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Musings on the Grand Life

by Julia Sneden

After many years of patient hope, another dear friend has just become a grandmother. Her joy in welcoming young Will brings a smile of recognition from those of us who’ve already been through that delicious moment, and I wish them both great times together.

I sent my friend a little book of sayings about grandmothers, one that had been given to me ten years ago, when it was my turn to beam and talk about the blesséd child my son and daughter-in-law provided for our family. While some of the sayings in the book are altogether too cute, and some just plain sappy, some bring a smile, and some are full of grandmotherly wisdom.

“A grandmother,” said an 11-year-old British girl named Caroline Flitcroft, “”is a mother who has a second chance.” Well, that’s very sweet, but in truth, that second chance usually doesn’t include having much power to re-do parenting, unless you’re among the thousands of grandparents who take on full responsibility for their grandchildren.

In most cases, power lies where it should, in the hands of the baby’s parents, who were our children. It’s quite likely that our former children are well aware of our parental mistakes, and intend to avoid them (ouch). That’s all right; they’ll make their own.

I prefer this quote from Liv Ullmann: “I am an onlooker on my daughter’s dance, which I... made possible because she came through me... I’m not part of her dance. Yet whenever she takes a pause and needs someone to talk to, I am there. But that special dance with the child and the future is hers.”

For me, that’s both the best and worst of being a grandparent. It’s pleasant not to feel the full-time weight of responsibility for rearing the child, but it’s also at times hard to stand aside and see someone else hefting it.

Being a grandmother is a whole different thing from being the parent. It seems to me that it is something lovely that develops on its own, as long as you’re willing to ease into it.

What surprises is not how much we love them (being, as it were, well-practiced in loving), but how much they love us. Because they’re not dependent on us for food or shelter or any of life’s necessities, they love us “for free,” just because we’re around and they sense that we love them. And the best part is that they don’t want to change us, which our parents and our children and our spouses and our siblings often seem to want to do.

A column of mine on what children call their grandparents (A Grandmother by Any Other Name) has brought a huge amount of reader response over the years, and what strikes me out of all those letters is how much grandparents dote on having a special name, either chosen by themselves, or bestowed by the grandchild. That special designation represents the unique place that each has in the other’s heart, something no amount of analysis or description can touch.

Perhaps part of what our grandchildren enjoy, quite beyond the personal, is having contact with someone even older than their parents. I believe it was Claudette Colbert who noted that grandparents and grandchildren are natural allies against their common enemy, the parents. I wouldn’t support her theory of “enemy,” but I expect that grandparents may offer both the child and its parents some relief, and I don’t mean babysitting. I mean a leavening in family dynamics that at times become intense and/or distressing. It’s a matter of perspective and a long view.

Actually, that’s something that’s not exclusive to the grandparent/grandchild relationship. A great aunt or uncle can provide the same thing, and become a child’s delight, as many of mine were. Both my parents were only children, so I had no young aunts or uncles, but I was blessed to have had daily contact with my great Aunt Martha, and her younger brother, my great uncle Ned. They lived in our house, as did both my grandmothers, and my life was the richer for their presence.

There was always someone who could pay attention to me, always a lap to welcome me. There was always someone who could tell me a story about “the old days,” or sing me a song, or quote me a poem, or read to me, or explain something to me. My Uncle Ned started many mornings by challenging me: “What is special about today?” Sometimes I knew the answer (“It’s St. Patrick’s Day”) and sometimes I didn’t (“It’s St. Swithin’s Day” or “It’s your great great grandmother’s birthday”). The trivia stuck with me, along with a good bit of family history.

Life in a multigenerational family gives a young child something that has become rather rare, these days: the chance to feel useful. Aunt Martha had me threading her needles from the time I was about four, explaining that she needed some help from “young eyes.” On days when my grandmother’s arthritis was acting up, I became the runner of errands up and down a couple of flights of stairs. There were often small chores that I could do alongside my elders, which were instructive and fun. I learned how to polish silver, how to iron, how to make an omelet, how to do “finger crochet,” and any number of other useful little skills.

I had an email the other day from a former co-worker who reported that her grandson’s school report included praise for his helpfulness and kindness to a handicapped fellow student. “I expect he learned not to be put off by the special needs of others from dealing with his own aged grandmothers,” she said. Score one more for the old folks.

Indeed, multigenerational contact provides a depth or resonance to any child’s development, even as it enriches the older generation. It’s not all sweetness and light, of course. There are bound to be what my grandmother called starchy times, as the generations rub up against each other. But those moments of friction don’t last, and they are instructive to all participants. If nothing else, they remind us of how lucky we are to have one another in the first place. And for every time my grandmother pierced me with The Look, the one which made my naughty self quail, there were are least fifty times she gave me a hug or a pat or murmured “You’re a good child,” or gave me a cup of hot cambric tea (mostly milk) on a cold afternoon.

There’s nothing like a grandmother’s love. The feeling, I promise you, was mutual.

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