Photo by Gláuber Sampaio on Unsplash

Now I Know

A few years ago, we took our granddaughter camping. It rained all night, thundered with lightening strikes, and in the morning everything was soaked but the day was bright and clear.

We went hiking up a trail to a lookout where we could see all of Devil’s Lake. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine swimming across it. And I right away wanted to go down the hill to the lake to swim.

Of course, when we got there the shore was full of people. It was a vast, shallow lake and a favorite for families especially those with little kids. I took my granddaughter’s hand, she was about eight then, and we waded into the water.

“Look at all the little fish!” I said. A school of baby fish weaved through our legs, tiny slivers of silver grazing our legs, tickling us. It made me happy to see the fish. It was magical. “Put your hands in the water, maybe we can catch one.”

The fish swam away and my granddaughter yelled, “I want to get out!” “I want to get out now!”

So I pulled her out deeper, thinking that if we got out of the shallows where the little fish were skittering about, she would throw herself into swimming and we could have a good time. We had done that before. Swum and jumped, dodged and ducked. It was something we had always done together.

“I can’t stay here!” “I have to get out!” Now she was screaming as loud as she could. Other swimmers stood up in the water to look at her. People on shore stopped what they were doing. It was alarming, hearing her scream so loud. I tried to hug her, pull her up out of the water but it didn’t do any good. She just kept screaming.

It was unbelievable to me.

I smoothed the hair out of her eyes and tried to get her to stop screaming and look at me. “We’ve gone swimming in lakes before. They all have fish, honey.”

“But I didn’t know the fish were there. Now I know.”

Reach Back

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.

 

Sorority Sister

Today, the babies who were born a bit too early and spent their first 6 weeks in the NICU are as robust and healthy a pair of beautiful boys as you have ever seen. One miracle led to another, you might say. Today is their 3rd birthday.

Red's Wrap

Tuesday night just as the youth choir sang the first few bars of the Star Spangled Banner, after I’d drunk down an inch of my Miller Lite, and before the Milwaukee Brewers took the field to lose what would be a 14-inning game to the Minnesota Twins, I read a text from my son-in-law telling me my twin grandsons had been born.

We knew it would be that night. Before we’d left the house for the game, a text had told us that my daughter’s preeclampsia had morphed into a more dangerous version. The babies were to be delivered right away. I was ecstatic. Not to have the babies born. To have my daughter out of her terrible, long ordeal of being pregnant with twins and suffering every symptom in the encyclopedia of multiple pregnancies. If a pregnancy-related problem, especially the more painful and disabling conditions, had ever been invented…

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When She Had Endless New Years

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She had dozens of New Years before she knew the end was near. Eighty six of them.

The young woman in this picture, with one hand in her pocket and the other on the arm of her husband, is my grandmother. She’s not looking at the camera. She is looking off to the side. And as many times as I’ve seen this photograph, I’ve not figured out where her gaze was aimed.

All I know about my grandmother is what she told me. It wasn’t much. She was born in rural Michigan. She finished school and then became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She married at 26, after most people had labeled her an old maid, and she immediately quit teaching because, then, at the turn of the century, being a married woman made one unsuitable for teaching children.

She married a widower with one son. And she took up for her new husband, telling his story of childhood deprivation to anyone who would listen. He was well to do, though, owning the only lumber yard in town, and after a while, she was ordering her groceries on the phone and having dressmakers come to the house to take measurements. Until the Depression, when all that changed.

In the faraway look she has in this picture, I wonder if she was thinking about that afternoon or the next day. Was she thinking about another baby and hoping that would happen or wishing it wouldn’t? Did she still love the man whose arm she held or was it just reflex? Had her love for him run out? Was she enduring life or was she glad?

I didn’t know her then. I only knew her later. It seemed to me as a child that her husband dying years before I was born was a watershed event from which there was only partial recovery. Oh, she was still the competent woman who could stay unmarried for 26 years and wrangle a school house full of children, but she was demarcated in terms of having a life that was clearly lived in two parts – real life and life after her husband died.

Life after her husband died involved learning how to drive (my father taught her) and taking a job at the local Ben Franklin Store. The days of ordering groceries on the phone were long dead by then, replaced by keeping things exactly the same in her house while acquiring a taste for TV dinners and professional wrestling. When those things were happening is when I knew her.

When I look at this picture, I yearn for time travel. I wish I could talk to the woman with her hand in her pocket. I wish I knew what she was looking at. I wish I had been her friend.

There were so few pictures then. So the pictures that exist have extraordinary meaning. In another couple of seconds, another photo of my grandmother might have shown her looking at the camera in the most traditional way, posing and smiling. But it is the moment that was captured that defines her for me.  Here she was full strength with dozens of New Years in front of her. Her life was so long, her future so endless, in this picture, that she had no thought of the end.

She was only thinking about what comes next. She had one hand in her pocket and the other on her husband’s arm.

 

 

I Lost the Rule Book

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When she’s here, I make a bed on the floor next to our bed by stacking comforters and pillows. I turn down the blankets and put a stuffed animal on the pillow and my nine-year old granddaughter climbs in and goes right to sleep.

She ought to be sleeping in her own room. None of our own kids ever slept in our room except one very sick boy, fresh from being adopted in Nicaragua, who was sweating through the flu. He was sticky and fretting all night, his diaper sodden and reeking in the morning. “That’s the last night he’s spending in here,” my husband said in the morning, “That’s it.”

I pretended to disagree but didn’t really.

I had enough of my kids during the day. There was no reason to sleep with them, too.

But now I don’t care if my granddaughter is sleeping on the floor next to our bed. I don’t even need a reason. If she was thirty and visiting, I’d probably be curious. But now? I don’t care. She visits. She’s here for a night and then she goes home. Whether I let her sleep on the floor next to our bed or insist that she sleep in her room is just so many angels on the head of a pin.

Who really cares?

It makes me wonder how many meaningless things I worried about when I was raising my four children. So many things fell under the rubric of ‘preventing chaos,’ as in chaos will result if people are sleeping on the floor or eating pizza for breakfast or wearing the same shirt five days in a row.

What would have happened if I hadn’t cared? Would there have been more energy for other things? Like reading books or having conversations?  Not their books necessarily or conversations with them but overall, would I have had more time for life had I not been focusing on each one’s shirt-wearing behavior?

The forensic detective in me wants to go back and dust for evidence, find a link between my oatmeal obsession  (not for me, for them) and their success in life. What exactly was the ROI (Return on Investment) of my elaborate chaos prevention program?

Two of my four children always eat breakfast. None of them sleeps on the floor. When I see them now and then, none of them seems to have on the same clothes. I think these achievements are substantial but might have occurred without me.

I pose this question – whether I worried about the right things when my children were growing up – for no particular or useful reason. As mothers we both grossly over and underestimate our important in our children’s lives. When I finally sort this out, I will be staring at the satin lining of my casket.

But right now? It matters not. I had my run with my children. The season for chaos prevention has passed. I relax into chaos. I am at home with chaos.

I may sleep on the floor myself.

 

From One to One of Many

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I watch from afar. A grandmother does that.

But as I watch, I remember the formation of my own family. I remember when my own daughter went from being one to one of many. She was graceful and helpful about it but looking back I can remember her fatigue with the new job of sharing everything that had previously just been hers. Like me.

One of my granddaughters is taking a crash course in going from one to one of many. Her father is with a wonderful and kind woman who has two children. So suddenly my granddaughter’s weekends have stopped being singular and focused on her, a child orchid blooming with many admirers. Now she is one of many, other children like other things, want to be awake when she is sleeping, inside when she yearns for the playground.

Everything in her life, her weekend life anyway, has to be negotiated, part of a mix of people’s likes and dislikes. It’s a big deal when it was only her likes and dislikes that prevailed up until now.

It has to be a jolt.

I once witnessed a woman and her husband with one, very curly-haired 8-year old girl, adopt, first, a sibling group of three from Nicaragua and then, because they had already started adoption proceedings on a local adoption prior to the Nicaraguan adoption suddenly happening, adopt a second sibling group of three. So basically, the family went from one child to seven practically overnight.

At the time, I was astonished at and for the mother. She was so obviously in a state of rapture about adoption (I know, I’ve been there) that more was better no matter what. The children needed her, don’t you know. Oh yes, I do know. But within minutes, I thought about the 8-year old. What on earth must she be thinking, going from one to one of so many in a flash. Was she expected to absorb this extraordinary reality? Be graceful, welcoming? Share her toys, divide her Barbies by seven, stand back from the spotlight that had been hers alone since birth? I guess.

This never happened to me. When I was born, all the other people who were going to be there were already there. No one came after me. There was no sharing of my hand-me-downs, they were mine alone. I never thought two seconds about any of it. The people who were in the picture were there and no one else ever knocked on the door.

It occurs to me, watching my granddaughter from afar, that I’ve not had much appreciation for the child who came first, the one who has to slide over in the back seat to make room for the next one and then the next. And it’s one thing to do it gradually, being the older child with a baby brother or sister, and quite another to run smack up against fully grown other children, to have been a solo diver and now be on a relay team.

The part of me that wishes I was a camp counselor loves the idea of kids together, playing badminton, cracking jokes. But the battle weary mother part of me knows that the tugs of war are plentiful and sometimes painful. Kids jockey for position, it’s what they do. And the only child can be ill-equipped for the fray. Holding her own is not what she’s had to do. Other people held it for her.

So I watch from afar because that’s what grandmothers do.

That and hope for the best.