Becoming a Grandmother
Sometime post-college, I began to enjoy my mistaken identity. As the years piled up, the career escalated and the kids came along, I got a kick out of being carded when ordering a glass of wine. And on days when I felt like a wizened old witch, it helped to be mistaken for the babysitter.
My youthful appearance was a fluke of my DNA. I did nothing in particular to earn it—no special face cream or eight glasses of water a day. My father went to his grave with a full head of brown hair and a physique that would put most 30-year-olds to shame. My mother was trim and fit up to the day she died.
Recently, I think I've started to look my age. I no longer get shocked responses when I tell people how old my kids are, or that I founded my organization more than 30 years ago. "What, like when you were 10?" people used to joke. I haven't heard that one in a while.
Sometimes I miss it. Looking younger than I was had the effect of convincing me that I really wasn't 40, or 50, or what I am now—a 57-year-old woman with wrecked knees. (Which may not be a problem, because as one of my jollier friends says, "We're on the down escalator now.")
But something wonderful—even transformational—happened last week. Something made me once and for all want to be exactly who I am, and how old I am, wrecked knees and all.
I was strolling my grandson in the streets of Berkeley.
"What a cute baby," a passing stranger exclaimed. "How old is he?"
"Five months," I replied.
"Yes, my first grandchild!" I said proudly, preparing to launch into my rant on the joys of being a grandmother.
"Oh," said the woman. "I thought you were the mom."
"Me too," said her friend.
Normally, that kind of comment would make my whole day. But this time, I didn't want to be confused for baby Will's mother. I didn't want to be a 30-something harried, worried, sleep-deprived mom-in-training. Been there, survived that. No, I was Will's grandma, and I wanted the world to know it. And in that moment, I caught up with my chronological age and realized: I could appreciate—even enjoy—the rest of the ride down the escalator. This is the gift that grandmotherhood is bestowing on me. I'm becoming comfortable with aging . I'm discovering that being an elder is not just about my face sagging and my waist expanding; it's also about mentoring and mellowing and receiving some long, sought-after gifts:
But with my grandson, blissful and bountiful unconditional love flows from my every cell. I have so much of it I fear I'll drown the poor little guy, so I have to give the excess away. I put Will in the stroller and parade up the street to get my morning coffee, exuding grandmotherly abundance. I give the woman begging in front of the bank several dollars; I cheer up the grumpy barista guy; I buy flowers for my son and daughter-in-law. When I am across the continent, at home in New York, I can still feel the chains of love that connect me to my grandson. I'd do anything for the little guy, and if it weren't for those pesky parents, I might even overdo it. But that's my job this time—to celebrate the mere existence of another human being; to focus on what's already perfect about him; to help him see himself as I see him. What a gift to experience—at least once in this lifetime—the full power of unconditional love. And it feels as good as the saints and prophets advertise it.
Mother Teresa said, "The problem with our world is that we draw the circle of family too small." It appears that grandchildren, as tiny as they may be, have mighty powers of expanding circles and connecting people across bloodline and generations. Noting the graceful shape of Will's little fingers, I recognize my ex-husband's beautiful hands and I feel a renewed bond with him and his parents, and their parents. And often when he flashes his crooked little smile, I see my daughter-in-law's father—Will's other grandfather. Now I understand that we are truly family —all the ancestors, all the grandparents, all the uncles and aunts and cousins on all sides. Will's birth even has magical powers associated with it: my husband—stepfather to my sons—has become a full-blooded grandfather! He says he took one look at Will and threw the whole step-grandpa thing out the window.
Before Will, when I thought back to those hazy days of young motherhood, what I mostly recalled was being overwhelmed. There never was enough time in the day or room in my brain to finish a thought, complete a job, or give my full attention to anyone or anything. Sure, there also was the sweetness of my babies' smiles, the uniqueness of their souls and the thrill of their development, but there was no time for committing the details to memory.
Being around Will is giving me an almost visceral opportunity to reconnect with lost remembrances of parenting past. I'm reliving my mother role, and at same time, I'm letting it go. I am finally accepting that my sons are fully formed dudes who stopped needing to be mothered years ago. I know: duh. But better late than never. I've already felt a shift in our relationships. We're becoming colleagues, friends, fellow travelers. My sons have Will to thank for my (absurdly delayed) graduation from motherhood.
A friend asked me if becoming a grandmother made me feel old. I didn't know what to say. It's not that it makes me feel young. Rather, it makes me know what matters; it wakes me up; it enlivens me. Joseph Campbell said that people are mistaken in looking for life's purpose in concrete and noteworthy ways. The only purpose there is, he said, is to feel "the rapture of being alive." That's what I feel as a grandmother. I am hooked up to a mainline of rapture in the form of a baby.