Women of Integrity

On the International Day of Women, I reflected on the women who have gone before me and helped make me who I am. I don’t want to write about the women who were famous “first” women or those who fought for and won rights for women. I know I owe them gratitude for a multitude of rights that I take for granted. I won’t even write about my mother and my grandmothers, or this article would get much too long. Instead, I would like to remember those “other” women who touched my life and formed me.

I decided I wanted to become a teacher after my year as a German exchange student in Michigan. Being in a majority Jewish community and studying WWII and the Holocaust left me with enormous feelings of guilt. My history teacher, Gerry, noticed and called me in for a long talk. We ended up talking often and becoming friends and are in contact to this day. She made me see that guilt doesn’t accomplish anything, but responsibility does. Ever since then I have tried to take responsibility to make sure something like the Nazi regime and the Holocaust won’t ever happen again. 

Gerry has had at least three bouts with cancer. Twice she “died” on the operating table. The way she tells it, she was tired and ready to go towards the light. Her plea to God was that if it wasn’t her time yet, “let me be useful.” She has since earned her Ph.D. and still does teaching and counseling. 

When I taught ESL in the American Language Program, I met Marion. She was close to retirement age, and when she finally did retire, she moved to Monterey. She had grown up in the Midwest, raised three children on her own in Denver after her husband’s early death, and her dream had always been to live close to the ocean. So in her 70s she moved close to the ocean and enrolled in community college classes in order to become a volunteer docent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and at Point Lobos State Park. We visited her in Monterey and were amazed at her vitality and her joy at doing what she loved. 

Sheila was another colleague in the American Language Program. She was older than I, the mother of six children, who had gone back to school to earn a master’s degree in English. She became a mentor to me, and she helped me get a job as a lecturer in the university’s English department. After her retirement, we stayed in touch as friends and I learned a little more about her earlier life as a mother and community activist for good education and social justice. One remarkable thing about Sheila was her optimism. No matter how harshly life treated her (two of her sons preceded her in death), she always remained positive. 

We met Corine at a South Hayward Parish program about the School of the Americas and efforts to close it down. She and her late husband, Nate, were active in myriad social causes, and even now, in her 90s, Corine follows national and world events and continues to educate others and spurs them to action. I will never forget her and Nate sitting along the route of a peace march in San Francisco, proudly wearing the buttons of previous progressive campaigns and holding a Grandmothers for Peace banner. 

And then there was Betty. For as long as I can remember, she has been the heart and soul of South Hayward Parish, and I know she will remain so even after her passing. She accepted the less fortunate and made every one of them feel heard and seen. The clients called her Mama and were anxious when Betty was absent for more than a couple of days. At board meetings Betty was the calm voice of reason who had been around long enough to educate the board members on what had and had not worked in the past. Her energy seemed to have no limits, and she laughed easily. She will be sorely missed.

I feel blessed to have had the privilege to know these women. Each lives or lived out of her integrity and guided me along a part of my life. Together, they have helped make me the woman I am today, and their examples continue to guide me. -Kristina