Tenement Living by Colin Poellot. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, ShareAlike.

What sustains people? All of us?

Food, shelter, and clothing are clearly basic essentials but still, shamefully, are not universal to or for all.

Faith, hope, and charity? For believers, maybe one or more of these provides sustenance.

Education, health, clear air and water? These are perhaps later to be recognized as necessary and basic for sustenance, and have yet to become fully enshrined in law.

Justice, peace, human rights, equity, equality? These are even more recent additions to a list of basics that sustain us, but are still today only aspirational goals for all people. Worse, some of these are being eroded or erased even before they have been properly entrenched.

But rather than consider these overarching aspects of sustenance, I want to focus in to a very “micro” level, one that is more imaginary than real – the level of individual women – and especially consider one who is a composite of the real and the fictional. (And I am adapting, albeit without her wonderful writing skills, Julie Otsuka’s use of the “collective voice” – the “we” voice of first-person plural. This woman draws my attention because we can’t know how or from whom or what she has received sustenance. However, if we reflect on her life and experiences, even imaginatively, we may thereby learn something important about women’s resistance and resilience, and how they survive when sustenance is not obvious. And how we are all engaged in this sustenance.

And now to Belle: she lived into her 90s, at least half of those years spent inside a cone, a cone of silence – probably not by choice. She was silent and she was silenced. This is the period of her life that most needs imaginative reflection; but first, who was she when she probably did have voice –was seen and was heard? Using photographs in various family albums and memories others have collected, let’s see her from her youth and early adult life.

Born in the late 1880s, Belle’s earliest years were determined by the historical forces of Tsars, pogroms, wars, shtetl life. Put in charge of a sister 2 or 3 years younger (Belle herself was 12 or so), she was set afloat, travelling by steamship in the lowest decks of steerage to what was hoped would be a better life for both. Maybe one of her parents or both were there to welcome her on Ellis Island; maybe another relative; maybe they just had instructions about how to find friendly faces in New York City, and got help to follow the routes suggested into a strange new land where they could only speak with others who knew and used Russian or Yiddish.

Tenement apartments where they lived offered the barest of sustenance; ill-paid labouring work covered the costs of simple groceries for food; and clothing from scraps and used bits passed on by others for whom they worked, or found in dump sites, were on the clothing sustenance menu.

Colin Poellot, Tenement Living – From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, ShareAlike.

But there were large quantities of hope and solidarity for shared sustenance during their early years in NY: parties as marriages took place; food baskets for neighbours whose ice box was empty; collectives centred on socialist-style Workmen’s Circles for mutual support and financial sustenance when not all had paying jobs, or for those who needed to be buried. It may have been basic, maybe even bleak, but life was not malnourished socially or emotionally.

Belle got married and then gave birth to two children, and we can imagine that these were good times for her. But then her son died suddenly just as he was becoming a young man. How did she keep herself going through this tragedy? An unanswered question that, in her later years, no one asked Belle about. And she never “shared” what she felt or how she hung on. Was it seeing her other child or children thrive in school? Was it seeing a remaining daughter have a good education and find a job she kept through the Depression? Was it having her daughters marry men on their way to professional careers that offered sufficient sustenance?

We will never know; no one ever asked. She never said; she was never allowed to say or to be heard.

Fast forward now to her years, many long years, as a widow – especially those years when, in an apparent act of charity, a daughter and son-in-law had Belle move into their spacious home where she was given her own room (shelter), regular meals (food), and store-bought (by others) things to wear (clothes). All these aspects of the most basic sustenance can be ticked off the “needed” list. And they were hers.

But what is also known is what could only have been observed by the children and grandchildren of Belle and the other women living in similar circumstances. And this gets us back to how these older women, those who should have been honoured elders, were instead silenced and un-seened. How did they sustain themselves under constant pressures to erase them? To muzzle them? How did they, as the outsider imagines, “suffer in silence?”

Possibly surrounded by the comings and goings and conversations of family life, they were nonetheless deprived of taking part (even those comfortable in their third language, English), treated more like a piece of furniture to be walked around, taking care not to step on their toes. And not even receiving the warm cuddles and soothing pats given to the cats and dogs in the house. What sustained her? Them? There were no Yiddish or Russian-language papers or books to read, no TV programs they could select for entertainment when the dials were always under the control of others. No real options for relieving isolation. They knitted and crocheted sweaters, hats, gloves that warmed others, but the hugs they got as thanks were merely polite, and probably did not reciprocate the warmth their intricately designed gifts gave recipients.

Some of these older women were “seen” when others ate the special foods they prepared, using recipes no one else could really ever duplicate. Others, by contrast, were made to be exiles in the home kitchens of their working daughters, since these had been taken over as the domains of hired cooks and housekeepers.

Did anything really sustain Belle and her un-seened – her unvisible – sisters, beyond their automatic heartbeats and in-and-out breaths? Maybe someone can fill in these blanks, but other than imagining the hollows and the voids, I certainly can’t fill these in as she/they experienced them.

But troubling as this is, what is perhaps even more so is to wonder about my own, our own, blanks and voids. Why did no one in my sisterhood ever ask these women about such things? Why did those who developed as 2nd-wave feminists explore themselves and each other, but often failed to raise consciousnesses about the aging women in our families, women with whom many actually lived? They truly cared about us, about what we thought or did, but there was no reciprocation to those who likely yearned to connect and shared similar demands to be seen, heard, and listened to.

We just kept trying to avoid stumbling over them, becoming participants and complicit in banishing and vanishing them. And only as their granddaughters themselves/we ourselves age do we have lots we could say and even some time (for some of us) to consider what is sustenance for us. Do we fully realize how barren our own memories of these older women may be as sources of sustenance? We can laugh about the boned girdles the widows tightly laced up; the false teeth afloat in glasses on bedside tables; the sounds of needles knitting and crocheting the ill-fitting sweaters we were given to wear. But this is hollow sustenance, a very lean diet. Even when we get occasional information, when we ask about the women pictured in albums with someone else’s family photos, we remain very hungry with the need to know more.

The widows must have had their own memories, but of what – and were they sustaining ones? Their generation emphasized privacy, and so nothing was shared with those who had friends of their own age. Was there anything else to nourish their resilience and resistance? They may have not been obviously physically abused, but certainly they lived years of deep psychological abuse and micro-aggressions in the enforced cones of silence around them.

A lesson in all this: for our own sustenance, we need to honour these silenced and silent women and all others who are still exiled and violated and unseened. Disappeared must never be an adjective for a woman, dead or alive. Their incredible strengths to resist and their demonstrations of deep self-sustenance offer lessons and wisdom for us all. If we can’t go back to give what we failed to provide to those no longer alive, we can be sure to do it now for other women, especially the many known and unknown with whom we have interconnected lives. And we can also acknowledge the lessons those long-gone silently offer about how resistance may itself be a form of sustenance. A source of sustenance immeasurably strengthened when resistance is done in solidarity with others. Together, perhaps, we can all do the most we can to offer a full and complete list, not just the essentials, of sustenance to each other.

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women’s health and women’s health policies. She has one foot based in academia (specifically at McGill and Concordia Universities) and the other, the foot she favours, involves her in social justice and reproductive activism with community groups in Montréal and beyond its borders.