Category Archives: Mary Ann on the blog

Listening to our Grandmothers: The Project

Listening to our Grandmothers started as an idea for a book. As the book came to life (it will be released next week), I felt more and more that I wanted to facilitate more opportunities for older womens’ stories be heard. It feels like something we all need no matter our age. I began to imagine more and more manifestations of this. Places where older women share their stories, are heard by each other and by younger women who can benefit from the wisdom and experience in the stories of women who have gone before them and work looking at models of leadership and community developed by older women in different parts of the world.

Then I shared some of my thoughts with a dear friend Aisha Hannibal who in turn shared her vision of researching the traditions of older women in South America and of creating circles specifically for older women where they can share their stories with each other.

I always knew I wanted any profit from selling this book to support projects that worked with women and so was born an idea. Any profits from this book (60%) of the sale price will be used to fund the start up of a longer term project with the working title ‘Listening to Our Grandmothers’.

We envisage this work getting off the ground when we have sufficient funds from the proceeds from this book and other potential sources to support research and development of some of these activities.

If you are interested in and would like to stay in touch with this work please sign up for the Listening to our Grandmothers mailing list HERE.

I wanna wake up with you

My Grandparents gave me an old record player sometime during the 1980s when I first started wanting to collect music.  It was an old one that played 78s and in time they gave me the accompanying record box too (or at least I think the red box I have was theirs). At the weekend I had this great idea for a blog post where I went through the old records that my Grandmothers left me and I found one that I am almost 100% sure that one of them loved and then took a picture of the sleeve.  However I searched all weekend to no avail. So either I am dreaming or I have put it somewhere safe.

Instead I am sharing a You Tube clip of the video of the record that I thought I was looking for. It’s the 1986 recording by Boris Gardner of ‘I wanna wake up with you’.  Whether my memory serves me correctly or not this is for you Granny Walsingham.  It’s happy, colourful and upbeat like I remember you and like you it makes me smile.  I used to call you my ‘super granny’ because you were so vibrant and energetic.


You might not know this but the last time I saw you I sat by your bed side, you mistaking me I think, for my Mum and as I drove away I cried deep deep tears because I knew I would never see you alive and smiling again. You brought sunshine in to so many people’s lives Evelyn Joan and that’s the way I will always remember you.

What kind of home did your Grandmother grow up in?

At the weekend I went to view a property that had hardly been updated for years. I don’t know exactly how long but it was decades I think as it had no bathing facilities or hot water.  It moved me almost to tears to realise that someone had been living there until recently because the house felt like a museum to me. There were objects that reminded me of the homes of older people and some of the things I remembered them having during my childhood and yet, even in the 70s and 80s our grandparents had more ‘modern’ homes than the one I visited at the weekend.  It was truly like the place had been stuck in a time warp.

The shock of seeing this place preserved as if time had stood still started me thinking about the homes my grandparents grew up in and how different they would have looked to the homes most of us live in today.  Sometimes we find ourselves lamenting that things and people don’t change but in fact in the last few generations many things about the way we live have changed so profoundly it can be hard for our minds and bodies to keep up.

There is much that I want to celebrate about the world we live in now and the convenience of many of the things that I take for granted; hot water, flushing toilets, easy communication, swift and accessible transport and so on.  I realise that working as I do using the internet and email so much would have been impossible for my grandparents and in fact in Listening to our Grandmothers all of the women highlight the extent to which easy communication has changed their lives.

I am grateful, so grateful that I can use technology to tell more people about my writing and my work and that I can work with women all over the world to make it happen in ways that my Grandparents perhaps never dreamed of and yet, there was a magic in the simplicity of the house I visited in the weekend that made me wish I could step back in time and visit my grandparents in their childhoods and experience even for a few moments the world the way it was.  I hope that in sharing five women’s stories next week as I publish Listening to our Grandmothers I will encourage many many more stories to be told and in doing so my great hope is that magic will happen for I truly think that by sharing our stories we can start to transform the world.

If you want to share a tribute to your Grandmothers you can do so on the Celebrate your Grandmother page.  You can also sign up HERE to be notified when the book is realised next week.

A tribute to YOUR Grandmother

In the US the 8th September this year is Grandparents Day.  My initial reaction was to think that Grandparents day sounded like an invention by the card to extract cash from us but apparently instead it was the brainchild of a woman who wanted to ‘champion the cause of lonely elderly in nursing homes’ and ‘persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents could provide’.  Apparently it has been celebrated in the States since 1978 on the first Sunday in September.

Tapping in to the wisdom & heritage that grandmothers and the older women in our lives can provide is exactly what Listening to our Grandmothers is about and so given that next weekend I will be launching the book website I thought it would be great to invite you to do something to mark this occasion and Grandparents Day.

The invitation is to leave in the comments below a tribute to your Grandmother.  What did you or have you learnt from her?  What is it about her that you remember, have been told or would like to share?  Why is she so important to you?  

It doesn’t matter whether you knew your Grandmother, whether she is alive or died many years ago.  I’m interested in collecting our diverse shared experiences of our grandmothers – these could be something you mum told you or something that happened yesterday.  If you never knew your grandmother you are also welcome to share something about another older woman who meant a lot to you.  Share whatever it is you feel you’d like to contribute.

Your comments will form the first entries on page called ‘Tributes to our Grandmothers’ that I will be setting up on the Listening to Our Grandmothers website next week and the best three will win a signed, first edition, copy of the printed book when it is released on 16th September.  If you’d like to be kept update about the launch please sign up for my mailing list by following this link.

You can also post your tribute on the Listening to our Grandmothers Facebook page or post it on your own website and share it on the Facebook Page or tweet it using #LTOG.  As long as you share your tributes in one of these ways by Grandparents Day, 8th September, you will be entered in to the competition.

I am so looking forward to reading your tributes.

Mary Ann




On Ageing

Life cycle icon 2One of the subjects which I asked all the women I interviewed for Listening to our Grandmothers about was how they have felt about physical ageing?  Not surprisingly they gave a variety of responses.  One of the most interesting responses to that question came from Angela who I had the pleasure of meeting up with, to finalise her chapter, just last week.  When we met we both spoke about our frustration at the fact that Leah Totton who recently won this years Apprentice TV show wants to create a business that makes money from older people altering their natural faces.  Leah explained in her post-apprentice interviews that she would not herself be undergoing the cosmetic procedures she will be offering because the products were not for women of her age (24).  Rather she said they were ‘anti-ageing products’ but that Lord Sugar’s 66 year old face was ‘fine the way it was’.  This leads me to the obvious question, ‘Is it just women whose faces she thinks should be protected from ageing?  Something about all of this feels all wrong to me.  In fact I don’t mind sharing that watching the final of the Apprentice actually made me weep with frustration.

Presumably Sir Alan saw the doubtless enormous potential for profit in selling to women the idea that they somehow need to fundamentally alter the way they are.  Of course it is nothing new to sell women an idealised, unattainable image of themselves as a means of generating profit.  But I do find myself wondering when it actually became ‘ordinary’ to alter our bodies and faces not just with diets and weight loss plans but surgical operations and procedures too.  To me when we buy in to the notion that there is something intrinsically wrong with the way that nature created us we are internalising the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way women are.  That kind of self-criticism just can’t be good for us, not just individually but also collectively and I just long for a world that brings us up to accept, rather than desire to alter, what we fundamentally are.  Angela has a particular take on this as she has been life modelling now for a number of years.  It is interesting to hear from her that being a life model has been incredibly life affirming.  She talks about the positive feedback that images of her have inspired in our interview in Listening to our Grandmothers which will be available here to download soon.  And as I hear such life-affirming stories from the older women whom I have been interviewing I begin to wonder too there is something about the real, interesting, imperfect faces of ageing women that we, as a society, have come in some way to fear?  What might those faces tell us if they were given more opportunity to speak to us? Might they actually help us to create space for more positive, life affirming models of business if only we had the foresight to give them a chance?

If you want to be kept updated about the launch of Listening to our Grandmothers please sign up for my mailing list or join the Facebook page now.


Who do you think you are?

Last September I posted this on Facebook:

Me and Jules Who do you think you are?

 I trained as an anthropologist and spent a lot of time reading and researching who other people thought they were.

 Somehow in the process I got curious about my own heritage. As a result last weekend I met Jules, my fourth cousin – part of my matrilineal extended family!

 We share an ancestor from Mexico City, Joseph Cassasola who married an English woman called Elizabeth and eventually returned here with their children (our great, great grandparents)

What stories has your family remembered? And which ones have been forgotten?

On reflection I suspect that I was born with a natural urge to explore where I come from.  Of course the answer turns out to be, lots of places.  It also made anthropology an obvious discipline for me.  And I am glad because what I have learnt from the study of it has opened up my mind irrevocably even if, as one of the Grandmothers I interview in the forthcoming book Listening to our Grandmothers points out, the gifts of anthropology can also feel like a burden.

Our heritages are almost always diverse and surprising.   The particular heritage I share with my fourth cousin Jules is traced through my maternal grandmother through her father to his Grandfather.  The main reason I knew of my Mexican ancestor was that my Grandmother’s maiden name was Cassasola, which, though common in Mexico was a rare name in this country in the 1850s.  This makes Joseph, and his wife, Elizabeth fairly easy to trace through birth, marriage and death records, something that Jules has done a great job of!

But as this story illustrates, if I am a little bit Mexican (a 36th I think), I am also a little bit of lots of other things too.  Many of these I don’t have records of.  In fact most of us have probably forgotten as much of our heritage as we have remembered.  Our ancestors and communities, often for good reason, have selected what to pass down to us about who we are.  And it may well be that has been forgotten is often more interesting than what is remembered.

In March this year I gave a talk entitled, Where do you feel at home? In it I explored the different ways that we can relate to and create a sense of being at home somewhere.  This is deeply related of course to who we think we are.  And we have choices here.  In that talk I encouraged my listeners to explore what it would be like to approach life choosing to feel at home everywhere they went.  I suggested that they might do this by focusing on the things that connect us rather than those that make us feel different. A taster of that talk is given in the image below.  I hope to be able to share footage of it here very soon.

where do you feel at home?

In choosing to record the stories of Grandmothers for my forthcoming project and, hopefully, in doing so, encouraging you to listen to the stories of the older women around you one of my main purposes is to deepen your sense of connection to multiple histories.  Be that to the women that biologically came before you or to the deep wisdom women carry and that our society has so often chosen to neglect.  By listening to, recording and sharing stories I have a profound sense that we quite literally make our own herstory.  To stay a part of the Listening to our Grandmothers project please sign up for my mailing list or join the Facebook page here.

So what if you don’t have a grandmother?

So what about if you don’t have a grandmother, at least you don’t have one that you knew?  Or what if your grandmother memories are old and faded and there is little that you remember really at all?

Often we didn’t have or know the physical presence of a grandmother.  Sometimes we don’t even have any stories about the women, our maternal grandmother, in whose belly the egg that made us was first created.

I’ve been wondering about this as I talk to women about their experiences or lack of experiences of their grandmothers.

One thing I am clear about is that the point of the Listening to our Grandmothers project is not to make people who didn’t know or don’t remember their grandmothers feel like something is missing.

In fact, even though it’s called Listening to our Grandmothers, in the book which I will launch in September, one of the interviews is actually with my Mum.  The real impetous of the project is to play a small part in re-writing the fact that there seems to be so little valuing of the stories of older women in our communities and institutions.  It is also to point out that, whether we knew them or not, those that went before us play a part in our heritage, in who we think we are.

An article I read recently called ‘Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes‘ reviews research which appears to have shown the impact of the lives our ancestors lived on our very DNA apparently affected how we feel about our lives and treat the people around us. (Be warned this scientific research involves animals). If it is true that our DNA can be impacted upon by events in our ancestors lifetimes, it is surely also that case that the experiences of our own lives can transform negative patterns in our ancestral past and transform our DNA for the next generation.

We know that women’s lives even a generation ago were more restricted that those we live today.  This science seems to suggest that, whether we knew our grandmother or not, any oppression she experienced could be impacting our lives today.  It’s not surprising then that centuries of patriarchy have taken their toll on most of us in some way or other and that often we feel this reality deeply even if it hasn’t been our direct experience in every aspect of our own lives.

We may not be able to get back the stories of the grandmothers we never knew, but here in our present we can make a choice to really listen to the elders in our lives right now.  To our mothers, our aunts, to those we meet as we go about our daily lives and to our grandmothers if we still have them.  We can make the choice to live a life of respect for elders and for the stories of women.  If we can find ways to really listen to each other and to tell our stories I think we will make a difference to the next generation too.  If you want to be kept updated about the launch of Listening to our Grandmothers please sign up for my mailing list or join the Facebook page here.


The Grandmother Spirit

I first started writing about Grandmothers more than 20 years ago.  It was part of a school project.  My paternal Grandmother Margot had a degenerative condition that meant that, though she had some vivid memories of the past she no longer knew who any of us were.  It was too late then for me to ask her some of the questions I ask of the women who I’ve interviewed for my Listening to our Grandmother’s Project but I suppose that it does suggest that a connection to older women and a sense of wanting to understand the women who went before me has been with me for a very long time.

In 1992 I was a teenager. I wrote about a visit to my Grandmother because I wanted to understand what was happening to her. I wanted to put some sense in to the confusion I experienced when we went to visit her.  At the time I wrote:

There is a sense of Growing Down about my grandmother, a sense in which her mind and body are no longer growing, but rather, deteriorating.  Maybe this seems a natural conclusion to life, a slow removal of it. A reversal of its constant growth from birth.  Almost like she is returning to the beginning, to her original state…I would like to think she had passed some of her strength on to me now.  That the ambition and liveliness she once had lives on in me now.  That I am somehow something of her.  As I grow, she declines, my strength is her gift to me.  Her liveliness is not dying, simply moving on.  

IMG_0926Bold thoughts perhaps for a 15 year old, but looking back on them now I’m reminded of the clear sense I had then of the way that life is passed on to us through generations.  Margot died soon after I wrote that and much of what I know about her life has been passed down to me by my Grandfather Ted and my parents.  Amazingly too when Ted died he left us not just her photos, one of which now sits on the side of my desk but also her war time dairies meaning that I do in fact still have, some of her words.

Listening to our Grandmothers is a project that has been coming together for a few years.  As I interviewed women in their 60s and 70s about their lives for a book I’ll be releasing in a few months time I started to develop a sense of how much we need the stories of older women and our connections to them.  Somewhere in the process of hearing and recording all of the stories that were shared with me by the women I spoke with I found a deeper sense of the connectedness to the women who went before us that I want to share and celebrate through this piece of work.  Alice Walker talks about the importance of the ‘Grandmother Spirit’ and this work is all about honouring that.  If you want to be kept updated about the launch of Listening to our Grandmothers please sign up for my mailing list or join the Facebook page here.