By the time my husband and I were sitting outside the old wooden doors of a labor room in one of London’s public hospitals listening to our daughter’s cries in the final throes of childbirth, nothing mattered to me except the health of Jamie and her baby. When we heard the baby’s cry, I jumped joyfully and—according to my husband—a true foot off the ground. To my surprise, a grandchild, not an abstract notion, now existed. To my even greater surprise, my emotions reached a depth I’d never anticipated.
A girl, Jamie and John announced when we entered the room. A baby girl named Kate. A jolt of happiness ran through me. Of course, this miraculous baby—already brilliant and beautiful in her first hour of life—could not possibly call me Kate. I wouldn’t dream of confusing her. Thus I became KK—a little cute, perhaps, but better than Grandma, so I gladly forfeited my name to this wonderful treasure. Over the next weeks, I spent hours rocking her, walking her, gazing at her while she slept. I wanted to pour into this baby not my ambitions or my dreams or even my values but whatever spirit I possess for strength, endurance, gaiety, integrity. I wanted her to learn to enjoy the trappings of the world without buying into them. Thus I willed through osmosis the essence of myself, an idea so crazy that I’ve never before articulated it. In some mystical way, I believe grandparents and grandchildren can leap ordinary boundaries without words.
Nineteen months later, Jamie and John had Luke, our first grandson, and I found the earlier miracle repeating itself. The rush of emotion began again, yet this time I took comfort in knowing that the ties between grandparents and grandchildren do not bind with the same kinds of complicated knots and tangles as the ties between parents and children.
I embraced my role as KK and walked this colicky baby for hours. I sang to him and marveled at his gender. A boy! My family had a boy! Not only did the fact of him amaze me; Luke himself did. He felt like a foreign creature. He had so many more folds than girls! Just changing his diaper was different, requiring anticipation.
Three days after he was born, my antipathy to grandmotherhood returned.
Jamie—earth mother extraordinaire and casualness personified—had the entire family, including three-day-old Luke, attend a birthday party for a friend of hers. Apparently, every woman in Britain with a grandchild is referred to as granny—as in “You sure look like a proud granny” and “What a great granny you are!”
The last time I’d heard the word “granny” was as a little girl, when everyone called a neighbor Granny Waddle. She pretty much fit the description—a little old lady with tightly curled gray hair, a shapeless dress and body, and granny glasses. Unlike more dignified grandmothers, grannies are born sexless with little round, angelic faces that beam unless they’re scolding. Before this birthday party, no one had ever used the term to refer to me. But though I wasn’t much older than some of the guests, then and there I was dubbed Granny. It was as if I had aged decades on the spot. Standing there, I felt my vitality seeping away as I assumed insignificance. Soon I’d have to dye my hair and become stately—or worse, do it simply to be noticed. My grandbabies in tow, I began smiling as I imagined a granny would smile, until I could escape upstairs to the nursery.
Our hosts had thoughtfully provided a nanny for the little ones, so I, clutching Luke and squeezing Kate’s hand, found the other children and a couple of their nannies in addition to the house nanny. To shake this new image of myself—as I say, far worse than that of grandmother—I remained there watching Kate play and holding steadfastly to Luke. Fairly soon, a toddler’s father appeared, slightly older than most of the other parents. Ostensibly, he’d come to see about his son. As it turned out, he’d seen our group arrive and had thought I was a babysitter for his good friends Jamie and John.
“Have you been here long?” he asked.
“Not long,” I said.
“Do you get a chance to get out on your own very often?”
“Not really,” I replied.
“Too bad. We’ll have to remedy that.”
He continued to linger, paying no attention to his little boy. Although still struggling with the new postmatron version of myself, I eventually realized he was flirting. I clung even more fiercely to Luke, who suddenly became my shield.
Under other circumstances, the man’s attentions might have flattered me, quite possibly encouraged me to think that maybe I looked only my age—fortyish—after all. A harmless younger man’s attentions should be good for morale. But in this case, the younger man had a small child in the room and a pretty wife downstairs. His flirtatiousness began to border on the obnoxious, provoking in me the righteous sensation of wanting to strangle the jerk.
“And how did Jamie and John go about finding you?” he finally asked, not too subtly.
“Oh, I found them. It wasn’t hard.” I paused, then flashed him the most cherubic, knowing smile that any granny ever did. “I’m Jamie’s mother—Kate and Luke’s grandmother,” I said with great emphasis on the last word.
He had the grace to blush while backing out of the room without ever once looking at his son, who didn’t seem the least bit interested in him, either.