When I was a teenager, my heroines were Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett, with her wit and fine eyes; plucky Jo in Little Women; and basically any heroine in a Barbara Cartland novel (and if you’ve never read a Barbara Cartland novel, you are missing out, girlfriend). And also most female writers, because I wanted to be one. As you can imagine, now that I am in my 50’s, I have different heroines. I still aspire to be a writer, but I no longer aspire to be the female protagonist in a romance novel (except for when I read Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore a couple of years ago—who wouldn’t want to be Kate and be wooed by dreamy Henry?). Nowadays, my heroines are much closer to home.
Recently I was called to be the Relief Society president in my ward. Once I got over the shock, I discovered that I actually really enjoy this calling. One of the things I love about it is that I get to visit the darling widows in my ward—wise, delightful, inspiring women, every one. Take Gladys, for example. She will turn 100 next month. 100! That means that she was born during World War I. Imagine what she has seen in her lifetime! Though she needs a walker to get around and is almost blind, her mind is as sharp as a tack and she continues to live independently in her own home. She is full of wit and good humor, and is obviously adored by her children and grandchildren. When I visit Gladys we not only talk about our families and the gospel, we also have lively discussions about art and literature. She was a high school English teacher for many years and I was an English major, so we can talk happily for hours about Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen (and Elizabeth Bennett’s wit). Since Gladys can’t read anymore, at night when she’s trying to fall asleep she often recites to herself one of the many passages from literature that she memorized when she was a teacher—whole passages from Shakespeare plays and numerous novels. She puts my middle-aged memory to shame!
And because she was a high school teacher, she adores teenagers—she often reminds me that teenagers are her favorite group of people—and they adore her. Last March, when I told my son Nathan, who was a missionary in the Philippines at the time, that I had visited a very sweet widow in the ward named Gladys Nelson, my son wrote back, “I love Sister Nelson! When I was a priest, we took the sacrament to her each Sunday, and she was always so friendly and welcoming and fun to talk to. She was my favorite person to visit!” I had no idea that Nathan knew and loved Gladys, and I was even more surprised to discover, during my next visit to Gladys, that she remembered and loved him. She confided, “He was my favorite, too.” When Nathan returned from his mission in July, I took him to visit Gladys and they had a tender, joyful reunion. She was delighted by his Filipino accent and enjoyed quizzing him about his mission and listening to his stories. When the conversation turned to her late husband, Gladys quipped, “He’d better be waiting for me on the other side and not chasing after other women in the spirit world.” Oh, how I love Gladys!
And then there’s Naoma, who is 92. For the past nearly thirty years, she has helped her divorced daughter raise three grandchildren. She still drives and, like Gladys, lives independently. Her home is comfortable, warm, and welcoming and she has a beautiful, thriving garden. She paints, sews, and presses flowers, and is currently making an exquisite advent calendar for her great-granddaughter, with intricate felt ornaments all made from her own patterns. She also recently gave a wonderful performance in a reader’s theater enactment of Chekhov’s The Proposal. Naoma is definitely a woman I love and admire.
I could list many other widows in my ward whom I love and admire, like Jeanine, 84, who is known as “Gma” not only by her grandchildren but by all the youth in our ward and neighborhood and who is both mother and grandmother to her deceased daughter, Marva’s, three grown children. She radiates sunshine and goodness wherever she goes. She makes treats for neighbors, sews baby blankets for new babies in our ward and embroiders towels for the graduating seniors to take with them to college, crochets, and regularly attends the temple, and is just generally awesome in every way. If I had to choose just one person to emulate when I grow up (and yes, I still have lots of growing up to do), it would be Jeanine.
I love these women—and many others whom I haven’t written about—for their righteousness, cheerfulness, wisdom, and strength. For their ability to embrace life, even in the midst of heartbreaking, soul-searing, mind-numbing challenges. For the ways that they use their talents to bless others. Though they have wit and pluck and beautiful eyes, what matters most is that they are women of God, beloved by all who know them. And that makes them true heroines to me.
Who are your heroines?