I have four teenage granddaughters. Aged 15 to 18, these young women give me much joy and hope. It’s not an easy time to enter adulthood. My hope is that they will grow strong and steady within themselves, and that they will care deeply about others, and about our divided, suffering world. I want them to take their places among the strong women of the world, women whose courage and faithfulness have made our world a better place. I’m thinking of strong women like Adele and the two Elizabeths whose rich lives gave generously to the world. I want to tell them – and you – about these women.
I’ve long admired these three women. Their lives differed enormously, and they never met each other. But, if they had ever sat together over tea and told their stories, I think they would have enjoyed themselves and found they shared underlying qualities of heart and mind. They were all courageous and faithful, combining a clear sense of responsibility with humorous, inquiring minds. They lived fully; they “inhabited [their] days”, as poet Dawna Markova has written. Until their deaths this year, they kept on learning and loving, expanding boundaries and building bridges.
The first Elizabeth grew up in a rural Pennsylvania world that limited her options for becoming all she had within her to be – a guide for others as a leader and minister. Her religious denomination ruled that women could not be ordained as ministers, even though she knew she was called to this work.
There finally came a time when Elizabeth, assisted by her congregation and her bishop, needed to break the rules, to fully claim her calling and be ordained. Although breaking through boundaries can be risky, this service of ordination provided a joyful affirmation of her gift for ministry. Within a few years, other women followed her, and now her denomination welcomes women as ordained clergy. Elizabeth was faithful to her calling and, by courageously stepping forward, opened the way for others.
The second Elizabeth (more commonly known as Elizabeth II), though very different from the first one, also lived courageously. For her, it was the courage to faithfully fulfill a role she never chose and to subtly adjust that role as the world around her shifted. Her commitment and faithfulness was to an ancient tradition and to a country that took precedence over her individual life. When she was 21, she pledged that her “whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service. . . ” She had no idea that her “service” would stretch for 70 years!
This Elizabeth helped the world to be a better place in her unique way. Her service included becoming a source of stability in a world whose foundations changed enormously in her 96 years. She fulfilled her commitment with grace and staunch loyalty, although there surely were times she would rather have been riding her horse in the countryside or kicking her shoes off and spending a day cuddling with her corgis.
And finally there is Adele. Although increasingly frail as she entered her 100th year, it was a joy to visit her and listen to her stories. She talked about her youth in New York City as a child of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, her commitment to social justice, and her early leadership in minority hiring.
Adele’s interests were lively and wide-ranging. She explored the world of ideas as well as places. Experiences in ashrams in India and the United States profoundly influenced her spiritual path. Well into her 90’s, she continued participating in discussions of the “Science and Spirituality” group she had founded. She loved to read, but when her eyesight failed, she listened to her favorite War and Peace, enjoying it again and again. Adele always maintained a strong interest in others, even when she needed to dictate the letters that she wrote them. She was as faithful in friendship as she was cheerful in accepting the diminishments of her last years.
Adele and the two Elizabeths. I need to talk with my granddaughters about them. I will lift them up as women who responded to the unique challenges of their lives with high courage and faithfulness. Their lives exemplified poet Dawn Markova’s words in “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life.”
I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as seed goes on to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.