On Being a Grandmother

How does this happen? This grandma-thing?

My Grandma H. loved me – loved all of her grandchildren. She used to sew toy animals for my sister and me and put them in the mail to us with instructions to stuff them with bread bags. She wrote to me in a letter, “It makes them lite and don’t cost any thing.” I don’t remember ever stuffing them, but Joan was the seamstress, so maybe she did it. A brown elephant for me, a pink one for Joan. A giraffe with crazy black and white designs for Joan, a giraffe with more giraffe-like brown rectangles on a white background for me. My sister outgrew stuffed animals before I did, so they all wound up on my bed, performing dramas and musicals for me and my best friend. Grandma H. loved me a little less when I became old enough to go fishing in pond across the pasture by myself, but not old enough to know it hurt her feelings for us to fish on Sundays. She never held that against the boys, though. She loved them forever. I think she didn’t quite know what to do with the girls.

My Grandma W., on the other hand, thought I was a pain in the neck when, at the age of four, I walked around and around in her living room, following the ovals in her braided rug with my feet as though I was walking a simpleton’s labyrinth. A few years later, she stayed at our house for a summer, and couldn’t bear the laughter coming from my bedroom as my girlfriends and I played goofy games. “Quiet down!” she shouted. It wasn’t until I became old enough to drive to her apartment by myself to sit and chat, look at pictures, and sometimes take her on adventures at Ben Franklin, that we became friends. “We don’t tell each other’s secrets,” she told me. And we didn’t.

My parents adore my children. Mama let me know right up front she thought babies were cute, but she would enjoy them more when they could talk to her – and she did. She and Dad would take them for weekends, but just one at a time, so they could really spoil them. They took Ariel to Williamsburg dressed up as Felicity from Revolutionary War times and treated her to a tea party. They took Robbie to the science museum and stood by proudly as he lectured bystanders on the ability of a snake to unhinge its jaw in order to consume its prey. Now that my children can drive to them, they anticipate their visits and fill my ears with the details of them.

And us? We hunger for our grandchild, who lives as far from us as possible while still being on the mainland. I’ve seen him only once in person, when he was only two weeks old, but I got to snuggle with him on the couch all night so his mama could sleep between nursings. My husband has visited him twice – Sky is his daughter’s son, after all. We are techie grandparents, though. We Skype and FaceTime and Hangout with him and Michelle, making crazy faces and singing his name to the camera on one electronic device or another. He’s 15 months old now, and during our last session, he seemed to realize we weren’t just part of a TV show. He became shy, ran to get his stuffed monkey and then showed off by throwing a ball for us. We’re flying out to see him this weekend, arriving in the middle of the night on Friday and waking up at the crack of dawn on Saturday to rush to Michelle and Hazen’s apartment and smooch his soft, little cheeks. I’m hoping he’ll get used to us quickly, so we can take turns scooping him up and reading to him and crawling around on the floor and being generally dopey over him.

Maybe grandchildren give us another opportunity to get it right. Maybe we latch onto them because they’re likely our last chance. Whatever it is, I have an urge to bake cookies and put my hair in a bun. I’m ready for this.

Epiphany

Mama always took the tree down on New Year’s Day. New Year, newly clean house, fresh start. I tried to imitate her, but rarely accomplished it all on The Day. Then I heard about leaving the tree up until Epiphany. What? An excuse to procrastinate? Bad luck if you take it down before the Magi get to see Baby Jesus? Count me in!

My first child was born on January 5th, and that was the end of that. Unlike my December-birthday mother, MY baby’s day was going to be all hers. No presents in Christmas wrapping paper for her, and for goodness’ sake, we would get that tree down and all trappings of the holiday put away by the end of January 1st so we could turn our attention to the birthday girl. Then it was piñatas, costumes, guests, cake, and party dresses. Hooray!

Not too long ago, she and I were looking at Christmas trees together. “I always wished we could leave our tree up for my birthday,” she said softly. “It would have been so pretty.”

The Cankle Chronicles

My friend’s friend and I are in a mutual admiration club. We’re not friends – I’m not sure why not – but each of us thinks the other is incredible. Maybe that’s because we’re not friends and only see the best sides of each other.

“She’s so pretty … she’s perfect,” my friend’s friend said to my friend one day.

“Mm,” my friend smiled noncommittally.

“Does she have any physical flaws? Any?”

My friend smiled again, knowing I have many, and one in particular.

Her friend’s eyebrow went up. “Tell me she has cankles.”

My friend broke out into a grin. “Yes. She does. She has cankles,” she disclosed – and her friend smiled, too, glad she didn’t have to hate me.

***********************************************************************************************

ONE
(Ankle Attire)

In the early ’80s, I worked at the Wrenn’s trendy clothing store. Ankle bracelets came in style, so of course all of the girls in the store were expected to wear them. Mr. Wrenn handed one to each of the other girls, and I tried mine on. It wouldn’t fit. Mr. Wrenn didn’t miss a beat; he simply cut down a necklace to fit around my ankle.

TWO
(Bikini Babe) 

On my first date with my first husband, we went to Sugar Lake, an old quarry filled with water. One end had high cliffs that the boys and an occasional very brave girl jumped from, occasionally resulting in their losing their bathing suits. You could rent a giant inner tube for a dollar and float around in it. There were vicious little fish swimming around, who would bite you on the butt, so the thing to do was lay a towel over the inner tube as protection before you arranged yourself in an attractive manner and pushed off into the water, beverage in hand. But I digress.

My primary duty at the aforementioned trendy clothing store was to sell women’s bathing suits, so I had a pretty fantastic selection of them. I’d picked out the most flattering one for that day, and sat on the rocks preening.

As I’d intended, the man who would become my ex was indeed looking. “You have rather large ankles, don’t you?” he noted.

THREE
(Ann Banes)

I worked as a standardized patient one summer, taking on the character of an economics professor with IBS. Over and over I described my fake symptoms to medical students so they could diagnose my fake condition. They weren’t supposed to know whether I was an actual patient or an actor. My costume consisted of a johnny gown over a jog-bra and bike shorts.

It was the ’90s.

One of the best students came into the room with a kind and attentive bedside manner and a keen eye for detail. He went through his list of open-ended questions and summarized his observations, ending with a perplexed, ” … and your ankles are swollen …”

Evidently I’d convinced him I was a real patient.

FOUR
(Administrative Work, Part One)

A co-worker noticed my slitted skirt at the office. “Woo-wee, sexy,” she teased, then looked down, startled. “What’s wrong with your ankles?” she exclaimed.

FIVE
(Administrative Work, Part Two)

A client at that same office watched me stand up and walk from my seat to the copier. “What’s wrong with your ankles?” she asked.

SIX
(Ankle Attire Redux)

An online friend in England designs and sells women’s shoes, specializing in pointy-toed stilettos. They are elegant and lovely and cost a small fortune. One day she posted a new style, pumps with delicate straps encircling the ankles. I commented on their gorgeousness.

“You need them,” she wrote privately.

“They would never fit my cankles,” I wrote back.

“Rubbish,” she told me. “I’m sure you have lovely legs. Send me your ankle measurement.”

I did so.

I never heard from her again.

SEVEN
(Travel Cankles)

Air travel changed forever in 2001. We are all presumed guilty until we show ourselves innocent by passing first through a metal detector, then standing before a scanner with hands over head, elbows back, utterly vulnerable for unknown persons’ viewing pleasure. After submitting ourselves to those processes, if anything looks fishy, there may be additional humiliation to come.

Yes, they patted down my ankles.

EIGHT
(Professional Cankles)

But before any of those things happened and the extremity of my ankle situation had been made perfectly clear to me, I did a little modeling. I was one of the Girls of the ACC, and yes, that is a story all by itself. David Chan was the photographer, Norm Stephens was his assistant, and Chrissy, a former Bunny who told great stories and later married David, took care of my makeup and wardrobe.

I started the day in a fairly ridiculous outfit that included a bolero sweater and legwarmers. (Again, it was the ’80s.) After a few shots on the living room couch of a couple who had enthusiastically donated their home to the project, Chrissy and I were instructed to change my attire and my nail polish. I inserted my thumbs into the tops of the legwarmers and began to tug them off. “No,” David stopped me. “You leave those on.”

D-I-V-O-R-C-E

The Golden Child is getting a divorce.

This is the member of the family who did everything to surprise and amaze the rest of us, starting with being born female – that late-night phone call, her father’s ecstatic announcement, “I got me a God-damned girl!” – and taking piano lessons and going to college and marrying an almost-preacher and teaching her boys to hunt and teaching Sunday school. There was that boyfriend she went to the beach with before she was married and evidently a little sumpin-sumpin happened after she was married, but as her brother noted, that branch of the family has always been a little randy.

My nuclear family does not Discuss Such Things. Though a friend raised in a similar fashion managed to develop a highly-sensitive nuance-detector, I think it made me a bit slow to catch on to hints and clues; it took me thirteen years to realize my mother’s boss and her partner were more than just roomies. While Discussing Such Things may feel like smothering, it would also seem to hold family members accountable for their own behavior.

If it is true that a child of divorce has a poorer chance of marrying and staying married, I suppose we can point fingers at my grandmother, although in my and my brother’s cases we would have to add the “it can skip a generation” corollary. That would be good news for my children, but not so much for my grandchildren. Damn.

Anyway, it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault; her husband left her for a younger woman, or so the story went. A tale goes around the family: my two grandparents were sitting in the front room, each reading a section of the paper.  Grandma observed, “Mavis Smith died.”

“I don’t know Mavis Smith,” replied Grandpa.

“Of course you do,” Grandma snapped. “She lived next door to us in Wadesboro.”

Grandpa lowered his paper and peered over his glasses. “I didn’t live with you in Wadesboro,” he replied drily.

Grandma quickly found a reason to go to the kitchen. Evidently, she didn’t believe in Discussing Such Things.

There have been many divorces in the family. Two of my three aunts and two of my four uncles have been divorced (and another uncle is married in name only); my mother says if she was the wife of the other uncle, he’d have been divorced by now, too. As the most recent veteran, I was instructed to talk to the Golden Child.

“I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be talking you out of it or talking you through it,” I said to her quietly in greeting.

“At this point, just talk me through it,” she groaned. We hugged, members of the Club.

Variegation

The last few Thanksgivings have provided fodder for good stories: extended family loving on me and my kids, uncles loving on each other, the good souls who married into this family smiling and shaking their heads and banding together for mutual support and assistance in translating.

This one might be different.

Our children will not be with us, which is not new and still not easy. We will wake up thinking of them as we do every day, and they will knock particularly insistently on the insides of our hearts as we perform the rituals we instituted with them.

One cousin is divorcing her husband, or trying to. As the newest veteran of divorce, I have been prevailed upon to talk with her. Is my assignment to talk her into staying, or talk her through going?

Another cousin moved out of his parents’ house into a highly questionable situation, moved back in, was in a terrible car crash and lost a kidney, in that order. He has since allowed/invited two of his friends from the aforementioned situation to invade/share his living space. (The details are a little sketchy.) His father is tolerating the arrangement because these young men have nowhere else to go, but indicates the household estrogen-to-testosterone ratio has gone seriously out of whack.

A third cousin’s sister-in-law is sitting in jail without bond on charges of meth production and distribution. Meth has invaded the last remaining safe haven that never really was.

And there’s the rub: we are faced with the ugly truth that poverty, substance abuse, violence, and infidelity are as much a part of the human condition as abundance, health, kindness, and faithfulness. They’re all rolled up together and have been since the beginning of time. Different strands become more apparent as the ball is turned in the sunlight and in the moonshine, but they’re all there. So what do we do?

Hold onto those threads. Pull ourselves along them, hand over hand, like we tried to on the ropes in gym class. Work with spotters and carry others when we can. Let go of rough strands that hurt our hands and grab onto the satiny soft ones – or just smooth out the roughness the best we can until we get to an easier patch.

Hold on until next year.

Autumn Hope

I adore autumn. Oh, I thought I loved summer for a long while, and the beach is marvelous and vacations are fantastic, and there’s something intoxicating about just wallowing in the heat. It’s an annual infatuation, but unrequited – summer does not love me back. My muscles turn to jelly, as it’s too hot to walk, and the sun burns my skin. Fall comes as such a delicious relief: I stride through the fallen leaves under a bright blue sky on blissfully brisk days, feeling the cool air fill my lungs and the blood pumping through my body. It reminds me of the first days of school and brings images of new beginnings.

This fall has disappointed me.

Carmelita has decided she’s an outdoor feline, which is kind of like not having a cat.

I totaled my car.

My husband is not well, and we’ve been frustrated by the medical-industrial complex. There is more to that story to tell, and too much to tell.

My daughter and I have been estranged since May. How does that even happen? Mothers and daughters do not become estranged. Okay, they do, but we don’t. We. Don’t. But we did. It’s a constant squeeze of my heart, a yawning of the pores on my arms, a fist in my gut, a missing her, a worry about whether she’s okay and ever will be okay. I have no idea how to fix it. I tell myself that maybe she’s fine. People who know her tell me she’s doing well, a sign I did my job right. This doesn’t seem quite correct, and I mentally list all of the things I did wrong. I think about The Glass Castle and wonder whether Jeannette Walls ever feels whole. I grieve for the loss of the woman who grew up from the child we raised.

So I am doing little things: taking on new roles at our church; buying “back-to-school” clothes; trying new recipes with fall foods; thinking about the holidays; not thinking about the holidays.

And one big thing: acting classes. I dreamed of performing when I was a child, had it squished out of me by the time I hit 6th grade, and have felt the hole ever since. I’m re-learning things about myself I’d forgotten. Maybe I’ll take an improvisation class next. Maybe I’ll audition for a play.

Maybe I will re-learn how to mother my daughter.

Why I Should Not – I Mean, Why I Should Totally Adopt This Dog

Image

Peggy: A pit bull requires a certain sort of person to train it, and YOU, my friend, are not that sort of person. A pit bull needs a boss. I am not a boss, and you CERTAINLY are not a boss. Second, you need to wait until your dog is older and TRAINED before you bring another dog into your household. You think they’ll just play together, but they’ll teach each other bad behaviors. The hassle doesn’t just double with a second dog, it grows exponentially with a second dog.

Me:  Does that even make mathematical sense?

Peggy:  Okay, I’m bringing out the big guns now. You cannot provide that sweet, wonderful puppy with the home that will allow him to grow into the best dog he can be. (I swear, she was almost in tears at this point. The girl is good. But not good enough.)

Me: Peggy, intellectually I am hearing all of your excellent points. But emotionally, you know what I’m hearing? “Blah blah blah I’m going to see my puppy on Thursday! Blah blah blah I’m going to see my puppy on Thursday!”

Peggy: Okay, fine. How about this? PUBLIC PERCEPTION.

Me: Huh?

Peggy: When people ask me what kind of dogs I have, I say, “A chihuahua and a pekingese,” and they say, “Oh, how cute!” When people ask you what kind of dogs you have, you’re going to have to answer, “A chow mix and a pit bull.”

Pause.

Me: WHOA, I am going to be SO BADASS!!! NO ONE is going to mess with me! And I can say, “Yeah, and I have a shotgun behind the door, you wanna talk about it?”

Peggy: Silence.