The grandmother gig can be a tough one. You can be in the presence of a grandchild who clearly needs a mother more than a grandmother and though you know very well how to be a mother, you can’t be that child’s mother. She has a mother. But she still needs one.

I had two grandmothers. One was the rarely visited grandmother who lived with my grandfather in a tiny white house hidden from the street by wildly overgrown shrubs and vines. She was very short and very round, put her grey, thick hair in a tight bun, and always wore a flowered apron.

We would visit her in Lansing on the way from having seen my other grandmother in Hastings, maybe after Thanksgiving Dinner. We dropped in, as people no longer do, and she would make coffee in a percolator and serve it in Melmac cups with saucers. My grandfather’s hands would shake, probably from Parkinson’s, and he would sit in his chair, a big man in a white t-shirt and farmer jeans with suspenders. Sometimes, she would bring sandwiches out from her kitchen, a place I never visited. I sat in the living room with the others, hunkering down under the beams and the shingles and the layers of vines like a family of elves.

My other grandmother also lived in a white house but hers was large with a broad porch and gleaming windows. She lived alone. She was sturdy like a person who had to shovel coal into her own furnace and she was smart. She read the paper and knew things. She fussed over me and my cousins, but not too much. Her focus was always on her own children – was my mother eating well, had my uncle stopped, you know, ‘having trouble.’ My mother’s chronic, never-ending depression made her thin, rail-like, and this pained my sturdy grandmother. When I said once that I thought “mom was just right” in terms of weight, my grandmother hissed at me. “You don’t know anything.”

I loved my grandmothers, one more than the other certainly, but I loved them. They loved me, I think, but not too much. The people they really loved were my parents. That made sense to me. It was the natural order of things. My grandmothers took care of my parents and my parents took care of me. It was up to my parents to love me, to worry the details, to see after me, to keep me alive, to keep me from sinking, to save me if I needed saving.

A grandmother’s arsenal is limited. I’ve known that for a long time. The limits are clear and the lane I’m to drive in very narrow. Still, I am confronted by the reality of a grandchild who needs a mother more than a grandmother and I feel powerless and bleak. I only know what I was taught.