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Grandmothers: Tales from the Front

Grandmother's Garden by Sarah Davis

Grandmother: The word evokes images of a sweet, gray-haired granny sitting in a rocking chair. Many of us baby boomers recall our own grandmothers exactly like that:  My mom’s mother was the Hallmark Card variety, always ready with a bag of toys and a box of  cookies when we visited.  But while my dad’s mother was gray haired indeed, a hard-working Irish immigrant, she was still chopping backyard bushes by hand at age 70.

What about Baby Boomers as grandparents?  Not too many gray-haired nannas in our circles. So how does the generation that invented helicopter parenting take to grand parenting?  A fascinating, and alternatingly loving and blunt answer, is offered by 27 well-known women writers in “ Eye of My Heart.”

The idea for the book came from author Barbara Graham who wondered about the “cultural cliché of grandmothers as adorable and adoring creatures, as devoted and doting as puppies.”  In search of real-life stories, she asked noted women writers to explore the emotional angst and joys of grand parenting.

For the most part, the book is unsentimental, pulling back a curtain to tell the sometimes harsh truth about their relations with their adult children and their offspring.  Many of the writers found that while they passionately love their grandchildren, their own adult children are often roadblocks to the full expression of that love. So what is the role of grandparents?  What is their place in the family dynamic? “Reviving Ophelia” author Mary Pipher offers:

“I am not the same person as a grandparent that I was as a parent.  I have different roles, different responsibilities, and a different perspective….My job is simply to love those kids for who they are.”

The essays reflect how family life has changed over the decades.  Now grandparents often live at a distance, and even with Skype grandchildren don’t automatically cuddle during twice-a-year visits.  Many grandparents work and have their own busy lives so they’re not  in the kitchen baking cookies (especially not for this new hyper-healthy generation of grandkids). Journalist Rona Maynard considers new ways to define grandma and offers the “Pilates grandma,” the “gourmet grandma,” “the subversive grandma,” the “truth-telling grandma,” and the “Facebook Grandma.”

The biggest struggle is the switch of gears: a generation of hands-on parents find difficulty in not offering advice on everything from nursing to manners.   That’s a difficult realization for brand-new grandparents: This is not parenting the second-time-around.  Many of the essays focus on that dilemma. Author Anne Roiphe has learned not to offer advice:

“Not speaking your mind is the number one commandment for would-be beloved grandparents.”

Some of the essays about estranged grandparents are heart-breaking and serve as cautionary tales.  Others are loving, and among the most heartwarming was an essay by Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin whose six grandchildren live in Manhattan as she does.  She and her husband delight in planning outings—some for a few hours, others for the weekend–with their grandchildren “to create the kind of fun that leaves lifelong memories.”

She also confronts the harsh reality that as our grandchildren age so do we.  Someday we will be sitting in those rocking chairs because the knees finally gave out.  And what then?  Ms. Pogrebin writes,

Only by growing old can we witness our grandchildren growing older.  It’s an existential  trade-off.  We lose years, they gain them.  Someday I will be addled or decrepit and unable to organize adventures.  But at that point it won’t matter.  If all goes well, my grandchildren will be too busy making memories of their own.  And every now and then, in the midst of some perfect pleasure, maybe they will smile at their kids and say, “You know, this reminds me of something I used to do with my grandma.”

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