Each month we ask MWP readers to respond to a question. For November's "A woman's survival kit"-themed issue we asked you to tell us a story about a woman who survived-someone you know ... or even yourself.
Comfort in repetition
The domestic routines performed by women in my family were manifestations of love, and a means for grieving when a loved one died. Often the expression of grief comes out in a repetitive activity, one we know very well, and perhaps do every day.
Years ago, my grandmother lived in Ipswich, S.D. Following her husband's death, she sat in her rocking chair and crocheted edges on handkerchiefs. She made hundreds of hankies. Neighbors and townspeople brought her their hankies. She crocheted hundreds more.
After my mother died, I unconsciously reached for similar comforting rhythms of repetition. My grief was expressed through a paintbrush and paper. I started making marks-hundreds of them-out on my deck, all over my living room, dining room, they spread out everywhere, covering all the spaces in my house. I realized these marks reflected in an unspoken way my feelings about my mother's death.
Through my grandmother's sprit, I had developed a visual language of my own for grieving and a whole new body of artwork. Mary Simon-Casati, Minneapolis
Editor's Note: Mary Simon-Casati's exhibit, "Memento Mori: Cartography of Grief," opens Nov. 30, 2012 at Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts, Minneapolis. www.mscasati.com
Thriving, not just surviving
Survivor is my claim, actually I prefer "Thriver." I've had cancer twice in the last 23 years. But it's not about surviving. It's about thriving and living life to its fullest every day, even through the death of my first husband at 47 and divorce from my second husband.
There are many things that have contributed to my resiliency-my family, friends, faith and positive attitude to name a few. But I had to learn to ask for help and then actually allow others to support me.
As a single mom with two sons in college, I lived alone. I remember going to chemotherapy and scheduling treatment for Friday afternoons so I could go to work the next week. I'd come home and spend the weekend in bed.
My neighbor offered to drive me to treatment and stay with me. I said, "No Nell, I can do that." She got furious and responded, "You have to let others help you." I learned the valuable lesson that a gift is not a gift unless there is a receiver. It's the cycle of giving that is such an important part of "surviving and thriving" as well. Betsy Stites, Woodbury
Survival story? Which one?
Gosh, I wonder which survival story I should tell? Being ostracized because my parents owned a bar and were the first to divorce in my tiny rural Catholic hometown? Bullied because I was a fat kid? A date rape that made me feel like damaged goods for decades? Destructive drug and alcohol addiction? Being destitute and homeless-more than once? Having a complete stranger stab me 11 times with an ice pick for no apparent reason? Getting run over by a city bus? Being a solo parent while living in poverty? Dealing with major chronic illnesses including daily excruciating pain?
The conclusion of this series of survival stories is that I can honestly say I'm not bitter and that I still find life to be an awesome and very delightful journey. My message to those who're still in survival mode: Keep the faith, things get better. Miranda, Shoreview
White plates, full circles
In 1966, to my dismay and to my parents' horror, I became an "unwed mother." When I started to show, I quit school and was sent away to work for my keep at various families' houses. Later, I was moved to "the home," which was not a home at all but a series of cold rooms with bars on the windows, operated by mostly punitive nuns. At night, trying to fall asleep on my cot with a bit of moonlight comfort seeping through the bars, I held my stomach, knowing I would never be able to hold my baby. The girls at the home were told to never look back. To never tell anyone about this black spot on our souls. To go on with our lives. My baby boy was born in July. I held him once, counted his fingers and toes and kissed him goodbye forever.
I went on, because that is what people do. I carried my secret for a long time. It was always there, but I pushed it away to some uppermost shelf within myself. Twenty years later, I met my son. He was tall and he looked like me. He said he had always wanted to meet me. At our first dinner together, we ate the whole of our lives on white plates, full circles. Linda Back McKay, Minneapolis
Editor's Note: Linda Back McKay is the author of "Out of the Shadows: Stories of Adoption and Reunion."
I will not roll over and play dead!
One third of women in the world have experienced sexual, physical, emotional or other abuse in their lifetime according to the Stop Violence Against Women, (STOPVAW) website by The Advocates for Human Rights. A form of survival that is often overlooked when it comes to women, is survival of verbal abuse. The biggest obstacle I have overcome is turning a deaf ear to the barking of verbal commands. I was controlled by a person whose own desires and pleasures came before concern for the safety and well-being of others. I have come to realize that I'm not somebody's animal who can be controlled by a leash or muzzled in order to remain silent, but a strong-minded confident young woman who can teach others by example. Genia Voitsekhovskaya, Minneapolis
I stand with courage
On November 1, 2008, I collapsed in my bedroom doorway. I was rushed to the hospital and told I would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of my life.
Acceptance was the first step in my recovery process. I realized I needed to work with what I had left. I began struggling daily to do the best I could despite my disability. A year of therapy got me on my feet. Two years of grueling pool and land therapy got me walking and even driving.
When I found out I was going to be a grandmother for the first time, I was overjoyed. In fact, my granddaughter and I learned how to walk together. Courage, determination and faith kept me moving forward.
Courage does not always make the front page of the newspaper. Every day each of us experiences hurdles we must overcome. Some are hardly noticed while others challenge us to become stronger than we ever thought we could be. Kathi Holmes, Minnetonka
Editor's Note: Kathi Holmes is the author of "I Stand With Courage: One Woman's Journey to Conquer Paralysis."
One step after another
I kept looking down. I put one foot in front of me, then the other. I didn't dare look up because I was afraid I would fall, twisting an ankle, breaking a leg, or tumbling over the edge.
I was on a four-day, 48-kilometer trek to Machu Picchu, a precipitous upward climb. On the second day, after 12 hours' struggle to a mountain pass at nearly 14,000 feet, I began to cry. I was at the mid-point. I had no choice but to keep putting one foot after another for two more days. I thought about what awaited me at the end of each day-a hot meal, a place to sleep and my husband.
Then I thought about women in terrible places like labor camps in Cambodia or in the Third Reich, with no meal, no safe place to sleep, no kind words. I felt so ashamed for crying. And I realized we can often endure what might seem unendurable. Ellen J. Kennedy, Edina
I 'survived' the first 27 years of my life without a proper medical diagnosis. I had inadvertently been misdiagnosed for many years, and yet the problems continued. I was born with a congenital heart block and, I believe, as a female the seriousness was not taken into consideration. "She is just a girl, she will outgrow it."
Outgrow it? I had endured chronic fainting spells and a general feeling of being "unwell" from childhood to adulthood. When I was finally diagnosed, it turns out those "fainting spells" were actually my heart stopping. My heart was ready to give up prior to the diagnosis, so to all of those doctors who prescribed cod liver oil or "magic pills," it's no thanks to you that I managed to survive while my heart was dying.
I am now 48 years old, healthy, happy and implanted with a pacemaker. Dawn Huberty, Maplewood
Editor's Note: Dawn Huberty is the founder of WIRED4LIFE, a nonprofit organization that supports and educates "wired" women with an ICD, pacemaker or new heart valves. www.wired4life.net
My worst fear came true last spring. In March, my dad died suddenly of a ruptured aorta. I was 21 years old, about to graduate from college. He was 67 and hundreds of miles away.
In my grief, nothing made sense. A small voice in my head would say, "Open your laptop. Write it down." I listened to that voice. I wrote whatever trickled to the surface. Sometimes complete sentences, other times in all caps, memories and stories I put in a document named: "For My Dad and For Me." It didn't make the pain go away, but I could see its contours more clearly, which helped me breathe. Over time, I had to get accustomed to the truth: that I would live the rest of my life without my dad.
My writing professor pushed me to complete an essay and read it aloud to my classmates. I spent three weeks on eight pages titled, "Katie Bird," my dad's nickname for me. My classmates were nervous; I was too, but I also felt calm. I began reading and didn't look up until I finished. Then I took a deep breath and realized that for the first time since my dad died, I felt like myself. "I can do this," I thought, and I believed myself.
That moment illuminated a truth about me. It took losing my biggest cheerleader to understand that life is short, and only I can give myself permission to do what I love. My dream is to write for a living. Sometimes this seems laughable at best. The unknown is daunting. Am I good enough? Will I make it? I don't know. But I have found my voice. My father's love opened my eyes to my truest self. I can't imagine being blessed with a greater gift. Katie DeCramer, Mendota Heights
A strong woman
I know many survivors. The most important one in my life is my grandmother. She married my grandfather when I was little and they loved each other more than anything else. But that isn't what makes her strong. Last May, my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. She was devastated. The doctors told her that there was no hope for him, but she didn't care what they said. She encouraged my grandfather to keep fighting and that is why he fought as long as he did. He passed away a few days before Christmas, and my grandmother was heartbroken. But, she didn't let that get in the way of her life. She keeps enjoying life, because that is what he would have wanted her to do. He would have wanted her to fight the sorrow, and keep living because you never know if your next breath will be your last. And that is exactly what she did. Rayna Kaeppe, Cottage Grove, Minn. Editor's Note: Rayna Kaeppe is a ninth-grade student at Visitation High School.
Passing her in the street someone might see a pretty, 40-something woman who's probably a mother. A stranger wouldn't see past the shoulder-length blonde hair and the blue eyes to the heart of a survivor, but sure enough that's what she is. A hard-working child clinical psychologist gave up her job for our family when I was 3. She saw her children as a full-time job. After having lived in three different states, owning five different houses, renting two houses and having three apartments with four children and two dogs over the course of eight years, you have to have survival in your blood. My dad travels for work a lot; so dealing with kids who attend a school in Mendota Heights as well Edina is a hectic schedule to keep up with. In this lady some would just see a great woman and a terrific mother, but I see a survivor. Caroline O'Connell, Edina Editor's Note: Caroline O'Connell is a ninth-grade student at Visitation High School.
My grandmother: A survivor
My grandmother, Mavis Brewer Handke Larson, was a survivor from an early age. Living near Canada, her mother died when Mavis was 9 and her father when she was 12. When her father died, a group of friendly Indians took her in until other relatives from northern Minnesota came for her. Her brother fled, lying about his age and joining the U.S. Army.
After a few weeks with her relatives, her older sister Molly, with her son Vance, came to take her along. Molly was a cook for the CCC; so the three of them traveled up and down the eastern border of Minnesota and western Wisconsin, cooking.
In 1937, they settled in Albert Lea, where Molly got work at Wilson's meat packing plant. Mavis went to high school briefly, wearing Molly's high heel shoes, with heels cut off as she couldn't afford shoes. She dropped out in 10th grade and babysat, worked as a nanny and waitress. She did any job she could to earn money to help them live.
In 1939, her cousin Vance drowned and she helped Molly pay for the funeral. In 1941, she married Fred Handke and had a daughter named Sandra, my mother. Fred treated his mental illness with drink, and at one point chased my grandmother through their neighborhood with a gun. He also put a lit cigarette on Sandra. When he left for the service, Mavis divorced him. In 1946, she married Garwood Larson and became a homemaker with her husband farmer.
When I was born in 1962, my mother was ill with bipolar disorder and I went to live with my grandparents. In 1972, my grandmother literally saved my life when I stopped breathing after a surgery. In 1976, Mavis was diagnosed with Parkinson's.
There were happy times, though. I recall when I was around 12 years old, we went to eat at the Canton Cafe. The woman at the cash register was very old. She came over to our table and took grandma's hand and said "Mavis you too skinny! Still! You need to eat, eat, eat!" It was the owner, who had been her boss in the late 1930s. Michelle Mundell, North Mankato
Send us your thoughts! December is our annual Changemakers issue. "What would you like to see changed for women or girls?" Tell us in 150 words or less. Send YourThoughts by November 10, 2012 to firstname.lastname@example.org