She shines for the world—full woman, full strength—whether or not egg and sperm ever joined in her womb. In scrubs, she bends to move a patient from wheelchair to bed; in uniform, she fights for people of all colors; in judge’s robes, she draws the line between right and wrong. As a therapist, she leans toward the weeping client; as a teacher, she tutors the sulky student.
Woman’s ancient strength—her intuition, her power—flows undiluted to her friends and her work. These women are in no way wrong or unnatural. Instead, their freedom from babies means that the young woman’s energy and older woman’s skill radiates out in powerful beams to reach dark and hidden places. These are the aunts, mentors and neighbors who make time for the lonely and the weak. We’ve known them forever as healers, maiden aunts, shamans, nuns, and craftswomen mixing up colors we never imagined.
Truth: When man and woman mate, only one gets pregnant and it’s always the same one. The man gets to dance away. His body never pays the price. She always pays, one way or another. It’s true that babies often bring astonishing joy. I adore my daughters. But bearing children is ancient, heavy work.
Even though we celebrate motherhood with gifts and brunches, it’s not that every one of those women smiled as she chose to have that baby. She did not.
Many babies are, at very best, surprises. Throughout history, women faced the Russian roulette of sex and conception. Sometimes bearing a child brought delight, but sometimes it meant horrible shame and death.
Conception itself is an iffy business. And history’s ignorance loaded that onto women’s backs. Like breeding animals, a barren woman could be ridiculed, cast out, set aside.
While the women nursing babies struggled to cook food and get the wool spun, the women without babies taught schools, wrote stories and tended the dying. Loving like a mother—full woman, full strength—comes from a deeper, holier place than giving birth.
The woman who taught me viola had no children. I remember her studio 50 years ago. Her small grand piano stands to the right, ahead are thick piles of edited sonatas by Vivaldi, Corelli and Bruch, and behind me is the sofa where the kid with the next lesson sits and waits.
Miss Endres frowns at me. “You know, I have a long waiting list for my lessons.” She peers into my eyes, her broad mouth in a grim line. “You are honored to have me as a teacher. You are lucky to be in this room—If you do not practice more, I will drop you.”
She respects herself. She draws a line and dares people to cross it. A few years after my first lessons, I sit in her sinfonia as she conducts the Brahms Requiem, back straight, face intense, in her long black velvet gown. All of us lean forward, straining to give her exactly what she wants. She commands. We obey.
In the fifties and sixties there are few such women. Our mothers are trapped in small hats, sheath skirts and garters. There is no divorce, many women have four and five babies, and women never, ever jog along the streets.
Miss Endres lives with a female roommate, although I doubt that they are gay. She is a serious Catholic with eight brothers and sisters. She was engaged once, she tells me, but the boy was tragically killed. She brings her face close to mine. “I would have been a damn good mother too,” she says.
Later, when I tell her I am marrying again, to a Catholic this time, she frowns. “If he’s such a good Catholic, why did he get divorced?” She watches me with pitying eyes. “I hope you find what you are looking for.” Then she brushes it all away with a sweep of her arm. “Now get to it, kid! Your bow change still needs work!”
Years later, when she died, I cried for days. I could not believe how few people came to her funeral. She had given me such treasure—the vision of a powerful woman, secure in her right to dominate and yet anchored in beauty.
She was not sweet like honey. I play well because she accepted only top quality. Her love nourished like unsweetened juice. She made sure I could soar. She not only taught me to make music with skill and passion, she proved that a woman could be alone, powerful and gorgeous.
It’s not enough to honor only women who give birth. My own mother gave me intelligence, love and passion. But so did the women who never conceived. Throughout history, they have saved millions from despair and painted ordinary days with shimmering colors. I honor all women, whether or not they have given birth, who offer their love to the world.
I’m old now. I play almost every day. When I put my viola up and draw the bow, she’s in the room, listening. I am young and old, a girl and a woman, forever. The song itself is the blessing. My fiddle sings for her, and this time, her smile is soft.
by Jean Gendreau
copyright © 2016 by Jean E Gendreau