Girl Power: Pass It On

For me, a baby was always a boy. I'm the older sister of two younger brothers. The tightly swaddled infants of my childhood were male, as were most of my neighborhood babysitting charges. I married into a long line of boys and proceeded to produce three sons. Our first grandchild, named for his grandfather, carried on the male tradition. If I had a dime for every blue blanket, blue snow suit, and Tonka truck I've ever bought, I'd be a wealthy woman.

Then, in 2006, the trend came to an abrupt halt. The first Piper girl in 116 years arrived, a dark-haired beauty with the soul of a poet. She was a revelation to me—dreamy, quiet, content to sit and think her own sweet thoughts or to perch on any available lap. She was followed in rapid succession by two more granddaughters. Both are fair and blue-eyed, but there all similarity ends. One seems to have inherited the saintliness gene that crops up in my family once every generation. The other simply owns any room she enters, a tiny, charismatic force of nature.

Now I've cornered the market on smocked dresses and glitter-focused art supplies. I'm conversant in princess and fairy lore. The American Girl doll catalog appears in my mailbox with startling regularity. I still know how to shop for a baseball mitt and a navy blue blazer, but my repertoire is diverse.

Last Thanksgiving, counting our blessings, we happily took stock. The oldest grandchild was 8, the youngest 4. We counted ourselves rich. We counted ourselves lucky. We packed away the high chair, the musical mobile, the last of the sippy cups. We figured we were, after 40-plus years, officially out of the baby business.

And then we stumbled upon a time-honored truth. If you want to make God laugh, put away the crib.

On Christmas Eve, we received glad tidings. Our oldest son and his wife are expecting their second child. Three months later, there was more news. It's a girl.

This flowering of feminine branches on the family tree is cause for delight and also for reflection. I think of the giggling, whispering threesome in the guest room that's now officially The Girls' Room, and wonder where we'll squeeze in a bassinet. I take inventory of the modest family jewels and mentally redistribute the strings of pearls, antique engagement rings, gold bracelets. I allow myself a brief fantasy of four weddings, four luminous brides. They'll have to marry young if I'm to see them all walk down the aisle, but life is full of surprises.

I think of the other gifts I want to leave them, gifts that will last long after the smocked dresses and princess dolls have gone to Goodwill. I want our girls to know about the branches above them, strong, loving women who struggled and endured. I want them to know about the women who boarded immigrant ships in Cork and Cherbourg and Hamburg, who put down new roots in a new world. I want to leave them a legacy of family stories, the ones I learned from my grandmother and great aunts, stories of orphans who went to work at 12 and schoolteachers, newspaper reporters, actresses, writers. Wild-eyed eccentrics. Sturdy matriarchs. Survivors.

I want them to see the threads that wind through this history, faded here and there, but durable. It is resilience that knits generation to generation, resilience and faith, and the sure and certain wisdom that our women possess, and guard, and pass on: Family is not the most important thing.

It is the only thing.