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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

A Cheer for Grandma Orcas!

Today I’d like to talk about Grandmother Orcas, those sleek black and white whales that are so beautiful. But before I get to the Grandma part, let me say a few words about the orca part. First, these incredible whales have been given some pretty derogatory names by homo sapiens. They are called orcinus orca (orcinus means “from hell”), orcas (derived from the Roman god of the underworld), and killer whales. What an injustice to these magnificent creatures! How did they get such terrible names?

One reason is because orcas are so huge. Adult males average 30 feet in length and weigh over 17,000 pounds. Adult females average 18-23 feet in length and weigh between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds. Because they are so big, orcas require 500 pounds of food (fish, seals, sea lions, and even other whales) each day to survive and stay healthy. Unfortunately, their simple need for lots of food can look like rapacity or even malice. Hence, humans dubbed them “killers”—which implies criminal intent in their behavior. But orcas are no more killers than the robin hunting for worms in your back yard or you sitting at the table eating a bacon cheeseburger! I wish someone would start a movement to rename orcas—a name befitting their beauty and mystery. Any takers? (End of sermon!)

An orca breaching (photo by Andre Estevez – Pexels)

Now let’s talks about the Grandma part of orcas. Female orcas share a trait with female homo sapiens that is rare among mammals: they go through menopause. This means they stop reproducing in their 40s—yet they can live for another forty or more years. To appreciate what they do with the rest of their lives, we must remember that orcas live in family groups called pods. The older females stay in their pod and are literally the grandmothers to many of the younger orcas. It’s different with the males. Male orcas in one pod mate with females in another pod. After their liaison, they return home to their original pod—until the next mating season. There are two consequences of this behavior: First, orca calves don’t know their fathers. Hence, orcas in a pod don’t know their grandfathers either. Secondly male orcas stay with their mothers their entire life! This is very rare in animals although it is sometimes observed in homo sapiens…

What role do Grandma orcas play? In short, they boost the survival rate of the orca calves as well as the survival rate of the pod itself. Because they have more years of experience than their daughters, they often know where to find salmon when food is scarce. These grandmas also care for the calves while their mothers go and hunt for fish. Orcas communicate with each other. Each pod seems to have a unique dialect. Grandmothers help teach the young orcas the dialect of their pod. Scientists finally have data to measure the effectiveness of these grandmothers’ presence in whale pods. (It’s hard to collect data on orcas because they spend 95 percent of their time under water!)

An orca jumping out of the water. To me, it looks like he (or she) is having fun! (photo by Adam Ernster – Pexels)

Scientists examined 40 years of data on the survival of 378 orca calves off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. They found that offspring whose maternal grandmothers had recently died, had a mortality rate 4.5 times higher than those with living grandmothers! Scientists also found that adult male orcas whose mother dies also have a higher rate of mortality. And yet sometimes we humans dare to say that animals don’t form significant relationships with one another or they aren’t affected by the death of their kin!

What does this have to do with us? It can make us appreciate the role of grandparents in our own lives. Grandparents can be “wisdom figures” for their children and grandchildren. They can pass on valuable experience to the next generations. Often they pass on information about their particular human “pod” or family—for example, the history or customs of their family. In addition, grandparents often help care for their grandchildren while parents are out seeking a living. Grandparents also expand the circle of love surrounding their grandchildren. Their very presence says, Yes, Mommy and Daddy love you—but so do Grandma and Grandpa! That’s a lot of love!

Here’s a picture of a pod of orcas. Unfortunately, they’re several hundred feet under water where they spend 95% of their time! (Photo by Kellie Churchman – Pexels)

I’m suggesting we take a few minutes to reflect on grandparents. These questions might help:

What do you remember about your own grandparents? Is there anything you learned from them or admire about them?

If your grandparents are deceased and you could somehow ask them one or two questions that you didn’t ask them while they were alive, what would you ask them?

If you are a grandparent, what’s the best part of being one? Do you pass on information or skills to your grandchildren? How do you show your love for them? Do you ever talk about God to them?

PS: I sent this blog out Sunday, March 20, at 3:00 pm (ET) to see if you would get it on Monday, the 21st.

I found this lovely grandmother song from our Native American (First Nations) tradition. It is called “The Grandmother Song” or “The Grandmother Medicine Song,” and it is sung here by Sheffy Oren Bach. The words are simple, repetitive, meditative:

“I hear the voice of my grandmothers calling me… I hear the voice of my grandmothers’ song… Give birth, give life… Listen, listen… Teach them. Be Wise. Grow… Listen, listen… Wake up, child… Listen, listen… Women, stand in your power…” The paintings are exquisite too.

For those who wish, here is a short video entitled “Europe Stands with Ukraine. It is the National Anthem of Ukraine played by orchestras across Europe as a way of showing their solidarity with the people of Ukraine:

I invite you to respond to anything in this reflection. Comment on something… or add your own thoughts… We love hearing from you!

25 Responses

  1. Sr. Melanie, Just wanted to let you know I received the blog at 4:59 Monday, March 21st in Parma Ohio. I guess it worked.
    Grandparents are a true gift. Growing up I had just one grandmother. My other grandparents passed away before I was born or when I was 6 weeks old, but my Grandmother Theresa M, as she signed everything, had enough love for all of my grandparents. We were lucky enough to live with her and learn to love as she loved, God, family and church. I was and am so blessed because of it.

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s reflections , especially the information about the orcas and your comparison to human grandmothers and the Native American song. Than you , Sister

  2. Good morning, I received your email at 4:59 a.m. today. I lost my two Grandpa’s six months apart I was 18 &19. Then I lost my Grandma’s when I was 30 & 39. I remember the days they all passed very clearly, especially the day I lost my paternal grandfather a.k.a. G-pops. If I could ask them anything. It wouldn’t be a question, I would thank them for being such a huge part of my life. For teaching me empathy & for all the happy memories I have with each of them. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. They are all missed and prayed for daily. I know I have four Angel’s watching over me and helping to guide me in my daily life. Be blessed, keep smiling and remember you are loved.

  3. I live in Simon’s Town, a coastal town on False Bay, near Cape Point in South Africa. We used to have lots of Great white sharks in our bay until the orcas came. Sadly they only ate the shark’s liver and the carcases were left to wash ashore, a pitiful sight. Now that the orcas have left us the sharks are gradually starting to return. I am sure the grandmother orcas are far too kind and helpful to do anything like that. Love from a great grandmother of 7

    1. Ann, Thanks for your additional information. Orcas have no natural predators… they sit at the top of the food chain… We “Homo Sapiens” are pretty far down, I suppose… except for our wits… Glad to hear from you–so far away, but connected! Sr. Melannie

      1. Dear Sister,

        It is a great joy to be a grandparent of four beautiful grandchildren and, in effect, to get a second chance at parenting. I say second chance because there’s so much that one learns about parenting the first time around. But then your own children grow up so fast and the opportunity to reflect, apply lessons learned, and improve, seems to go away. That is until God blesses you with grandchildren. Then it all becomes crystal clear.

        I think the key to grandparenting is this longer view. Good and bad parenting experiences have created memories to draw upon, understanding and wisdom have become more relevant, and our wills are now guided by well formed consciences. In other words, the slow work of God has finally gotten through to us. And as a result, we can’t help but reflect the gifts of the Holy Spirit onto our grandchildren. Our God is truly an awesome God!

        1. Beautiful insight on we grandparents as “the slow work of God finally gotten through to us” enabling us to sow the good fruits of the Spirit. Yes, God truly is awesome…and patient with us.

  4. I hear the voice of my grandmother calling me! We called her”gramps” and she signed with “gramps”. We had only her. Frank Miller died when my mom
    was 4. Gramps was so caring. She would meet mom with us kids and take us to the S & W downtown DC. They had scrumptious strawberry shortcake.

    Now, I am Nana PJ to three girls and one boy. They love to get a card from Nana PJ for it has a 20$ bill in it.

  5. Not sure of the time but did receive it this am. I love orcas but didn’t
    know all that about them! The animal kingdom–all of creation–can
    teach humans soooo much ! I’d ask my Irish gran what life was like
    in Ireland for her and who Peggy is. I’d thank my Dutch grandma for my vocation.

  6. I am blessed to have two grandchildren, 3 and 5 yrs old. We go to mass together every other Sunday. Our daughter is divorced, faith filled woman. She makes the effort to take them to mass when they are with her. I am grateful that they are being raised with Jesus in their lives. The 5 yr old Michaela will just start singing songs about Jesus, some she has learned in preschool and some she makes up. It fills me with joy. I hope and pray that my husband and I are making a difference in their lives, encouraging their relationship with Jesus.
    Love the blog today. I always learn so much from it. The songs are beautiful.
    Have a blessed day

  7. Good morning, Sr Melannie,
    Thank you once again for the beautiful words, music, and reflection. I am a grandma to 6 beautiful children (one deceased). When these little ones are born, you just fall in love all over again. We do talk about God and how Jesus is with you all the time. When we would walk to school, I would reassure them that Jesus would help them through the day. We all love to bake together and have taught the oldest granddaughter how to sew. I also keep a book of prayers or reflections that are meaningful to me, that I plan to pass on to them.
    As a side note, I read the book Tattoos on the Heart that was recommended in one of your previous blogs. What a powerful book.
    Thank you once again for a great start to the week.

  8. Good Monday Morning to you, Sister Melannie,
    Thank you for your words and reminders this day.
    I should have asked more questions of Olga and Vivian. They were a wealth of knowledge, experience and love. Sigh.

  9. Yup! Got it Monday Morning! Thank you
    The Grandmothers song is beautiful. I think we forget how valuable other women are in our circle of life, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, etc.
    Europe Stands with Ukraine brought tears to my eyes. If only we could see such solidarity within our own countries and neighborhoods, against the daily attacks on human dignity by autocrats and dictators much the same as Russia, who continue to spread their own propaganda and prejudice.

  10. Good morning Sr. Melannie, I loved reading about the Orca whales and grandmothers. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died when I was 5 years old in 1955. She was hit by a car in downtown Albany, NY by an off-duty ambulance driver. I always thought I was half Ukrainian. I have her death certificate and under Place Of Birth it says: Austria. Anyhow, I am of Eastern European descent.
    I have many regrets in my life but the one regret that is at or near the top of the list is the sudden death of Julia Yanko. I never got the chance -along with my cousins- to get to know her and ask her questions about where she came from, etc.
    I have several images- like black & white photographs- that are permanently seared in my brain. I can see her now at the top of the stairs, a bit on the portly side, wearing a house or print dress, with her black and gray hair tied up in a bun, saying goodbye to me and my parents as we were leaving her apartment on Lark Street in Albany.
    I recall her taking care of me for the day and we crossed Lark Street to visit her friend in a sweet level apartment. I can recall the darkened kitchen, probably drinking tea (maybe something stronger) and them speaking in their language.
    And I recall, it had to be 1954, when I was only 4, when her son, my uncle, drove her to our house in the suburbs on Halloween night. She wore a white sheet, like a ghost. One year later, on October 30, my mother got the call about the accident. My mother’s birthday was the day before, October 29.
    My father’s mother died when I was 20. My father’s father died in 1951 and my mother’s father died in 1945. So I never got to know any of my grandfathers.
    Thank you for Sunflower Seeds.

  11. Good almost noon time, Sr. Melannie…
    Good almost noon time, all…

    Now I just want to tell everyone about Orcas! I know only one of my grandparents — my maternal grandmother whom we called “nan.” Straight from Ireland, my nan convinced me leprechauns were real! I would walk by fields looking for them.

    By the way, did a little math: If an orca lived to 40 years old, that would mean that orca had eaten in its lifetime 7,300,000 pounds of food. Wow!

  12. I loved the song, and the words “I hear the voice of my grandmother…” have been echoing through my head since I first listened to it a half hour ago.
    My Mom died when I was 3 and my sisters were 2 and 1. My Dad and us girls moved in with his parents. Gram, soon became Mom to us. She did everything the much younger Moms did, and so much more. We woke up to her baking on Saturdays, she made us triplet dresses and other outfits, she led us in the rosary every night after dinner, she took us on Sunday afternoon drives, she took us to the Stations and other devotions at church, and so much more. She was so patient, so generous of her time to the church and to her neighbors and friends, and she was fun!
    She especially liked Halloween and April Fool’s Day.
    We were fortunate to have her for 95 years. We were truly blessed.
    Thank you Sister Melanie, for such a wonderful song to brighten my day.

  13. I have such sadness in my heart when I think of my grandmothers. My father was originally from western Pennsylvania, so we (living in Cleveland) visited his family every summer. However, his mother had cancer and died when I was 5 years old. I have only two memories of her, one of them as she was on her deathbed. My mother’s mother lived much longer, but she was a poor, uneducated woman from Sicily and never learned English…and I never learned Sicilian. She suffered so much in her life, in many ways. And all my communication with her, everything I came to know about her, came through my mother, who was fluent in both languages. So I am really looking forward to spending time with them on the other side. We have much to talk about!

    Thanks for the beautiful song!

  14. Well it worked, Sister Melanie. The email for sunflower seeds arrived at 4:59 am. First time on Monday in a while. I, too, live in Ohio. Loved the National Arnhem of the Ukraine. Very strong piece of music. Thank you

  15. I only had one Grandma while growing up and I lost her when I was a sophomore in High School but she was the very best. I am the Grandma, or BobBob, as they all call me of 7 beautiful Grandchildren, 2 girls and 5 boys soon to be 3 girls so then will be 8. Being a Grandma is the very best.
    Thank you Sister for the info on Orcas.
    Have a great week!

  16. While I am not a grandmother myself, I have several children /grandchildren of my friends that I am very close to. What I most enjoy, is their willingness to spend time with my – mostly in the summers when they are around for longer periods of time. Of course, the fact that we can play on the jet skis, enjoy nature, etc. and simply “be” with one another is probably a plus as well. I have also hopefully, helped lead them in their religious journey as well….giving them their 1st “adult” bibles for confirmation, etc.
    As for the orcas….perhaps you have watched National Geographic’s presentation on the whales ~ especially the segment on the orcas. Once I saw whales in the natural ocean environments, I would never go and see them in human entertainment shows. If you see orcas in the wild, their dorsal fins stand straight up….its in captivity that they fall to one side…..
    One can learn so much from nature…..

  17. My maternal grandmother was my surrogate mother and I have so many memories.I remember Grandma Idie rocking me and & when she would stop I would say, “Rock me some more, grandma.” And she would. I still have that old chair in my living room and will pass it down to my youngest daughter. Grandma will just keep rocking.
    Grandma Idie made my dresses out of printed feed sacks and taught me to sew on that same treadle sewing machine. She let me help her sew squares of material together to make quilts and rag rugs. I still have two of those rag rugs. They too will be passed on.
    Grandma was nearly blind but she was a great cook and she baked the best pies. One day when I bit into a piece of cherry pie, I saw a fly in it. It was a long time before I could eat cherry pie but I never told Grandma,
    Grandma was very social and spent hours in her rocking chair on the phone. She was the “clearing house” for the news and gossip in our little country town, She was also very generous. For my 6th birthday she took me by bus to downtown Indianapolis to see “The Bells of St. Mary’s at the Circle theatre even though she could only hear the dialog.
    Grandma died in 1956 when I was 16 years old but I still talk to her and wish she was here to answer me. I wish I had been as good a grandma to my grandchildren as she was to me.

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Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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