I’ve listened to my grandmother’s stories since I was a toddler. I often spent the night at her house, and in the morning, ran into her room and hopped on her bed, begging for another story. Those early tales were amazing, about the animals that lived on the Colorado cattle ranch where she grew up. Other times she told me about how, as a little girl, she got herself into some mischief or another. I loved those stories best.
Then, as I grew older, my grandmother, Jessie Butler, told me how she escaped from her tragic childhood to attend Smith College and inspired me with her life full of adventures. She put together the Pulitzer School of Journalism, became the first woman lobbyist in D.C., shared the podium several times with both Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Roosevelt. In her early nineties, she took me along when she often spoke alongside Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas.
My childhood was not nearly as tragic as Jessie’s. My mom, a single mother, worked hard, struggling to keep our finances together, which meant we often went to bed without dinner or to school without lunch. My brother, Bobby, and I grew up in a Los Angeles “gangland”. He didn’t make it out and became a casualty of our childhood. Naïve and innocent, I came through unscathed.
After college, I married a farmer. I became a successful entrepreneur and writer and never went hungry again. Now my husband and I give more than ten thousand pounds of citrus to food banks every year. I found out early in life the joy of giving. Even when I had nothing, I would find ways of sharing what little I had. It seems the more I give, the more I get. That’s not why I give, but it always returns to me multiplied.
Since I am the historian in the family, when my grandmother passed, her two filing cabinets were sent to me. Busy with work and family, I didn’t start going through them for several decades. When I did, I found her “fly on the wall” memoir, which I edited, shortened and published for the hundredth anniversary of women winning the right to vote in America, August 18th, 2020. In her files, I also discovered nineteen letters from Lady Astor to Jessie, which turns out to be the largest collection in the world.
Even though partially raised by a suffragette, I learned surprising facts while putting together my grandmother’s book. For instance, eighteen U.S. states gave women the right to vote before 1920. England didn’t give women the right to vote until 1928. And I was shocked to learn that in Switzerland, not until . . . 1971!
With Jessie’s inspiration and encouragement, I became a speaker, writer and teacher. I still feel connected to her, and putting together and publishing her memoir allowed me to get to know her even more and feel that close connection again.