Anna Quindlen’s latest book offers a satisfying mix of advice and reflection, but mostly reflection, about what it means to be a grandparent these days.
We are now the people whose names come in the smaller print in the movie credits. It’s not that we are unimportant, as anyone who has ever had a grandparent knows. After all, secondary characters are what flesh out the plot: what would Great Expectations be without Miss Havisham, or Romeo and Juliet without the nurse?
It comes as no surprise that the Pulitzer Prize winner nails the mechanics of her task, writing with milkshake-esque prose: it goes down easy, and it feels special but also familiar.
“And goodnight to the old lady whispering ‘hush,’” I say to Arthur, pretending to read although I am really remembering, falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.
Her descriptions soar in their precision and relatability, especially when she embraces the vernacular:
Nooooooo. For some reason at this moment his “yes” and “no” are elongated and the vowels oddly shaped, so that he sounds vaguely Swedish. After a while you realize that most of us use language to communicate but that that’s not always true of toddlers. They tend to roll the words around in their mouths like hard candy, repeat them over and over to show mastery.
It seemed like another country, getting old, when I was that age. The future seemed very far away. Now it seems very close and very narrow, the darker swath of sand on the pale beach where the water laps.
A big part of our grandparent job is expressing ecstatic appreciation for everything from urination to reflexes. We must always silence the irritated voice of adult competency: Okay, I get it, I get it, you drew a 3. But, honestly, a 3 isn’t that hard. A 5, now, there’s a number. And this 3 doesn’t even look that much like a 3. No. It is the greatest 3 that anyone has ever drawn. Look at that 3!
It is with this literary prowess that Quindlen’s insights about grandparenthood are packaged. She calls out parents’ “natural inability to see a child as himself alone, not hung about from the first with similarities, expectations, and assumptions like the familiar ornaments on a Christmas tree.” Grandchildren, by contrast, aren’t a reflection of their grandparents’ performance: “It’s pretty immaterial to me at what age he learns to read, whether he has a good throwing arm or an eye for color and form. I am much more capable of seeing him purely as himself than I ever was with his father,” Quindlen writes. What results is “an undemanding love.”
She highlights the benefits of the grandparenting endeavor like “seeing things from the perspective of a small person” (e.g., “bugs crawling across the pavement are mesmerizing” and ham has the texture of “a salty pencil eraser”) and being transported back to a world where “there is nothing but sensation: the water, the sunshine, the feel of both on his skin. There is no subtext, just text. Just the moment.” And she calls out the challenges as well:
You get used to wearing white pants without fear …. You get used to being able to do what you want, and then you’re back on the clock, your schedule synchronized with naps or school pickups or camp visiting days. You have finally gotten to the point where you no longer have to share: time, space, ice cream, clothes. Place the pillows carefully on the couch, and a week later the pillows are where you left them…. There are some people who want untrammeled pillows, who decide that their sharing days are done. They don’t want cocoa or crayons in their living rooms.
Each reflection is offered with the benefit of perspective, and humor is kept close at hand:
The current assumption of unconditional love would have been ridiculous to [my grandparents]. Love was purely conditional, on what you accomplished, on who you became, on how you behaved. Love needed to be earned. Otherwise, of what value was it?… Children played and tried not to bother anyone. Adults had cocktails and talked among themselves. You could interrupt to tell them one of your cousins had broken a leg in the backyard, and you might still get in trouble for interrupting.
She even tackles that big thorny issue, the one likely to get her in trouble with parent readers: “[W]hen your son becomes a father, so much that follows depends on how your daughter-in-law feels about you. I saw an article once about advice to the mother of the groom. The headline read: WEAR BEIGE AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. I look bad in beige.” And though Quindlen’s approach to the topic of daughter-in-laws is colored by her role as a mother-in-law, albeit a satisfied one, she ultimately offers up a balanced take:
One young woman said to me of the grandmother of her children, “She buys them the kind of clothes that kids don’t really wear.” I happen to know her mother-in-law, who said, “I never see the kids in the outfits I buy them.” And in those two sentences was an entire universe of disconnect that I assumed would have been worked out had the two been mother and daughter instead of in-laws.
Many of these ruminations lead back to the primary nugget of wisdom Quindlen imparts, again and again, rephrased so that she’s beating fellow grandparents over the head not just with a frying pan, but with a spatula and dishcloth too:
Thank God that Christopher and I were together that afternoon at the dining table, or else I might have run the ten blocks south to the hospital and insinuated myself where I was not needed or wanted. Lesson one of being a grandmother: do not do that.
“Did they ask you?”
Did they ask you? When our grandson is throwing a fit and his parents are dealing with it. When he has a slight temperature and is cranky. When he wants to go in the pool, doesn’t want to go to the potty, wants a cookie, doesn’t want peas. I have opinions on all of those things to a greater or lesser extent. That boy is crabby. That boy is sick. He needs Motrin. He needs a good talking-to, a good night’s sleep.…[But] Nana judgment must be employed judiciously, and exercised carefully. Be warned: those who make their opinions sound like the Ten Commandments see their grandchildren only on major holidays and in photographs. There are really only two commandments of Nanaville: love the grandchildren, and hold your tongue.
[T]oday there is also a great faceless mob of strangers passing judgment, in magazines and newspapers, on television programs and online, saying that you haven’t breastfed long enough, that you haven’t chosen the right preschool, that you haven’t handled sibling rivalry or stranger anxiety or Oedipal transference properly. There are so many people giving young parents conflicting information and telling them that they are botching what they understand is the most important job they will ever have. They certainly don’t need Nana adding to the din.
As a current member of the sandwich generation, I appreciate this instruction for its deference and pragmatism. Even more so I value Quindlen’s reflections, which encourage me to attempt more mindful caretaking now while simultaneously offering the reassurance that I’ll have another swing at it later.