This is my Great-Grandma Zelma Carder’s grand piano. It sits in my living room, not only as a beautiful piece of workmanship and antiquity, but also a daily reminder of the bar that is set before me because of her strength, courage, selflessness, love, and tenacity. It is my own personal symbol of the strength of one woman.
My great grandma didn’t found a company or manage a huge staff of employees. In fact, she didn’t get much of an education beyond what she learned in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri in the late 1800’s. She didn’t march for women’s rights. She was never interviewed or quoted, as far as I know, about the biases towards women or how they had affected her choices or her life. And yet, she is my role model for not making a fuss or a loud noise about something but just choosing to make things different for one woman, one family, one event at a time.
This piano was the one thing that my grandmother took with her from her well-to-do childhood home in Missouri when she fell in love with a horse trainer with big dreams. Her family, disappointed in her choice of a spouse, sent her away with her childhood piano but not their approval. The young couple built a tiny adobe home amongst the tumbleweeds and wide open spaces of New Mexico near the Texas border. They had love, dreams bigger than the two of them and the willingness to work and sacrifice for each other. When her husband was hired to train thoroughbreds in California, she stayed behind to care for their tiny growing family and tiny herd of cattle and livestock on their homestead.
In her later years, when she was unable to walk without assistance, she would sit in an overstuffed rocking chair and tell me about those years – the heartbreak she felt when she said goodbye to a family who disapproved of her choice of a mate, the loneliness that drove her to name tumbleweeds as they rolled past her porch, the fears she had to face down like fighting a rattlesnake for tiny chicks she desperately needed so she could feed her family eggs for the winter or the time she chased off strangers up to no good with the help of a shotgun and a lot of bravado. Her stories made an indelible print on my young, impressionable mind. She was honest about the price she paid for her choices – and that she didn’t regret her choices at the end of her life. She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.
When the Dust Bowl rolled through the Southwest, she carefully sealed her piano in plastic and refused to allow anyone to touch it – even on days the wind didn’t blow. And when the incessant winds and drought finally took too great of a toll of their land, she packed up the household, loaded the piano into a Conestoga wagon, and walked across the prairie with her young children and husband to find work in Oklahoma picking cotton. I picture her looking back on the tiny home she’d helped build with her own hands and saying goodbye to all of it except for her piano, and I cannot image the pain and defeat she felt. It must have ripped her heart and eaten at her courage to know that they couldn’t beat the odds and make their dream happen. She couldn’t have known then that they would make it through the next years and eventually come back to their home to finish raising their family. She would have only known the pain of letting go of a dream, and she did so with courage and grace.
That piano weighed over 1,000 pounds, and she told me that there was one moment she was afraid it would have to be left abandoned when the burros refused to pull the wagon through a dry, sandy creek bed. But my great grandfather was patient and worked with the animals until they once again pull in unison onward to their destination. I remember tears welling in her eyes every time she told this part of her story, and as a grown woman who has faced a few sorrows, I understand those tears came from the understanding of the price her own husband paid to not allow her dreams of a better life, a place where the piano belonged, to die in the middle of nowhere.
Grandma Carder didn’t dwell on the pain of that event or of burying two of her children and her parents during a flu epidemic. Those events were pieces of the fabric of her life – woven amongst the joys and happier moments. It was all one fabric, and the sorrow wasn’t separated out from the rest of her life. It didn’t define her, and it didn’t keep her from pushing forward and daring to dream again.
The piano stool is held together with baling wire, a can-do repair made with what she had available, and to this day, I refuse to remove the wire and fix it properly. It reminds me of her willingness to make do, to make the best of whatever life dealt her. The wire stays as a reminder that I come from a long line of strong, brave women. When I feel like giving up, I remember my great grandmother, my grandmother who started her married life in a box car while her husband built dams for the WPA, and my own mother who faced down cancer not once but three times. They taught me what it means to continue living life to the fullest no matter what.
When I founded my own company four years ago, I had no idea how hard it would be, how many obstacles would make it seem impossible or how many times I would doubt my own abilities – and sometimes my own sanity at launching out into the unknown with a belief that I could make something that changed others’ lives for the better. I’ve faced my share of bias and closed doors because of my gender, but those things only discourage if we allow them to. I could focus on that. Or on this – I’ve found an amazing network of men and women who have all generously helped me around the road blocks. I read a question this morning asking what we would do if weren’t afraid. I do what I do because I am afraid – afraid of letting the women down who sacrificed so much, who pushed on through hardships I can only imagine – all so I could have a better life, a better chance to make things different for one woman, one family, one event at a time.