My long gone grandmothers would never have written essays about being grandmothers. For one thing, Grandma Rose, a seamstress born in Shepetovker, Ukraine, could not read or write. Thoroughly modern American-born Grandma Becky, a ballerina in her youth and Bloomingdales salesperson in an era when there was only the one store in Manhattan--rarely wrote more than a few lines on a greeting card. After all, why write when you could be dancing or shopping or museum hopping or going to the ballet?
Introspection and "grandmothering" (as a verb) just did not go together in my family. Still both grandmothers did a superior job at feeding me and unconditionally loving me in at least two and sometimes three languages (English,Yiddish, and Russian). They brought presents, they brought praise, they brought hugs and kisses and pinches on the cheek--and things generally were better when they were around. We usually saw each set of grandparents separately--but they got along well when they were all together. And my parents usually enjoyed being around their parents and their in-laws.
So it was with some amusement, that I attended an author reading at Keplers by Barbara Graham, who has just edited and written an essay for: Eye of My Heart: 27, Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being A Grandmother (Harper Collins 2009). Barbara is a colleague of two writers that I respect a lot--Audrey Ferber and Susanne Pari. Each had asked me to come to the reading--although I have no children and no grandchildren. I had read Ellen Sussman's "Bad Girls" sex anthology, Victoria Zackheim's anthology about body image, and the anthologies about losing virginity and the short stories about first dates gone horribly wrong (can't remember now who wrote them). It was only a matter of time before the Baby Boomer women got around to emoting on "grandmothering".
Having now read Eye of My Heart(great title--by the way)--who knew it was so complicated?
Okay, granted I do not have direct experience as a grandmother. Who knew that there were so many mothers of the Dads jealous of mothers of the Moms? Who knew how wrenching it could be when the grandkids moved away? Who knew there were so many women worrying about their proper role, down to whether it was proper to enter or exit a room if the other grandmother and daughter-in-law were holding the baby--as if there was a Method school of acting for being a grandmother. Worse yet, who knew that there were grandmothers who would stoop to competing with their grandchildren for attention?
My grandmothers made it all about me. Was I blissfully unaware of all the undercurrents? Or did immigrant grandmothers and first generation grandmothers back in the day have fewer undercurrents?
In any event, the public reading opened up a wellspring of issues for grandmothers in the audience. And if you want to see how emotional these grandmothers can get, check out Barbara Graham's blog--with the appropriate Boomer name--Grandparent's Unplugged: http://www.grandparents.com/gp/content/expert-advice/family-matters/article/when-youre-the-mother-of-the-father.html.
My favorite story in this anthology is by essayist and short story writer extraordinaire, Molly Giles. In her essay, "Your Sixty Year Old: Friend or Foe?" she offers a clear-eyed description of a visit with her daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter who live in Amsterdam. The three-year-old granddaughter, who refuses to share her ice cream or space on the couch, is demanding, yet charming--and perhaps a bit like Giles, herself.
More and more of my girlfriends and cousins are grandmothers these days. So I bought a few copies of this book to give as Mother's Day gifts. I am not sure that they will recognize themselves in any of these essays. That's because they are so busy working and playing at being grandmothers, that they may even resent their childless librarian friend's attempt to intellectualize their heartfelt experiences.
If you yourself are a grandmother and want to check this book out--here's one more caveat: Most of these grandmother/essayists also seem to be quite secure financially. Not every grandmother can jet back and forth to see grandchildren in Europe or host them at summer homes in the Hamptons.
Still with an introduction by sociologist Dr.Mary Pipher and essays by writers Judith Guest, Anne Roiphe, Judith Viorst, and Bharati Mukerjee (some of them second or maybe first wave feminists--those waves always confuse me)--there's plenty of material for book groups. Read one essay out loud together--or do the whole book. I am sending a whole bunch of these books out there--and await responses. My own is was that whatever they thought or felt privately--my grandmothers both made grandmothering look so natural and effortless. I lost both grandmothers when I was in my teens. I think about both of them--different as they were--almost every day--and wish that they had lived into my adult years. I have no written record of their existence--not even a single letter to me--so I must rely on photos and memories. But I wonder if future generations may wind up with way too much information.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...