoltzfus at 20 weeks) that you shared. I’m so excited for you and yours!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 9, 2017 at 12:12 am

      Well how’s that for serendipity? Thank you, Laurie, for your good wishes! Same to you as you write.

  20. sk on February 27, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    That’s a great TED talk–thank you Shirley.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 28, 2017 at 8:42 am

      Glad you enjoyed!

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