A Grand Reluctance


Loretta Kemsley

'Portrait of a Lady' from the National Portraiture Association

Dread. That is not supposed to be the overriding emotion when your daughter announces her pregnancy. She's delighted and I'm...wondering about me. Will I measure up? Can I accept this new role? Will I enjoy it? What's wrong with me?

My friends had been chiding me for years. You'll change your mind. You'll see. When a grandchild is yours, you will be as dotty as the rest of us. But I knew I wouldn't. Babies do not fascinate me. Although I love my daughters, I raised them on intellect, not emotion. I didn't know how to be a mother; I only knew the mother I didn't want to be: my own:, who was arbitrary, punitive, unpredictable. Books had always been my escape, and they were my allies during early motherhood too, bringing a limited amount of stern advice, all that was available in the sixties. However, what they all boiled down to in the end was one thing alone: Go ask grandma. She'll know what to do.

But would I? What did I know about being a grandparent? Even less than I did about being a young mother. Books available in the sixties didn't paint a good picture of grandmothers, despite the childrearing books. "Grandparents may bring complications into the lives of the adults around them." wrote Edith Neisser in How To Be a Good Mother and Grandmother. "Students of the grandparent generation suggest that problems with grandmothers are critical when three generations share the same home," was the advice received from the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in their book, The Older Person in the Home. Don't let grandparents ' spoiling go unchecked; they are competing for your child's affection," warned You and Your Aging Parents, written by Edith M. Stern and M. Ross. "(The widowed grandmother) may be deliberately destructive of family relationships. She learns to regard her only or oldest son as a substitute for the absent husband and uses the grandchildren as pawns in the conflict between herself and her son's wife, whom she cannot forgive for taking her son away." These words by Olga Knopf, The Facts and Fallacies of Growing Old, at least made me glad I was a daughter and had a daughter.

Unfortunately, many of these stereotypes were reinforced by the battles I had with my mother. Where she demanded a clean plate, including the hated peas, I believed a child should only eat as much as her natural appetite permitted. Where Mom fought over a strict bedtime, I felt the child's rhythms should be followed. Visits with "Grandma" were no picnic, not at the time or in the days afterward. They became fewer and fewer.

I had barely known my own grandmothers. One died before I was born; the other lived half a continent away. What I knew of her was mostly from her letters, which made my mother cry. I wrote to her once and spent the next month eagerly checking the mailbox. Her reply never came. Only three times did I meet her in person. Each time, I seemed to be invisible. The last time I saw her, she briefly cuddled my toddler daughter but never noticed me. My mother and my grandmother died before they imparted any wisdom for me to follow.

Yet the deep feelings of rejection which I experienced taught me the power of a grandmother. The grief over the phantom mail never left. I would have liked to know her, even knowing the depth of the anger which permeated her life. There is an awesome need for a grandmother's love and an equal fear. Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., author of Between Parents and Grandparents,wrote, "Although grandmother's power is not often apparent in industrialized societies, it is there, deep within the hearts and minds of children and in the memories of adults. They operate as the 'wardens of culture,' as a 'family watchdog,' and as the sentinel of the 'family national guard.' Grandmothers are the 'kinkeeper,' the 'family telephone operator' (keeping people in touch with one another), and the 'stabilizer of mothers.' Their role is emotional: feeling, supporting, teaching, and communicating-a force that is there, and that is a basic part of life. And it is this powerful force that is so attractive to children and has earned grandmothers their permanent place in the mind and the hearts of the family. A grandmother's life is a continuum, from mother to grandmother, until the young take over and then nurture the grandmother."

"Grandmother's fate is often rooted in her family more solidly than grandfather's. Compared to grandmother, he is an outsider to the family. She has invested her life in those relationships, while his investment has been in work. Her world and power within the family expands as she grows older. His influence can diminish unless he works at it. Grandmothers do become more assertive and more influential in the family sphere as they grow older. In fact, often they become the force against which grandfathers and grandchildren conspire."

Kornhaber could have stopped there, but he didn't. He blathered on, printing the very words I did not want to hear. ""Will (today's) grandmothers respect the powerful roles that nature has given them within the family and carry out these roles? Will they have the passion and creativity necessary to overcome the barriers that exist between them and their loved ones? Can grandmothers who become involved and active find creative ways to assure the continuity of their families after they are gone? The answers to these questions are crucial and will decide the quality of the emotional future not only for parent and grandparent, but for their grandchildren, who have nothing at all to say about it. What songs will future grandmothers sing? Or will their voices be silenced?"

Active and involved was exactly what I wanted to be. Passionate and creative is just how I pictured myself. The problem was that these are qualities I wanted to expend upon myself, not a grandchild. I had married, and divorced young, never living alone, although I had raised my daughters alone. After they were adults, I had nursed and supported my father through his last illness. Now the house was empty, and time was my most precious commodity. I wanted to be selfish and spend it all on me. I wanted to emulate Jane Goodall, Gloria Steinum, Margaret Mead.

Margaret Mead? Could it be that even she was siding with him? In "Growing Old In America," Psychology Today (March, 1980), she wrote, "One of my grandmothers, who always lived with us, was the most decisive influence on my life. She sat at the center of our household. Her room was the place we immediately went when we came home from school. We did our lessons on the cherry-wood table with which she had started housekeeping. Later it was my dining room table for twenty-five years."

Her dining room table. My treadle sewing machine, still in fine working order. Now that I could identify with. I had never seen my grandmother sit sewing, but I could picture it, and touching the worn wheel as I knew she had done so many times. This sewing machine was the singular legacy which she had left: first to my mother, then to me. It was my sole symbol of grandmotherhood, and sewing was something I felt comfortable with, although I had not done it in years.

What I couldn't identify with was the grandmother as described by psychiatrist Helen Deutsch, in The Psychology of Women, who idealized a grandmother's special qualities. "She has renounced everything, she does not continue anything, she does not seek repetitions, she seeks no identification, she is free of competitive feelings. In all her relations, she is freer than at any other stage of her life; perhaps she confronts life with the same directness as a little child. She is freed from her own passions, perhaps the conqueror of them. All she wants from the world is peace, she does not reach out for the inaccessible, she wants only what she can have. She does not suffer from the split between will and ability, her gaze is not directed to any distant goal. She is now as kind as a human being who has accepted the immense of death and as wise as only a human being can be. And because she is free of all human ambivalence, the children usually love her unambivalently, with a minimum of their own typical aggressions. She represents only one danger for the mother's pedagogic efforts: she pampers the children, but this pampering when done by the grandmother is an act of wisdom, because she is moved by kindness.

You little grandmother with a golden mind

You little grandmother with a soft heart.

These words from a Mordvin lamentation for the dead grandmother prove that the grandmothers's tenderness toward the grandchild and that of the grandchild toward the grandmother, must be regarded not as a product of civilization but as a general trait of the human soul."

Did such a woman even exist? Not in my matriarchal line. This description fit my father better: kind, gentle, forgiving, adored by all for his saintliness. It was he who helped when my daughters were small. As much as I loved him, I knew I could not become the ideal grandmother of whom Ms. Deutsch waxed so eloquently.

I identified more with Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters. "For me, motherhood would require a shift of identify from my spot in the workplace to one I've never occupied in the home. Having a child solidified my mother's identity. It would alter mine so dramatically that a baby feels like a threat. Later, I tell myself. Maybe. That's the safe, intellectual rationale I give. But it's only half the truth. Emotionally, my uncertainty about motherhood is grounded in very specific self-doubts and fears. How will I know how to mother if I haven't had one in so long?"

She was talking about motherhood, while I was facing grandmotherhood, but the feelings were the same.

Nevertheless, once pregnancy commenced, it was inevitable I was going to become a grandmother. The only question was: What kind? Old movies suddenly became more interesting, as I searched for role models everywhere. How about "Aunt Bea" of Mayberry? She was a kindly and caring sort, but I doubted I could pull off her ever cheerful countenance. And the cooking-the endless cooking. My mother had more in common with Aunt Bea than I did. For all her faults, my mother was a fabulous cook, feeding her children, her grandchildren, even her great grandchildren with an extravagance which I would never achieve. My grandchild's destiny would probably be to say, "I never once tasted anything my grandmother cooked."

Even Hillary Clinton, the first lady of the United States, took the time to nag at me in It Takes a Village, "Our relatives were a visible, daily part of the village as well. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all pitched in if illness or some other misfortune strained the family....For good or ill, our families and the environments in which we live are the backdrop against which we play out our entire lives. Families shape our futures; our early family experiences heavily influence,and to a degree determine, how we forever after think and behave."

Listen, Ms. Clinton, if I want a guilt trip, I can call a travel agent. Even Kornhaber made me feel better than that. "Grandmothers with a close family attain enormous emotional and spiritual influence over its members. This cannot be underestimated, and it has been recognized throughout history by societies that value human relationship. In the words of an old Spanish Saying, "The grandfather reigns, the grandmother governs."

Governing I can understand, as can you, Ms. Clinton. Read on. "Caring is the cornerstone of the nurturing function of grandmothers, and is the quality that most children feel strongly about. Caring is expressed in many ways: remembering important events, upholding traditions, herding the family together, but most importantly by being together, alone with their grandchildren."

This man just can't stay on track. Herding is what my dog does. I'm much more likely to be like Rosalind Russell's version of "Auntie Mame," who I adored as a child. Wild, unpredictable, always running off in new directions, the ultimate non-conformist. Auntie Mame. Yes, she would make a good role model. Yes, yes, I would learn how to become Auntie Mame. I bought the video and blessed its presence each and every time my confidence sagged.

Which it did, often with Kornhaber's help. "Nature supplies grandmothers with the ability to intuit the emotional aspects of things and to easily express themselves through their relationships with others. For children, an involved grandmother can be the emotional bedrock-one living spirit-of the principles that bind the family: security, stability, permanence, wisdom, experience...Age supplies them the natural talents for the job: life experience and confidence in what they do because they have seen the fruits of their labors."

Says who? Not me. Still he droned on insistently. "Grandmothers play many roles: ancestor, historian, mentor, hero, wizard, crony. But the most important and all-pervasive role is that of nurturer. An available grandmother supplies the emotional foundation for the three-generational family. She is deeply, emotionally bound with her own children, especially her daughter. No matter what happens between mother and daughter, as parent and child, a rebirth occurs with the new child."

Well, that was more like it. I could use a better relationship with her. She was my oldest, my experimental child. Upon her, I had inflicted all my new found ideas, both good and bad. Poor child. We could use a rebirth.

More moral support arrived in the guise of Selma Fraiberg, psychotherapist, "The largest number of men and women who have known suffering find renewal and the healing of childhood pain in the experience of bringing a child into the world. In the simplest terms-we have heard it often from parent-the parent says, 'I want something better for my child than I have had.' And (she) brings something better to (her) child."

This had been true at my daughter's birth and now was true on behalf of my grandchild. If only I could make it so. That was a mission statement I could really understand. If grandmother I was going to be, then I needed to learn how to do this. Curiously enough, Kornhaber now helped more than he would ever know, "Although grandmother's praises are not loudly sung in industrial societies, they are still a recognized force in other, more 'primitive' parts of the world. Many cultures celebrate a rite of passage of women into grandmotherhood. In the Bororo tribe of Africa, grandmothers are called Umufasoni--Noble-and reach the high point of their life when they are accorded that title. They are treated with highly formalized respect and politeness, and no jokes about them or quarrels with them are permitted. They are also the uncontested superior of their daughters-in-law. Grandmothers of every race and country have a legendary role as healers. Jewish grandmothers make chicken soup; others have their own special remedies. When a child in a North American Yurok Indian tribe is ill, Grandmother goes out into the wilderness to intervene with the spirits by singing and speaking to them. Every grandmother has her own song.

"In Haiti, grandmothers' mystical powers are well known. They have special prestige as women born to good luck, and can make the potatoes grow, ease the pain of childbirth, share knowledge of the secrets of nature, and provide permanency among the trials and tribulations of life. People of the Ndembu religion in Africa believe that grandmother ghosts are in charge of conception. Grandmothers are authoritarian figures whose status is earned by having reared their own children, by being there at all times. A woman's life plan unfolds until she becomes a grandmother and gains the privilege of being revered, respected, and supported by all of her progeny."

And there it was in a nutshell. I had missed out on the joy of motherhood because of a lack of respect and an abundance of criticism. I would spare my daughter that, teaching her of the joy instead. When she was tiny and discovering the world, I had wanted to share the adventure with her. My own mother had been upset when I interrupted a conversation to let my two-year-old daughter tell me about her first butterfly. I remember my words exactly. "I brought her into this world. I might as well let her show it to me."

Things changed after that. I do not know why; they just did. Life became harder, and I forgot. Could we recapture that spirit with this new birth? Only if I could recapture myself.

My father recounted this story to me and in it were the seeds of this rebirth: My fifth great-grandfather had been engaged before he left England to immigrate to the United States. He worked hard and saved the money to send for his sweetheart. By the time the fare arrived, she had died, unknown to him. Her parents gave the ticket to her best friend, who was unwed and pregnant. She crossed the stormy sea and the arid plains alone, pushing a handcart and having her child along the way, all the while not knowing if the man she was to meet would accept her substitution. Fortunately for her, and me, he did, adopting the newborn child and her older one as his own, even though his own family disowned him.

I nicknamed her "Five Times Great," and thought a lot about her courage. My matriarchal line also had this courage. My mother worked hard all her life. My grandmother did also, shooting a buck, as she did every year, in the year of her death. She died at eighty-four. Both had survived considerable hardship. Both deserved respect for the contributions they had made to their families and communities, despite the harshness they learned from the generations preceding. I could adopt their best qualities and discard the worst, thus freeing my descendants from the harm.

For once, Kornhaber and I were in total agreement. "Through their grandmothers, young boys come to know and love and respect a woman without conflict and guilt...and they know that they lighten up their grandmother's life without having to do anything but exist. From grandmothers, they learn the joy of unconditional love...For granddaughters, grandmothers can be more authoritative because they supply a strong role models. For young girls, their grandmothers are survivors, living examples that no matter what happens in life, one can endure."

As my daughter's pregnancy matured, I began to think about the birth. My own mother had not been present at hers; she never even visited the hospital. I wanted to be present for my daughter, but I did not know if there was a place for me. She was full of praise for her significant other, who was taking all the birthing classes with her. It was his child too. The room in which she would deliver was small. How many would be too many? When the time came, I was prepared to wait outside, but he changed my mind. It wasn't long before he appeared through the doors, a little shaken. "She needs you."

Not for the first time, I felt helpless. I couldn't kiss away this pain. I could only keep reminding her it would pass, and there would be a reward at the end. The birthing went fine. Before they left, the nurses wrapped her babe in swaddling clothes, and placed him in the bassinet. We were alone, and it was very quiet. He began to wrinkle his nose in an effort to cry. I looked at my sleeping daughter. "Grandson, your mother's a little tired right now. Is there something I can do to help?"

Loretta Kemsley is the president of Sandcastle Publications, an award winning journalist, a freelance writer/editor, and a coach in the art of writing. Her past credits include editor-in-chief of The Free Spirit and Minority Employment News. She is currently organizing the new online Center for Creative Growth, sponsored by Women Artists and Writers International. As planned, the center will feature a variety of courses in a wide range of disciplines.


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