The status of grandmother was bestowed on me six years ago last month. Oddly, it didn’t come with a manual. Though it is surely one of life’s richest blessings, I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.
There must be others out there who, like me, feel so different from grandmothers of earlier generations that it is ironic to even use the same title.
After all, look how the role of women has changed in our culture in the last few decades. Neither of my grandmothers worked outside the home. Their parents died younger, and I have no memories of any of my great-grandparents. They had lifelong partners, enduring marriages of five decades or longer.
In 2017, it’s a different picture for many women whose kids have kids. Having just entered my seventh decade, I’m still a working professional, with miles to go before retirement is visible on the horizon. I’m a single woman, looking after myself and striving to maintain a social life at the same time. My precious mother is, thank heavens, still with us at 86, so I strive to stretch my time across four generations of family. And many of them are 200 miles away.
My grandmothers occupy such large places of love and respect in my memories, but can I be to my grandchildren what they were to us? Not likely.
My maternal grandmother often wore an apron, and could roast the most beautiful chicken any chef every claimed. She came to visit for working trips, joining my mother in the kitchen for the all-day process of cooking country ham, and she patiently hemmed and mended hand-me-downs. She was a crackerjack card player, demonstrating tactics that belied her gentle demeanor. I liked attending her church, because its rituals were open to “all who believed” and not restricted to those who completed some class or ritual declaration. That meant that a child could share in the communion celebration with the adults.
My paternal grandmother was a stunning, petite blonde who stayed beautiful as she aged. She had elegant taste, a fine wardrobe, and the manners of an accomplished socialite. That included certain standards that were not to be compromised, and when they were, hell might demand the settlement of accounts. She hosted elegant parties that required dressing just so, and my mother prepared us carefully. If my grandfather told raucous jokes at dinner and enjoying himself too much in his cups, she registered disapproval by threatening to leave the room—and when he didn’t behave, she vanished. No shrinking violet, that one.
Is any of that a heritage I can pass on?
Elegant parties? I like to set a nice table, and I have china and lovely dining treasures from both of them. But my holiday dinners are more likely to be thrown together in the wee hours the night before, after a 50-hour work week. By the time the guests arrive, I’m lucky if I remembered to shower and put on lipstick. I would love to learn to cook a country ham myself. But one has to weigh a whole day invested against the convenience of buying it cooked from one of the fine Kentucky purveyors, of which there are many.
Teach my kids how to maintain a home, how to get spots out, one of many of my mother’s great aptitudes? Don’t be silly. Not long ago, I asked my extremely handy son-in-law to tighten the handle on a finicky kitchen faucet. Got mildly irritated when I noticed him stockstill in the middle of the kitchen, staring intently at his phone. Don’t they ever put the dang things down? That was before I realized he was watching a You Tube video about repair of not just any faucet, but THAT faucet. The next generation doesn’t need our knowledge. They get it from strangers, on a tiny glass screen.
So what CAN we offer? After six years, here are some intentions I have set (as the yoga teacher calls it). The important things, it seems, are less about the hands and more about the mind and heart. They are not necessarily new to this generation, but perhaps take on a different hue in today’s times.
We can show up. When they are older and look back on important days in their lives, I hope it means something if I was there. So getting there is the goal. Other things can wait.
We can listen. The world is roaring with noise and distractions that defeat good conversation. Yet communication defines our relationships. If my grandkids have something to say, I want them to know I am interested in hearing it.
We can ask questions. What happened at school today? What’s that book about? I want Buddy and Sis to know I’m interested in their observations and ideas, their kiddie jokes, their fears. Their parents are good talkers, wonderful at encouraging the kids to express themselves and talk through things. But it takes a village.
We can show mercy. A while back at a family meal, my daughter relayed a story about a particularly trying episode with Sis a few days before. Absorbing the details of this transgression, I turned to notice Sis watching me intently, brow furrowed with anxiety as she awaited my reaction. I support the parents in their excellent standards for discipline—but there was no need here to extend the sentence already rendered by the court. Sis’ little map flooded with relief when I returned her gaze, winked at her, and changed the subject.
We can offer sanctuary. It’s a tough world out there, getting tougher. Buddy and Sis are lucky to be happy and safe in their home, but when they need another place to be encouraged, empathized with, or just to raid the cabinet for snacks, my door can be open.
At six, our Buddy is an intense thinker, progressing through reason and root cause and relevance at an astonishing clip. Thoughts tumble out so quickly I struggle to keep pace, but I do my best. He also seems to pick up particular turns of phrase that linger for a period in the Lexicon of Buddy. He repeated one of those multiple times over dinner not long ago. “Evie,” he kept asking, “Can I tell you something?”
Yes, Buddy. You bet. I might not get it, and it won’t be long before you are so much smarter than I will ever be. But I am listening. Tell me.