About Grandmothers

My paternal grandmother was not the warm and doting sort. I’m pretty sure my brother and I wore out our welcome about fifteen minutes after we arrived at her house. It wasn’t like we were hooligans, but she definitely ascribed to the old maxim that children should be seen and not heard. She wasn’t mean, she just didn’t really engage with us.

At holiday meals in her elegant dining room, my brother and I were swathed in plastic sheets to protect the chairs and the rug. My husband thought I was exaggerating about that until I showed him an old photo of Christmas dinner. Then there was the staircase issue. The sweeping stairs in the living room were reserved for company, and small children didn’t qualify. My grandmother promised us a nickel if we’d use the back stairs instead of the fancy ones. Mostly we did as she asked, but every so often we’d sneak up the front stairs, all the more appealing because we weren’t supposed to use them.

By contrast, my maternal grandmother was a soft, round woman who always had Cheerios for us, a treat not found in our pantry for some reason. Although we didn’t spend a lot of time with her, we knew she loved us and enjoyed having us in her home. She had raised nine children in that house, and it felt like a place where people were definitely more important than things.

My mother-in-law died when my sons were very small, so my mother was the only grandmother they ever knew. Nana played board games and Go Fish, read countless books, and went swimming in the lake with them. She baked their favorite cookies and piled up leaves for a bonfire at Thanksgiving. When my husband and I had travel plans, she came and stayed for a week or so at a time. Most of the house rules probably went unheeded, but no one was worse for the wear. My sons were adults by the time Nana died in 2009, but losing her was very difficult for them.

And now, as a friend said, I’ve joined the “grandmother club” myself. I hadn’t been jonesing for the role—I figured it would happen when our sons and daughter-in-laws were ready. Like most Millennials, they lead crazy busy lives, and timing children and careers is even trickier than it used to be. Since Ethan Abbott Mendel joined the family on May 26, I check for new photos first thing every morning, and our Skype sessions are definitely the highlight of the week. At odd moments I find myself thinking about things I hope to do with him—hike in Yosemite, sit around a campfire, ski down the mountain—and I’ve begun collecting books I can’t wait to read to him.

I want the world to be perfect for Ethan and the other grandchildren to come, but of course it won’t be. Whatever happens out there, I hope our house will always be an oasis of love and good times for all of them. Maybe that’s perfect enough.