The best mothers become Grand-Mothers … and the really wonderful ones become Great-Grandmothers.
It is remarkable to me, in an era where medical advances and smarter choices are enabling people to live longer than ever, how little interaction I have with “elderly” people. As I have grown up, the “elderly” categorization has shifted, but has generally included anyone older than my parents’ generation. Aside from a few Church acquaintances, the only “elderly” people in my life have been relatives – grandparents and great aunts and uncles, as well as a handful of their dearest friends. Unfortunately, another dynamic of the modern age is the dispersion of families, and mine is no exception. All of my older relatives lived on the East Coast, whereas I lived on the West Coast (or overseas) until I was 23. I saw my grandparents and great aunts/uncles very rarely, and yet, they left a deep impression on me as a child and young adult.
My mom’s mom was one of the cheeriest people I have ever known. After raising eight kids in a one-bedroom apartment, nothing could phase her. She simply chose not to get upset over anything in her golden years, and delighted in her grandchildren. She taught me perspective. My mom’s dad was very proud his large family, and was much more affectionate and attentive to his grandchildren than he ever had been to his own kids. He taught me the importance of family and the value of time. I also had the larger-than-life, pinch your cheeks and give you candy stereotypical great uncle, as well as the matronly great aunt who could knit anything. It was through visits to them that I learned manners and compassion.
It is my dad’s mom who has had the greatest impact on my life. I could go on and on about my grandmother’s many accomplishments, which include fluency in at least four languages as well as the ability to complete the New York Times Sunday crossword. She was there the day I was born, has been present for most of my birthdays, and has been unwavering in her unconditional love and support. She is also responsible for my interest in the world, having treated her kids and grandkids to numerous summer adventures in Europe.
But my grandmother is not just my teacher, benefactor, cheerleader, and caretaker, she is also a dear friend. When she had to have an emergency brain surgery eight years ago, I flew out to New York and sat by her side while she was in a coma. I did not read aloud The Economist in the Intensive Care Unit for days on end because it was expected of me, but because I saw it as a valuable opportunity to give back to the woman who had given me so much.
As my grandmother begins to decline (at 94!), it is easier for me to care for her than it is for my parents. Her expectations of me are lower, so I can usually exceed them, and she seems less inhibited with me than with her own children. I call my grandmother almost every day because I know she looks forward to it, and I am not bothered (like my dad and uncle are) when she complains. I do not feel the need to fix what is wrong, I just offer sympathy and maybe some advice, and promise to follow up the next day. Our roles are reversing – with me caring for and supporting her – but unconditional love and acceptance remain the foundation of our relationship. It is the flip side (or maybe the ultimate reward) of grandparenting – grandchilding.
My grandmother has lived alone for more than thirty years, but as she becomes older and less mobile, she gets lonely, so I try to visit her as often as I can. For Labor Day weekend, my husband, son and I took the train up to New York to spend four days with my grandmother. Seeing her with my son, who is now sitting and crawling but would rather be cuddled any day, was truly heart-warming. She has watched him grow up, since we have visited her about very six weeks since he was born, so she delights in each of his new accomplishments. For his part, my son seems to understand that he should be on his best behavior at Grandma’s – he always sleeps though the night and endures three-hour-long suppers at fancy restaurants without a fuss. I hope my grandmother lives long enough that my son will remember her.
In any case, my son will certainly benefit from the influence of his grandparents on both sides. My mom actually teaches a class on grandparenting and has a blog called Granny Sez, so she is bound to take her role in my children’s lives very seriously. There is a theory that grandmothers prolong our lifespan as a species, and may have played a central role in the development of our human capabilities and social tendencies. All I know is that my grandmother, as well as the other older people in my life, had a powerful impact on me as a child. As my grandmother devolves to an increasingly childlike state, I hope that I can show her some of the same love, compassion, and appreciation that she has showered upon me my whole life through mindful grandchilding. I love her so much.