Some days I feel like I’m a bad mother because I don’t seek enough physical contact.

My relationship with my own mother has been an emotionally distant one, even as it’s been a practically close one. Now I’m trying to not pass that same distant dynamic on to my own daughter.

My mother was born in the years right after the war and her childhood was shaped by rebuilding a society, where PTSD was poorly understood and only treated in the worst cases.

Her mother wasn’t in her right mind by the time I was born, though my knowledge of that only comes from stories about her various quirks — like refusing to come see her newborn granddaughter because it meant travelling from one city to another, and it might rain and she didn’t want to pack an umbrella.

I think some of it was just her being old, some of it was my father having a skewed perspective on his mother-in-law, and some of it rooted in old trauma.

And war certainly qualifies as trauma.

My maternal grandmother died when I was around five, so I never knew her well, but I did spend my childhood with her sister, my great aunt, whom I loved dearly.

That lady used to pile my flapjacks so high with sugar it crunched in my mouth, gave me 50 marks when 5 was the going rate for a weekly allowance, and let me play with her precious glass and porcelain decorations.

She was fun and adventurous and she loved to spoil me.

Once she took me to the fanciest store in town and bought me a stuffed leopard toy that was as big as I was. It was inky black with gorgeous green eyes that had incredible detail in the irises.

I carried it all the way home, hugging it to me like a new best friend as we walked. I still have it today and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.

In my family — in which no one was left untouched by the war — people coped with it very differently.

Where my aunt’s life became defined by substance abuse, an abusive husband, and a child taken into foster care, my mother weathered her own first abusive marriage (relatively) better and went on to marry my father, who was only a deadbeat.

My father is a huge narcissist, though, who put his own stamp on my ability to seek and receive intimacy, but that’s another story.

Today I want to remember the ones that showed me a better way forward. And besides my maternal great aunt, that was my paternal great grandmother. (I was also named after her, and carry that name with love.)

She became a refugee and had to leave her island home when Russia annexed Karelia — the echoes of which I’m reminded of with events taking place today.

She lost a husband to the war and became a single mother to my grandmother.

She could have clung to all the things that were bad in her life, she could have hung on to her anger, hurt and resentment. She had every right to live out her life, cursing those who violently took everything from her.

That’s what her daughter did, and she carried that resentment as a part of her identity until the day she died.

But my great grandmother was like a sun.

She married again, a sailor with real old school sailor tattoos from all the places he’d been. And together they were always smiling and laughing, radiating such pure joy, that they had a profound impact on me.

They showed me how to rise after pain, how to smile after sorrow, how to weather hardship and rebuild.

My grandmother always hated her new stepfather, resenting him for seemingly erasing the memory of her father from their lives. She hated Russians with a vehemence that became embarrassing as we moved into the 90s and beyond, using words to describe them that were no longer acceptable.

Though she mellowed over the years, that bitterness, that hatred was so dear to her, that it was a relief when she died.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the woman dearly, but that kind of trauma that you re-live every single day is a lot to live with.

I don’t begrudge her her anger, neither do I think she should have done anything differently if she wasn’t ready to do so.

Throughout my childhood I weathered racism from her against half of my own identity (I’m bicultural) and let her sneer at one of my native languages.

I listened to her rant and voice her frustrations about the Russians, even as I thought of my own Russian and Russian-descended friends (I’m one myself!) and tried to understand what actions would make it better or what words could turn her hatred onto someone else.

She always vociferously declared that she loved me, but I had to wonder, how could she when she denied and hated most of my heritage?

I am the woman I am today because of the women who came before me.

The angry, the sorrowful, the grieving, the happy, the grateful, the compassionate.

And I can only be profoundly grateful to those women who chose joy over sorrow, resilience over regret, for showing me that there is a way to live that is not bound in misery.

I’ve had my own mental health struggles, and trauma shaped my youth very negatively, but I don’t think I’d be the mother I am today without my foremothers watching over me.

And hopefully, I can pass on more good than bad to my own daughter.

Because while I may not be perfect, I’ve put in a hell of a lot of work to stop the generational trauma with me.

Time will tell how successful I have been.

This article was originally published in Modern Women

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