When I think of the women I admire most, three extraordinary people come to mind. One woman I met once. One woman I never met, but I almost knocked over a piece of her art once. And one woman was all in my business, because she was family: my grandmother.
The one I never met was Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter of all things flowers and skulls. One day when I lived in Santa Fe as a photographer, I was visiting an attorney friend of mine at his law firm; we were talking in a conference room, walls lined with original paintings. As I moved closer to examine one painting, he warned me away from a dark vase, just inches from my elbow. He said: “Careful, that’s a Georgia O’Keeffe.”
He explained that during her later years, Georgia’s eyesight worsened, so she made pottery as her form of artistic expression. I studied this unassuming but beautifully crafted vase, feeling a thrill. I admired her grit and her need to express herself artistically, switching mediums as her eyes failed. Here was tangible proof that even though we may lack or lose abilities in life, it’s important to work with what we’ve got.
The woman I met once was Jane Goodall, the British primatologist and anthropologist. It was a snowy day in Santa Fe and we were at someone’s home, where she was being hosted for a newspaper interview. Fat snowflakes drifted past the windowpanes, fires blazed in the fireplaces, and Jane spoke to us. I was in heaven.
She talked about her chimpanzee studies and the many ways they were similar to humans. Family bonds were essential for the groups, with teachings passed down from mother to daughter. I walked away from the interview thinking: love doesn’t die, it’s an energy rolled into our children, and passed to the next generation.
And the woman who was my grandmother was Bessie May Bilbo Tallant. She wasn’t famous, unless your idea of fame is being mentioned in the local paper for chairing a social event, or being known as the high school’s English teacher, Miss Bilbo. She married in her mid-forties to a widower, my grandfather, a taciturn Texas oil field worker who was trying to parent his young son and daughter. My father was a ten-year-old boy at the time, lost in grief over his mother’s sudden death to phenomena two years earlier.
When Bessie came into their lives, the only books in their simple wooden house were the Bible and the Farmers’ Almanac. Bessie brought an entire encyclopedia, along with books on adventure and history. She was a healing, steadying influence that allowed my grandfather and his young son and daughter to overcome their grief and hope again. My father, an average student before her arrival, blossomed under her care and went on to graduate from medical school, the first in his family to ever go that far in education.
She could make a mean plate of fried chicken and gave the best hugs. Because she knew the power of holding children tight and telling them: no matter what, as long as you keep on trying, you can do it.