Early on I never thought of girls as being tough. In my way of seeing things the word didn’t quite fit with the female anatomy.
“Sugar, spice, and everything nice”, was my ideology regarding the opposite sex. I suppose I’d be considered a male chauvinist back then.
It took many years for me to realize toughness is more than physical ability. Mental and spiritual strength are just as important as brawn; even more so at times. Mother Teresa possessed herculean toughness where spiritual toughness is concerned.
Many women I’ve encountered over the years have proven this. These gals include grandmothers, aunts, teachers, friends, and co-workers. I handpicked seven special ladies to tell you about. Four of them are from my own family. The following are people I believe greatly influenced my line of thinking on tough.
Michelle Barnes is the first tough gal I encountered. She was a military brat like myself. Michelle and I were good pals 4th thru 6th grade. Unlike other girls, she wore her brown hair very short. I suppose she looked like a tomboy although I doubt any kid said that to her. Michelle could shoot marbles with the best of us boys. She’d never back down physically if challenged. I found out the hard way!
Michelle’s dad had been stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Turkey. The whole family traveled there with him. One day Michelle brought very graphic pictures to school. They showed Turkish criminals and what was done to them after they were arrested. I remember viewing photos of men minus ears, fingers, hands, and even heads.
Like a disciplined teacher, Michelle explained to us that different crimes in Turkey called for different punishments. A thief would have a hand cut off while murderers went headless. We guys found that totally fascinating. Most of the girls were squeamish at the sight except Michelle.
Our impromptu lesson was cut short when Mrs. Drake confiscated the photos. Another classmate had evidently squealed. This person was either jealous of the attention Michelle received or offended by the photographs. Tattle tales were hard to avoid back then.
Michelle Barnes is the only girl to ever give me a black eye. It happened on the playground for whatever reason. In spite of such we remained good friends until parting directions. Her father transferred to a new base with my dad doing the same. I have a good feeling that this former classmate went on to be an instructor of sorts; either teaching criminal law or martial arts.
The next ‘tough cookie’ I encountered is also named Michelle. I met her my senior year in high school. Michelle Giroux is probably as competitive a person as any; a very smart and strong-willed lady. I believe a lot of her competitiveness comes from competing against a brother with the same traits. I remember Michelle talking about how close they were. Michelle was outspoken and voiced her opinion. I respected her for that but it also caused tension between us. Neither of us was apt to change opinion on a given subject. She’d ‘stick by her guns’ and I’d do the same.
Best friend Jeff Thimsen and I concocted a plan one Sunday afternoon to put Michelle’s competitive nature to test. We convinced her to go on an 8-mile hike with us late in the evening through the Alaska wilderness. Jeff and I set the pace with Michelle never falling behind.
When our hike was over there was still an hour drive back to town. Michelle was behind the wheel while we dozed. Jeff and I took the following day off to recuperate. We found out later that Michelle went to work as usual. After that enduring hike she’d easily proven her physical toughness. Her mental strength was already known.
Suzanne Knudsen is a former co-worker and friend. I wrote a cover story about her for the periodical “We Alaskans” some 25 years ago. “Suzie” as we called her was a heavy equipment operator. She performed the job better than most men. An exceptional cross country and marathon runner, Suzie was mauled by a brown bear while jogging one summer morning in Alaska. She survived with severe bites and cuts throughout her body.
Where overall physical toughness is concerned Suzie has it all. She’s not one to take guff from any guy. On occasion I still hear from her. In spite of the bear attack Suzie continues to take long runs in the woods and climb mountains. The mauling didn’t seem to faze her either mentally or physically.
I never realized how much stamina and toughness my own mother, Tallulah, had until she was gone. Mom grew up on a small Alabama farm with three other sisters. She picked her share of cotton and other crops along with helping out in the house. Mom raised two sons while holding down a fulltime job, including ironing people’s clothing for extra money. I remember her being up in the wee hours of morning with her ironing board still unfolded.
Mom always said that raising me wasn’t a picnic. She gallantly battled cancer before succumbing to the disease. Before passing, mom asked to be buried in a simple wooden coffin. She had all her affairs in order and was not afraid of leaving this world. Her faith in God and belief in life after death was as strong as Mother Teresa’s.
My mother-in-law Bonnie Schweitzer-Freeman followed a similar path as mom. She grew up on a small farm in Kansas with two other sisters and a brother. Bonnie was awakened each morning by the rooster. She began her day by milking cows and feeding chickens. During wheat harvest she’d be out in the field driving an old Willy’s pickup.
Bonnie reared five children while working outside the home. She, like my mom, also took in laundry and ironing to supplement income. Bonnie fought breast cancer and eventually won. She’s now attempting to declare victory over bone cancer. Bonnie’s strong German spirit plus ample determination to prevail has sparked a remarkable recovery.
My daughter Miranda Hankins-Stubbs has the same mindset as me. That has caused us to bump heads many times. Similar personalities sometimes don’t work well together. She’s not afraid to offer her point of view; regardless that it might not be politically correct.
Miranda is more patient than me in areas of listening to the other side. My daughter’s very open-minded. She is not combative which has kept her out of trouble. One of her biggest facets of toughness is being able to persevere under pressure. She has what I call Hankins’ Drive in getting things done. Miranda won’t quit or give up until the job is finished.
The strongest lady I know is my wife. Living with me for 38 years has not been a strawberry sundae. I’ll be first to admit such. Many years ago, an older female co-worker told me I’d be a hard person to live with. When I repeated this statement to Joleen some 30-years into our marriage she smiled before replying,
“That woman had good intuition!”
My wife successfully raised our children, took them to hockey and basketball practice, plus worked a stressful job. Joleen incurred non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma several years ago, taking many rounds of chemo to fight it. She continued to work during that time. Thanks to God’s intervention, and a tough spirit, she’s a cancer survivor. Her will and determination to overcome the disease is an inspiration to me and others.
In a nutshell I’ve just described seven very strong women; eight counting Mother Teresa. There are millions more out there. Just recently, females in the military were granted an opportunity to serve alongside men in combat roles. If you’d asked me 30 years ago if I thought this could work I would’ve laughed. Since then I’ve picked up a bit more wisdom.
The old cliché, older and wiser definitely has merit. I realize now more than ever just how tough women have always been!