“Why should I be happy about being a grandmother?” screams Shirley MacLaine when she learns that her daughter is pregnant in the movie Terms of Endearment.
MacLaine’s rant echoed in my head when Jamie, my baby, announced she was going to have a baby. No, I didn’t utter the words out loud. I behaved in a more conventional way and chanted cries of delight. I regret to confess that I did not mean a word of them.
To me, grandmothers signified advanced age, devotion to one’s grandchildren, selflessness. Grandmothers were wrinkled, dressed demurely, thought maturely. I was too young! Nearsighted, I hardly saw the crinkles around my eyes. Actually, there weren’t yet all that many to see.
With the early death of my father, I’d become an old soul weighed down with an overwhelming, sometimes morbid concern for my mother. When I married at 20, I expanded that concern to include my husband and then my three daughters. But as they began to leave home and appeared less than eager for my hovering, my excessive sense of responsibility for the care and emotional feeding of others diminished.
I began to spend more time on my writing, which before had been squeezed into the corners of my life. I felt feisty, vibrant with health, filled with possibility. After all, I was still in my early forties. Maybe I’d start a new career or become a travel writer or theater critic, go back to school, or at least read more books. No matter what I decided, a whole new life lay ahead of me, as it had in my teens, and I’d begun to feel almost as carefree.
But then came Jamie’s announcement, and as a premier worrier, I got it into my head that I would use up a lot of valuable time and energy worrying about this latest addition to our family. Never mind that the new baby would be living in London; advanced-stage worriers can worry across oceans, and I didn’t want to worry anymore. I wanted to feel youthful and lighthearted.
As early as when I was in grade school, being young had been my calling card. I was the youngest in my class, which resulted in lots of good-natured teasing. My classmates regarded me as a kind of “pet,” a bit of a class clown, not threatening but loved. This role glossed over my ambition and drive and served to make me popular. And though the role had outlasted its usefulness, I still in some way clung to it.
It was less a matter of vanity over my looks than believing that my appeal as a woman depended on my “youthful” personality. Working the magic depended a lot on the youth factor, and that magic in turn had become the amulet against the day invisibility would strike. I wasn’t quite sure when older women were shuttled offstage, but becoming a grandmother seemed a likely time to get the hook.
Grandmotherhood represented a crossing, as had marriage, a state I also resisted. Both passages required another step into adult responsibility—and I’d had enough responsibility as a child. So when I married young, I hedged my bets, informing my new husband that I never wanted us to own possessions. (This was my feeble attempt to embrace the freewheeling 1960s even though where we lived in Texas, the stifling attitudes of the 1950s still prevailed.) Motherhood soon presented an even larger need to readjust my internal image.
Still, dismay might have resulted whatever my age when my first grandchild arrived. My own grandmothers, who would have been my natural role models, had died before I was born.
I have one photograph of my mother’s mother, a slender, angular woman who resembled Virginia Woolf by way of the dust bowl. A stern, sad-looking woman, married to a tyrant, she’d done what she could to help her own daughters escape the confines of home. Reading between the lines of the stories her daughters told, I sensed that she’d lost the capacity for tenderness.
My father’s mother—a plump, fashionable-looking woman, a lawyer and president of her own oil company—revealed nothing in her picture. She had divorced my grandfather and, according to my mother, had a rather formal relationship with my father.
To be honest, neither of these women struck me as grandmotherly, and I feared I wouldn’t rise to the challenge, either. If I couldn’t see myself in the role, how on earth would these poor unborn grandchildren of mine ever accept me?
Besides, what were the duties of a grandmother? Should I discipline the children? Should I try to be their best friend? Could I just read to them and forget about playing games? Must I go back to feeding babies and changing their diapers?
As my daughters grew up and my eldest, alarmingly, began to entertain the possibility of marriage, I had gone so far as to inform her that her children would call me Kate. No cute or corny names for me; no elderly-sounding names either—just Kate, thank you. Kate, their close friend and confidante. My attitude toward becoming a grandmother was even vaguer and more abstract than my attitude toward motherhood had been before I had children.
That’s pretty much the spirit I carried with me to London to await the birth of our first grandchild; my mind refused to go beyond it. Yet, in spite of myself, there were signs that I was changing.
Without having a clue as to this future baby’s gender, I had, on impulse, bought a beautiful baby doll in a long, white lace dress and matching bonnet. In London, I couldn’t buy enough baby clothes, crib sheets, pretty blankets. I began recalling nursery rhymes and songs. Those I could do by the hour. No baby should object to nursery rhymes, I reasoned. Meantime, Jamie, whether or not she agreed, humored me as I offered advice. She made me feel needed and swept along in her and her husband John’s excitement.