Carol P. Christ has described spending meaningful time with her grandmother as a child and the unconditional love she received from her mother and grandmothers: ‘my relationships with my mother and grandmothers were full of love. This makes it easy for me to imagine the loving arms of Goddess embracing the world.’ She talks about this in her new book with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
I have always loved to hear these kinds of stories from Carol and other friends, since I lost my own grandmothers before I felt I really knew them. My mother’s mother passed away when I was a young child. My father’s mother lived until I was in my twenties, but Alzheimer’s stripped her of her ability to recognise her family many years before her physical death. How I wish I had known them as an adult and had been able to talk to them, even once, woman to woman. And how I wish I had received the advice, support and unconditional love which Carol describes, and which I have seen other grandmothers offer their grandchildren. This absence has left an aching heart, a raw wound, for my entire adult life.
Healing for this wound has come from the many women I have been blessed to know (many from Greece, the Balkans, and Armenia), who are grandmothers within their own families, and also elders within their particular cultural tradition. They are keepers of songs, dances, rituals, textile arts, and healing skills, which have been handed down for many generations. Even if their official education was limited, as was frequently the case, they have extraordinary wisdom and knowledge, which they have generously shared with me. In this post I wish to honour a few of the many grandmothers who have blessed me over the years with their kindness and care.
My Greek godmother, Niki Theoka-Hill
I met Niki nearly 20 years ago in Greece, when she and her seven children were running the Skandia taverna on the island of Kythira, next door to the house of herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy (another wise woman who inspired me deeply). We felt an instant bond and stayed in touch. Several years after that, when my first marriage came to an end, I decided to move to Greece for a new beginning, in part because Niki was there. She had been lead dancer with the Dora Stratou Dance Theater in Athens for many years, and taught me much about the art of dancing and its place in traditional culture. A deeply wise woman with profound faith and legendary beauty, Niki is infinitely creative, extraordinarily free-thinking, and generous to a fault. It is my great honour that she eventually became my godmother (both noná and koumbára), spiritual bonds which link us more closely than blood.
My mother-in-law, Evanthia (Voula) Kourmadia, with her son, Kostantis
Voula’s parents came from Smyrna to Athens as refugees in 1922. She and her siblings grew up in poverty, starving nearly to death during the Second World War in German-occupied Athens. She knew many hardships in her early years, but she survived and thrived. Her son Kostantis, now my second husband, describes how she was always laughing, always singing, always dancing, in the house which she kept (and still keeps) spotless and filled with delicious cooking and exquisite embroideries. A mathematical genius with a brilliant mind, Voula ‘should have been a scientist making important discoveries’, as her son says, but she had to leave school at age 10 to look after her baby brother so her mother could work. After that Voula worked all her life in the dairy industry, and despite her own lack of formal education, she helped generations of neighbourhood children with their homework. She and her husband Vangelis, in their 80s now, are still fountains of laughter and joy, no matter what troubles are to hand – and Voula is still always ready to dance. Among many other things, she has taught me the importance of giving thanks for what you have, and transforming tragedy through the way you choose to respond.
Neda Bisserova from Pirin, Bulgaria
Neda and her sisters Lyubimka and Mitra grew up in a traditional family, learning hundreds of songs from their aunts and parents. They formed the renowned singing trio the Bisserov Sisters, now the Bisserov Family, with their children and grandchildren. I met the sisters in Bulgaria in 1991 and since then they have helped me bring many groups of students on dance and cultural tours of Bulgaria. One time, as we stood together in front of a fast-flowing mountain spring, Neda told me, ‘This is how I want to be: with a heart clear and pure like water.’
My dearest friend, France Lejeune Milchberg
France was a dancer, a doctor, and a captain in the French army, and with her husband Jorge was among the first to bring Sacred Dance/Danses Sacrées to France from the Findhorn community. We had many adventures together in nearly thirty years of friendship. France passed to the other side last year on her 81st birthday.
I wish to express my deep love and admiration for all of these wise women. It has been one of the greatest pleasures in my life to be ‘adopted’ by them and by others, whose stories I hope to tell another time. My many grandmothers have lovingly welcomed me into their arms, homes and families, and have given me countless gifts in the form of songs and dances, recipes, stories and life advice. My life is much the richer for it. I thank you all.
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.