In this gorgeous essay, Jessica Wilkerson recalls growing up in Tennessee in the ’90s, a place where feminism was widely considered dangerous, ridiculous, and a joke. In trying to find her way in the world, Wilkerson revered two important women: her grandmother and Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers basketball team. For Oxford American, Wilkerson recounts Summitt pushing boundaries with her personal brand of feminism and her grandmother’s poignant reminder that Wilkerson’s body was hers alone. “Unlike her, I could live another way. I left with the imprint of her hand in mine, her words in my ears, saying out loud what I did not know I needed to hear. My grandmother, perhaps more than any other person, wished for me to set out to do what I wished with my own life, body, and mind.”
Only at the end of her life, it seems, did she get to make a decision about her body, one granted too few people. After numerous harrowing visits to the ER and several long hospital stays, she had finally gotten her wish: to stay home during the next medical crisis, and to begin the process of dying on her own terms.
When she asked me the question about children, I stumbled over my words. This was not a prompt that people asked in the part of the country where I’m from. Children are assumed, especially of people young and married. Women get pregnant; women raise children.
I told my grandmother in halting words that I didn’t know if that—children, motherhood, sacrifice—was what I wanted. She squeezed my hand and whispered hoarsely, “You know you don’t have to.” In that moment, my grandmother broke an enforced silence around women’s bodies and the choices we can or cannot make and the implications of those choices for our lives.