Ever since last August, when my son and his wife brought twin daughters into the world, I have wanted to write about them. And I have, in letters, Facebook posts, and in these very pages. Often, though, I hesitate. No one wants to listen day in and day out as you exclaim over the wonder of your grandkids. The same people who bragged incessantly about their children just crank it up further once those kids have kids of their own.
Mom used to tell me, “I’m in no hurry to be a grandmother!” but I’m pretty sure that was a poorly veiled suggestion that I not have a kid out of wedlock. My own version was more like, “I don’t know if I’ll be a grandma, but it’s really all right if I’m not.” And it was. I never hinted, never inquired, never knit little booties or sewed pastel quilts. (It helps, of course, that I can’t knit or quilt to save my life.) After all, it was not up to me.
In my 40s, when my daughter and son were in their early teens, I hauled their childhood toys up to the attic, making room for them “in case I have grandkids someday.” The Fisher Price castle, the Barbie dollhouse, the Mr. Potato Head, the Care Bears, the Micro Machines – all of them were covered in old white sheets, sent into the suspended animation of stored toys.
As we left that house one by one, most of the toys went to St. Vinny’s and Goodwill. Allison and Dan moved to college and apartments; I left for a new house with a brand-new husband. My family of three was flung to the winds, most of them gentle, a few of them gale-force, and it was infinitely easier ride those currents without too much childhood detritus tying us down. They rescued a few favorite playthings, stuffing them into closets. I kept a few loveworn favorites from my own childhood, but only because my sentimental heart made it difficult to let go. I had let my children play with them, and that’s as far as it would go.
After my divorce, when my kids were still young, I experienced some fierce baby-hunger. But the men I dated were neither interested in nor suited for fatherhood. By the time I finally found a man who fit the bill, he’d had his own son and daughter, and it was really too late to start again.
But darned if my boy didn’t make me a Grandma. It was almost embarrassing, the way I had to walk back all of my claims of not caring if that happened to me. But I had never said I would not be joyful if it did. What I didn’t expect was my confusion over this new role. When I started talking and writing about the whole “Grandma” thing, my tongue got tied in knots as I struggled valiantly not to sound like a greeting card. “I want to tell you about my new grandkids,” I wrote to an old, child-free friend, “but I’m afraid I’ll sound all Hallmarky.”
An old friend was so embarrassed by the name “Grandma” that she taught her grandchildren to call her “Mimi.” I don’t know who she thought she was fooling, but I understood her concern. Quick! What does the word “Grandma” conjure up? Old, tired, frail, gray, dull? My own grandmothers were good cooks and – well, that’s about all I knew of them. They did not work outside the home, or create much more than Christmas cookies and embroidered pillowcases. I knew nothing of their early lives, nor their inner thoughts about anything of consequence. Now that I’m a grandma, I am shamed by my own misconceptions.
Once when I was walking my dog with my college boyfriend, an elderly woman came around a corner. I began to pull my Lab closer so as not to scare her, but my boyfriend laughed and said, “I’m sure she’s seen a lot of dogs.” He was right. She wasn’t afraid, and Zooey was thrilled to be petted so vigorously by a nice stranger. She might have raised sled dogs, for all I knew. From that day forward, I found myself imagining the rich, vigorous life stories of all the old people I passed.
Other cultures value old people, and especially old women, much more highly than our own. Many women notice, as they pass from the bloom of youth into the vitality of maturity and then on into middle and old-age, that they become “invisible.” A woman’s esteem should not rest upon whether or not she turns heads in public, but when that stops, it can be a shock. The “grandma” title should make a woman smile, not wince.
If I live to attend Vera and Jane’s high school graduation, I will be one year older than my own mom was when she died. I will be old, gray, tired, even frail, but if I have anything to say about it, the three of us will have a friendship, a bond, that no greeting card can convey. They will have their own trove of old toys by then, stored away as their lives open up in ways I cannot now imagine.
Between now and then, I hope to give them a much more profound idea of what an older woman can be – a person who has worked, wondered, grieved, explored, and loved to a degree too many of us cannot fathom. I want them to fear nothing about aging. And I want them to know how lucky they will be should their own children – if they choose to have them – place a warm bundle of joy (or two!) into their arms.