News & Politics

“Don’t Call Me Granny”

In my forties, when I was about to be a grandmother, I had only a vague idea of what that meant—except that I was way too young. Then I saw my grandchild.

The author—KK to her grandkids—and her husband, television newsman Jim Lehrer, with their first grandchild, Kate. The photo is labeled “A crying Kate, a fretful KK, and a blissful, oblivious granddaddy.” Photograph courtesy of Kate Lehrer

“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.

The author with daughters Amanda, Lucy, and Jamie and three of her grandkids, Kate, Ian, and Luke. With each new grandchild, she writes, “I get that stomach-flipping feeling, that glorious elixir of giddiness and promise.”

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. 

This granny-nanny kept her mouth shut about the incident, but never again did she resist her rightful role. Maternal instincts, my need to nurture, came as naturally to me as breathing—and indeed they were fresh breath itself. Yet until that moment I couldn’t go farther. Although I bragged like a grandmother, cared like a grandmother, took care of the children like a grandmother, I had not claimed the title. For the first time, I basked in it. I finally and officially had branded myself.

When Jamie had Ian—a home birth this time—I proudly assumed my role.

Several years later, my daughter Amanda and her husband, Lew, presented us with Malcolm, then James, then Olivia. My response remained the same—each birth was a miracle, each child a treasure. And each time, I get that stomach-flipping feeling, that glorious elixir of giddiness and promise—without worrying about my age.

When I began my journey with this younger generation, I told myself I had no role models, but that wasn’t so. I had my own mother. Why couldn’t I have seen that sooner? Although we grappled with mother/daughter problems, she made a splendid grandmother. She disciplined the children, scolded them, expected a high standard of behavior, and when necessary backed off. She also spoiled them, enjoyed them, relaxed the rules she’d applied to me, and believed in her grandchildren with all her heart. And they loved her! A career woman not given to handwringing, my mother certainly didn’t agonize over this role, nor did she fit any grandmotherly image I’d conjured in my mind—most assuredly not that of a granny.

I dream myself into a new way of being a grandmother. Age stays on the periphery, having less to do with years than with my sense of self as a regenerative spirit in my grandchildren’s lives, as they are in mine. Instead of limiting my discovery of a newfound sense of freedom from the everyday emotional and physical responsibility for my family, I have forged a shared purpose with my daughters, including my daughter Lucy, who does not have children but is deeply involved with her nieces and nephews. What’s more, as a grandmother I find that my life has expanded exponentially, exposing me to younger voices and younger ways of thinking, often far removed from my own.

I have much to share with my grandchildren, too, for they have access to my acquired, often hard-earned experience as well as the pleasure, passions, and pain that accrue over many years. At one step removed, the force of this repository of lessons isn’t as overwhelming to them as the experience of their parents. I don’t mean I lecture or even try to set a good example, but I do show them a life lived in abundance with its losses, mistakes, timid falterings, blatant excesses, and modest triumphs.

I am still KK to my grandchildren, and on awfully good hair days when I’m shopping with Kate and a salesperson compliments me on my beautiful young daughter, Kate and I exchange smiles and I say, “Thank you.” After all, a little vanity has its place.

It’s too bad that when Jamie announced her first pregnancy, I hadn’t recalled another scene from Terms of Endearment, the one where Jack Nicholson, as the playboy astronaut who is Shirley MacLaine’s next-door neighbor, starts to put the moves on her and she suddenly throws her arms around his neck. He looks startled. She reminds him she’s a grandmother. She knows what she’s doing.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here